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Labrador Quarterly - Spring 2009

Diann Sullivan

My love for Labradors began in my teens growing up outside of Sacramento and spending so much time at the lakes and rivers when it was often so hot. The area itself actually did provide great environments for those who loved to hunt with dogs. Large areas where acres were flooded to grow rice and after it was harvested, wheat-like stubble provided shelter for ducks and pheasants. The county also had an abundance of lakes, large and small perfect for private hunting lodges and private and public duck hunting. The foothills elevating between the hot valley and the mountains to the East hosted quail, dove and grouse that provided a completely different feel to upland bird hunting.

The dog I saw around town was usually at the lake or river fetching sticks or balls or in the back of a pickup truck. They were, as far as I remember, always black with a balanced narrow head to muzzle, often lighter eyes, taller and with very sleek and short coats. When I was about sixteen, my best friend 's brother taught at the California State University, Chico (even hotter a place !), and we went to visit him for two reasons I suppose; I was checking out schools and we both wanted a road trip !

Her brother had the most beautiful dog I had ever seen, a black bitch named “Honker”, who was thick, blocky with a stout head and short muzzle and the most wonderful thick, round tail ! I could hardly see anything else the whole time we were there over three days and came home wanting such with all of my heart. When I told my dad about her he simply planted into my mind the words, “Everyone loves the kind black Labrador”. But I had fallen in love with a 'type' I'd never seen before that was thick, had a heavy, round tail with a twisp at the end and a blocky head with dark, expressive eyes.....

Somewhere around then, the movie came out “Old Yeller” and I saw for the first time, the beautiful yellow version of “Honker” and I was in love.

Toward the end of my senior year, I was given permission to finally buy a puppy as our family dog from the time of my childhood had finally passed away. I had never heard the word 'breeder' ever and tried to find any local kennel clubs mainly by calling a few veterinarians but with whatever else was going on, never found one. I can only remember bringing home “Guy”(after my grandfather), a wonder black male puppy available from a litter advertised in the paper that I could afford...... and began a most treasured relationship. The sellers didn't give me anything except that after I had the chance to choose between the two that were left and paid, they handed me the puppy and said goodbye.

I bought a couple of simple books on care and training and took him him to the closest veterinarian for an exam and shots. All I remember after that was he would begin crying loudly and not even feeding, comforting and stroking him helped..... He would scream and not stop. The veterinarian gave me some anti-seizure medications saying the puppy most likely had distemper and the medication would stop the pain in his brain but it was unlikely he would make it and, he didn't.

A few months later, I was off to college and in my second year, I moved from a boarding house of thirty-six girls to a house rented by four of us with a backyard ! Ahhhh – Now I could get another dog. In this smaller community, I did find reference to the work 'breeder' for the first time and purchased my first AKC registered dog, a black female from a field trial kennel. I used “Nellie” as a refreshing and stimulating break from studies and I would walk her to a park or school nearby with different training books and after understanding the basics of teaching novice obedience from corresponding chapters, she and I became a working team. I sought precision and yet enthusiasm in performing the exercises. I still did not know there was such a thing as 'competition' but I LOVED training. In the next eighteen months, she became very slow and seemed to age overnight and my veterinary exam was not only very expensive but revealed she had cancer; She passed away within days and I held my first garage sale to pay the vet bill ! To my surprise, I had about $250 left over and though I had no furniture, I was determined to find a dog like the one in “Old Yeller”..... After careful review of advertisements from not just the newspaper but the phone book and college papers also, I found my puppy ! After marrying and moving to Washington in 1976, I found the local all breed kennel club, became a member, found AKC shows, and she became my first AKC obedience title. At the all breed dog shows I attended, I would see the dogs compete in the breed ring and saw for the first time how radically differently they were from her particularly in head, bone and tail.

I had an interest in breeding these wonderful dogs someday but not unless I had what I needed to make each generation better as I had learned in over 14 plus years helping my dad in breeding beef cattle, horses and market sheep. I set out now for what I considered 'type', a whole new concept to me. Within the counties hear me, I met a few 'breeders' but there wasn't much and the closest specialty club was 300 miles away in Portland.

My second obedience dog, this one more compact and 'typey' quickly earned her first two legs toward her novice obedience title and just after I had entered what would have been her '3rd trial, somehow I received an entry for the National Specialty in the San Francisco area !I had family near there and was simply driven to go ! I read the rules, found I could enter this trial even though I was entered in the other and made plans ! WOW, I not only tied for second in the novice obedience class and won the 'run-off' (they don't do that anymore), but I saw the most amazing dogs and, picked up my first copy of Julie brown's directory. I finally had access to 'real breeders'!

Soon after, I joined the Rose City Labrador Retriever Club (Portland), in it's second year and drove five hours down-and-back constantly for meetings, working certificates, and their once yearly specialty show.

