Chew on This… Breed to the Standard!

WHAT IS A BREED STANDARD?

From Wikipedia:

“A breed standard (also called bench standard or standard of points) in animal fancy and animal husbandry is a set of guidelines which is used to ensure that the animals produced by a breeder or breeding facility conform to the specifics of the standardized breed. Breed standards are devised by breed associations or breed clubs, not by individuals, and are written to reflect the use or purpose of the species and breed of the animal. Breed standards help define the ideal animal of a breed and provide goals for breeders in improving stock. In essence a breed standard is a blueprint for an animal fit for the function it was bred – i.e. herding, tracking etc. Breed standards are not scientific documents, and may vary from association to association, and from country to country, even for the same species and breed. There is no one format for breed standards across all species, and breed standards do change and are updated over time.”

The first breed standard for the Labrador Retriever was drawn up in London in 1916 by a committee of the Labrador Retriever Club and remained in place, unchanged, until 1950. The purpose of the Standard was to define and protect the breed, to ensure it remained through time as it was originally intended – unchanged.

In The Ultimate Labrador Retriever, edited by Heather-Wiles-Fone, copyright 1997, Janice Pritchard takes a look at the Labrador Retriever breed standards since their inception. For the sake of this Chew on This article, I will only be looking at the information pertaining to coat color, eye color, and (later) faults or disqualifications that have been specified by the standard over time. These are the categories that are frequently referenced when discrediting a dilute Labrador Retriever.

BEFORE THERE EVEN WAS A “STANDARD”

Prior to the first official Labrador Retriever breed standard, in 1879 a series of points and values (totalling 100) were used to “grade” the St John’s Newfoundland or Labrador Dog. From The Dog, in Health and Diseaseby Stonehenge – Editor of The Field, published 1879)

Skull                                        15
Nose and Jaws                        5
Ears and Eyes                           5
Neck                                          5
Shoulder and Chest                10
Loins and Back                       10
Quarters and Stifles                10
Legs, knees and hocks           10
Feet                                           5
Tail                                             5
Coat                                           5
Color                                          5
Symmetry                                  5
Temperament                            5
Total                                         100

It is interesting to note that in 1879, color was weighted at only 5% when grading a Labrador Retriever.

The book also included the following descriptions:

“Colour is rich jet black without rustiness. No quantity of white is admissible, but the best bred puppies often have a white toe or star.”

Note: No mention of any other colors than black.

“Eyes of medium size, intelligent and soft.”

Note: No mention of eye color, just size and expression.

This remained the basis for “judging”/valuing a Labrador Retriever until 1916 when the first official Breed Standard was written.

HISTORY OF THE BREED STANDARD

From the 1916 British Labrador Retriever Breed Standard

“Colour: The coat is generally black, free from any rustiness and any white markings, except possibly a small spot on the chest. Other whole colours are permissible.”

Note: “Other whole colours are permissible.” These other whole colors were not specified and one would think that if only two other colors were possible, they would have been listed. Instead, the standard left this open ended. The focus was instead on the color being “whole”… i.e. NOT spotted, patches of color, brindled, etc.

“The eyes should be of a medium size, expressing great intelligence and good temper, and can be brown, yellow or black.”

Note: Interestingly enough, dilute Labradors catch a lot of flack for their often “yellow” eyes and yet this was part of the original standard for the Labrador Retriever for nearly 35 years until a subsequent committee decided they didn’t really like the yellow eyes in the Labrador Retriever.

In 1917, The American Kennel Club officially recognized the Labrador Retriever. For the first 40 years, the AKC piggybacked on the British Standard, changing only the spelling of the word “color” in their description of the Labrador Retriever.

In 1950, the British Labrador Retriever Breed Standard changed for the first time, nearly 35 years after it was put in place.

From the 1950 British Labrador Retriever Breed Standard

“ Colour: The colour is generally black, chocolate or yellow, which may vary from fox-red to cream, free from any white markings. A small white spot on the chest is allowable, the coat should be of a whole colour and not of a flecked appearance.”

Note: for the first time, 3 specific colors are mentioned. However, note that the standard still reads “is generally”, as in “is commonly”. It does NOT say that Labrador Retrievers only come in three colors.

“Eyes: The eyes of medium size expressing intelligence and good temper, should be brown or hazel.”