Then began about eight years of severe trial and effort to acquire this newly discovered 'type' so important to the breeding of Labradors. I knew a bit from breeding cattle and horses in particular, and was able to study the pedigrees in the Julie Brown's Directory and easily see correct structure according to the standard. I knew how to 'produce' better type and structure from line breeding in livestock and the journey then began. I contacted 'known and established' breeders to purchase new dogs that would be so much more correct in hope of beginning a small breeding hobby. I was, as I know people are still today, 'bedazzled' by Championships, Big Wins and the belief that individual dogs are always GREAT because of Great Wins. It is a very common way to decide the greatness of dogs and often, without understanding the two other critical concepts to Breeding Better Labradors (an article I wrote in (?)1980 originally for Retriever International Magazine, Mrs.A.L.Foote, editor). First, MANY WINNERS JUST CAN'T PRODUCE GREAT QUALITY and second, SOME OF THE GREATEST PRODUCERS OF OUTSTANDING TYPE, SOUNDNESS AND ABILITY ARE NOT CHAMPIPONS OR BIG WINNERS.

I bought one of my first 'show puppies' from a top breeder in the East who is a part of many books on the breed (though retired), who was breeding a highly titled bitch from a combination show and field pedigree to a gorgeous Champion son of a truly top producer. I was thrilled. I spent hours shaping, training, loving and competing with him and finished his Canadian Championship by eleven months, his American and Canadian C.D.'s, his Working Certificate and had shown him at several specialties. I'll never forget at the Rose City Specialty in 1980 when the judge came by each of the dogs in our class, he stopped at mine and used his hand to draw a straight line back-and-forth at his stifle (knee). I didn't know why. Back then and maybe now too, if a newer person (newby), asked a question of a prominent person in the breed, they were often either ignored, not wanting to share knowledge that might increase quality in the 'newby' and then become competition later or, they didn't know the answer.

This dog was beautiful and many people asked about breeding to him. Of course I was flattered as these dogs become 'EXTENSIONS OF OURSELVES' and when they win, we win and when they receive compliments we consider that we are complimented. I BELIEVE THIS IS A REAL PROBLEM especially when a dog with great wins and even a Championship is found to have a soundness or temperament problem...... I have witnessed MUCH deception, outright lying and selfish non-disclosure of problems simply because THE 'PROBLEM WITH THE DOG' WOULD GREATLY IMPACT THE REPUTATION OF THE OWNER AND HIS ACCOMPLISHMENTS. Such impact on the genes that are out there.

Because of these wonderful inquiries about using my beautiful dog, I decided to have his hips x-rayed, as back then, the generally accepted 'Breeder's Code of Ethics regarding clearances before breeding' was OFA hips pass and yearly ACVO exam for PRA. I was absolutely in shock and devastated that this lovely dog was severely dysplastic both hips ! I was nursing for an orthopedist then and took and developed x-rays all day and wanted to see these x-rays for myself and not just pick up the dog, pay to send x-rays to OFA and wait..... I believed in second opinions and so I did, a second time that same week, have him re-examined and the result was of course the same. Now what. I called the breeders of course and their response to my questions were “that the dam had produced hip dysplasia in her previous litters but that I probably caused it”. I knew I wouldn't breed a dog champion or not who wasn't sound and was blessed to place him in a companion hunting home with a man who took super care of him to the end of his twelve years and he never had a functional problem. I had a half-sister of his at the same time and she was dysplastic also; She actually died from the spay !

The next several years, not having data bases like today and pc's, I continued to study anything written that I could get my hands on but also began traveling two or three times a year to specialties where breeders would be available to talk with. These specialties also had incredible seminars held one of the evenings of the usually two day events. I bought at least seven other dogs and bitches from top breeders the next few years, from dogs who were winning big at shows and specialties but who also had correct structure and type, according to the way I read the standard. The sire and dams had the minimum clearances needed at the time to be 'breeding quality' but still some of the puppies were dysplastic, were very tiny or simply lacked structural quality. Each of these puppies was thoughtfully raised with high ambitions for each of them to 'be' my foundation for a breeding program; each earned a C.D. and at least a W.C. adding to their great placements in new homes.

The earliest printed reference to the 'breed Labrador' was in a book written by Col. Peter Hawker, “Instructions to Young Sportsmen in All That Relates to the Guns and Shooting”, 1814 : He describes the Newfoundland Dogs, “Every canine brute that is nearly as big as a jackass and hairy as a bear is denominated a fine Newfoundland Dog”. Very different however, are both the proper Labrador and St. John's Breed of these animals, at least many characteristic points are required in order to distinguish them. The proper Labrador and St. Johns Breed by far the best for every kind of shooting,is oftener black than of the other colour and scarcely bigger than a pointer. He he is made pretty deep in the chest; has short or smooth hair; does not carry his tail curled.....”