Note: Here we have two specific colors of eyes, the revised standard having removed both the black and yellow eye colors but added a “hazel”. Hazel eyes are the 2nd most common eye color in dilute Labrador Retrievers after yellow.

“Faults: Under or overshot mouth; no undercoat; bad action; feathering; snippiness on the head; large or heavy ears; cow-hocked; tail curved over back.”

Note: This is the first time “faults” were mentioned in the Breed Standard. These items were deemed to be problems that the committee was seeing cropping up in the breed and the hopes were that by listing them as “faults”, closer attention would be paid to avoiding these issues. Many of these characteristics were developing in the breed due to other breeds having been crossed into the Labrador Retriever lines to help strengthen specific DESIRED characteristics of the breed.

In 1957, the AKC implemented its own unique Breed Standard.

From the 1957 AKC Labrador Retriever Breed Standard

“Color: The color is generally black, chocolate or yellow, which may vary from fox-red to cream, free from any white markings. A small white spot on the chest is allowable, the coat should be of a whole color and not of a flecked appearance.”

Note: Color was described the same as the British standard, other than the spelling of “color”.

“Eyes: Brown, yellow or black, but brown or black preferred”

Note: Interestingly enough, the AKC Breed Standard did not endorse the changes the British Breed Standard put in place in 1950 regarding the change of eye color.

The 1950’s British Standard remained unchanged for another 32 years until in 1982 there was a minor revision. Heights were converted to centimeters and a clause on testicles was added. There were no further revisions to color or eyes in the 1982 British Standard.

In 1986, the British Standard was revised again. The specific “faults” that had been listed in the 1950’s British Standard were now replaced with a more general statement:

“Any departure from the foregoing points should be considered a fault and the seriousness with which the fault should be regarded should be in exact proportion to its degree.”

Note: This wishy-washy statement seemed to place the onus in the hands of the judges to determine what would be deemed a fault and how heavily to penalize it. Note that there were still no changes made to coat color or eye color.

In 1994, more than 35 years after the birth of the first American written Standard, and nearly 80 years after the first British Standard was written, the AKC published a completely revised standard for the Labrador Retriever.

From the 1994 AKC Labrador Retriever Standard

“Color: The Labrador Retriever coat colors are black, yellow and chocolate. Any other color or combination of colors is a disqualification. A small white spot on the chest is permissible, but not desirable. White hairs from aging or scarring are not to be misinterpreted as brindling. Blacks: are all black. A black with brindle marking or black with tan markings is a disqualification. Yellows: may range in color from fox-red to light cream with variations in shading on the ears, back and underparts of the dog. Chocolates: Chocolates can vary in shade from light to dark chocolate. Chocolate with brindle or tan markings is a disqualification.”

Note: This is the FIRST time, nearly 80 years into the development of the breed, that a standard has stated that there are ONLY 3 colors in the Labrador Retriever and that any other color is a disqualification. Flexibility has been left in the “chocolate” color, describing it as varying from light to dark chocolate. “Whole” color is still expected as the Standard has called out disqualifications for brindling or tan markings. It’s interesting that it took 80 years, several committees later, for the Standard to restrict color in the Labrador Retriever. Obviously the founders of the Labrador Retriever did not consider this critical to the breed and were far more open regarding colors expressed.

“Eyes: Eye color should be brown in black and yellow Labradors and brown or hazel in chocolates. Black or yellow eyes give a harsh expression and are undesirable. “

Note: This Standard at least references the previously acceptable black and yellow eye colors. It does not list them as a disqualification but rather that they are “undesirable”. These changes are due to a committee’s PREFERENCE, as obviously the breed originally existed with black and yellow eye color as well.

“Faults:

  1. Any deviation from the height prescribed in the Standard
  2. A thoroughly pink nose or one lacking in any pigment
  3. Eye rims without pigment
  4. Docking or otherwise altering the length or natural carriage of the tail
  5. Any color or combination of colors other than black, yellow or chocolate as described in the Standard”

Note: Again, the American Breed Standard has specified exactly what is a disqualification in the breed. Interestingly enough, all of these items are cosmetic, not affecting the fit or function of the Labrador Retriever in any way.

TODAY’S STANDARD

From the 2015 British Labrador Retriever Breed Standard (last revised 2009)

“Colour: Wholly black, yellow or liver/chocolate. Yellows range from light cream to red fox. Small white spot on chest permissible.”