Written in a book by Mr. Thomas Bell born in 1792 was “There are several varieties of the newfoundland Dog which differ in size, character of fur and markings. These largest dogs now are considered Newfoundland ... but the most common breed at present does not exceed the height of a Water Spaniel, almost wholly black”. Then, confusing the name of “Labrador” included not only the very large, rough haired breed, but the smaller or St. John's variety as well. But the first 'STANDARD' for the Labrador was in the book written by J.H.Walsh, Retrievers 1887: In Great Britain the small variety of the newfoundland .... is kept as a companion, (but) chiefly used as a retriever..... many of these retrievers are imported direct from Newfoundland ....to ports trading with that island; others are bred in this country from imported parents. This fashionable breed ....... , is often pure St. John's or Labrador; and at other times, he is crossed with a setter.
Herewith follows a Standard, probably the first to ever be drawn up for Labradors. One hundred points are given for perfection for the “black water dogs” of that period. THE HIGHEST POINT RATINGS WENT TO GENERAL STRUCTURE, SOUNDNESS AND STRENGTH, INCLUDING SKULL with more minor points given to guide gradual improvements in coat texture, tails and feet.

The standard I had as my guide in the late 70's called for “Well bent stifles” for a functional reason and I wanted bent stifles with good muscular thighs. The standard called for a “Well laid back shoulder” because it causes the front leg to reach and cover ground better and with such a shoulder the dog must have at least a medium length neck so that where the neck meets the back and thus is the shoulder, that the angle from chest to shoulder “lays back” and is not “straight up or upright” (producing a short front stride). Coats on the puppies I was buying then varied between Doberman type coats and golden retriever's type and this was a critical part of 'type' in the proper Labrador to be used in a breeding program. I decided that I was NOT going to breed these dogs just to make puppies to sell and that being a breeder meant far more; it meant striving to only breed outstanding and sound dogs together who had the genetic ability to produce better in type, soundness, and who would be actually 'predictable' for these traits. It WAS a great study of dogs and lines of the time and allowed for the study of common dogs in pedigrees and some knowledge as to where the traits dependably came from.

Just as I was ready to quit, not knowing IF IT WAS EVEN POSSIBLE to receive quality and correct dogs to start with, as I was a 'newby' ; could I trust the people I was talking with? Limited clearances were available then, and it seemed almost impossible. But I was blessed through a grand breeder, who has contributed incredibly to the breed over decades now, who has the utmost integrity, to get my start by referral to a breeder that I could more than trust. Even if every trait wasn't perfect for 'type', structure and soundness were very nice which allowed for the invention of mine that I call “Faults' and “Flaws”. For me to breed, I MUST have Length of neck to give shoulder layback; NEAR MATCHING upper arm from sternum to elbow; depth; hard, deep coats; turn of stifle with thick thigh AND second thigh; a thick and round otter tail free of feathering. Heads and expressions I believe are very personal and I do like a certain type of head but what matters more to me is expression. Pigment is critical to expression and should be considered highly. Chocolates without yellow factor and whose pedigrees are woven strongly with black give a darker pigment; the same for yellow. The yellows with chocolate factor do not have the strong, black pigment in their eye rims, lips and noses, but knowing how yellows produce black pigment should be considered along with structural correctness and type. IF I have these features with at least five generations of perfect soundness behind stud and bitch with neither of them having produced major structural faults or soundness problems to any degree, then I search for pedigree combinations that have a common dog who is just as outstanding, but who is behind many of the great producers.

Everyday now, I see new web sites for people who love these dogs and who may be actively earning titles and breeding litters for sale 'ON-LINE'. I have seen so many web sites where Labrador enthusiasts and hobbyists have web sites with a KENNEL NAME, lovely pictures of dogs and puppies, lists of breedings and reservations lists for puppies and applications to complete. MANY of them do not mention clearances or even go on to say that soundness testing is“not worthwhile”. I truly hope that it is now not just too easy to 'sell' these in-demand dogs, the number one breed registered with the AKC for years, because there are so many buyers 'surfing' the World-Wide-Web and, there are so many promises of top-winning, titled and outstanding litters listed. I hope each 'breeder' (“anyone who owns or leases a bitch at the time of whelping”), will care to select dogs for breeding according to structural correctness for function, genetic soundness and type, all so important to improving the breed we love.

The STANDARD FOR any BREED is the blueprint for structural design that functions with ease for multiple purposes. The Labrador Standard has been remodeled from when I first read it as the guideline for selection of breeding dogs. I'll never forget the furry of the parent club's effort to expand the standard and for the first time, include disqualifications ! There were long and hateful letters written and published and lawsuits filed...... We will each interpret the standard we have from our parent club somewhat individually, just as the reader of any good book, but we MUST choose our breeding dogs according to the ABSOLUTES OF STRUCTURAL CORRECTNESS FOR PROPER FUNCTION AND SOUNDESS and NOT let emotion from titles, wins and love for our dogs, BLIND us from seeing FAULTS that we must correct; To improve the breed we love so much every breeding, every generation IS THE HOBBY.


Warwick,Helen.1965. The Complete labrador Retriever. Howell Book House Inc.

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