Note: “Generally” has disappeared… shortened to read “Wholly black, yellow or liver/chocolate”.

“Eyes: Medium size, expressing intelligence and good temper; brown or hazel.”

Note: Reworded but unchanged since 1950.

“Faults: Any departure from the foregoing points should be considered a fault and the seriousness with which the fault should be regarded should be in exact proportion to its degree and its effect upon the health and welfare of the dog and on the dog’s ability to perform its traditional work.”

Note: This statement has been amended to stress that while deviation from the described standard IS a fault, the seriousness of faults (and therefore penalty for said faults) needs to focus on how much the fault impacts the dog’s health, welfare, and function. Neither coat color nor eye color would therefore be judged as a serious fault.

Also to note, the British Kennel Club has a “Watch List” for each breed. These are things not necessarily spelled out in the Standard that they are keeping watch of and that they want judges (and breeders) to take note of as well. For the Labrador Retriever, it is important to note that this watch list DOES NOT mention coat color, eye color, “silver” labs or anything related to dilutes. Instead, in the British Labrador Club’s opinion, the most serious issues facing the Labrador Retriever breed at the moment are:

  • Legs too short in proportion to depth of body and to length of back
  • Significantly overweight

The British Kennel Club frequently states that their focus is on ensuring the breed is “fit for function”. Neither coat color nor eye color affect the function of the Labrador Retriever.

From the 2015 AKC Labrador Retriever Breed Standard

“Color: The Labrador Retriever coat colors are black, yellow and chocolate. Any other color or a combination of colors is a disqualification. A small white spot on the chest is permissible, but not desirable. White hairs from aging or scarring are not to be misinterpreted as brindling. Black – Blacks are all black. A black with brindle markings or a black with tan markings is a disqualification. Yellow – Yellows may range in color from fox red to light cream, with variations in shading on the ears, back, and underparts of the dog. Chocolate – Chocolates can vary in shade from light to dark chocolate. Chocolate with brindle or tan markings is a disqualification.”

Note: Virtually unchanged from 1994.

“Eyes: Kind, friendly eyes imparting good temperament, intelligence and alertness are a hallmark of the breed. They should be of medium size, set well apart, and neither protruding nor deep set. Eye color should be brown in black and yellow Labradors, and brown or hazel in chocolates. Black, or yellow eyes give a harsh expression and are undesirable. Small eyes, set close together or round prominent eyes are not typical of the breed. Eye rims are black in black and yellow Labradors; and brown in chocolates. Eye rims without pigmentation is a disqualification.”

Note: Virtually unchanged from the 1994 Breed Standard. I had only included the portion that pertained to eye color previously.

“Faults:

  1. Any deviation from the height prescribed in the Standard
  2. A thoroughly pink nose or one lacking in any pigment
  3. Eye rims without pigment
  4. Docking or otherwise altering the length or natural carriage of the tail
  5. Any color or combination of colors other than black, yellow or chocolate as described in the Standard”

Note: Unchanged from the 1994 Breed Standard.

SO CHEW ON THIS…

Next year, it will have been 100 years since the Labrador Retriever breed standard was written. For the first 78 years of the Standard and throughout the entire lifetime of the founders of the Labrador Retriever, the dilute Labrador Retriever would NOT have been disqualified under the Standard. It wouldn’t have even been considered a fault. It is only in the past 21 years that newer committees have taken it upon themselves to modify the breed standard to attempt to narrow the coat and eye color of the Labrador Retriever breed, based on their own preferences… NOT the preserving of the original Labrador Retriever. One has to question why coat color has suddenly become of such importance when it was not seemingly deemed a distinguishing feature by the founders of the breed. In fact it was only considered to be 5% of the overall “value” of the Labrador Retriever. Most likely because those who helped initiate the breed realized it was a matter of preference and those features (coat color, eye color) did not affect the health, welfare or function of the breed.

Why now has it become SUCH a contentious issue?

References:

Wikipedia definition of Breed Standard www.wikipedia.org
The Ultimate Labrador Retriever, Edited by Heather Wiles-Fone, Copyright 1997
The American Kennel Club www.akc.org
The (British) Kennel Club www.thekennelclub.org.uk