The Labrador Retriever has consistently ranked as one of America’s favorite dog breeds, and for very good reasons. They’re good-natured, affable, and highly trainable. So, why are there so many Labradors in shelters?
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Why are there so many Labs in shelters?
One of the main reasons Labrador retrievers end up in shelters is because they are consistently one of the most popular and bred dogs in the United States. However, other factors like misconceptions about their breed characteristics and differing regional attitudes towards Labradors also contribute to their shelter population.
A “Lab mix” is one of the most common labels at my local shelter and rescues. It’s also what most people I know say their rescue dog is. Whether all of those dogs really are Labrador mixes is another question entirely.
But the fact remains that Labs are a very common breed in American shelters.
We’ll dig into the reasons that Labs end up at shelters, including why they are more common in southern shelters than northern ones. And we’ll discuss why so many so-called “Lab mixes” may not actually be Labs at all.
Popularity of the Breed
The Labrador was America’s favorite dog for a whopping 31 years. It was finally outcompeted by the French Bulldog in 2023, according to the AKC registration records.
A large number of Labradors means that a disproportionate number of them will find themselves in shelters.
Lab puppies have got to be one of the cutest puppies out there, and they seem all calm and dopey with their wrinkly faces.
As many people’s version of what a quintessential dog is, the Labrador is often the first choice of new and inexperienced dog owners. This is why they are often bought on impulse or as gifts, particularly for children.
These people may not understand the commitment of owning a high-energy working dog.
Couple that with the fact that there are too many unscrupulous breeders. These breeders aren’t concerned about who’s buying their dogs or whether they’re well-suited to owning a Labrador. They may bill the Labrador as a great starter dog because of its easy-going, affable personality.
Little do new Lab owners know what they’re getting into.
Incidentally, this is one of the main reasons that you see so many German Shepherds for adoption at shelters.
Characteristics and Misunderstandings
High Energy and Drive
Labradors and their mixes have typically been some of the nicest dogs I’ve known, but they have also been a handful.
Labradors were bred to leap, run, and swim hard from sunup to sunset. While there is an important distinction between working-line Labradors and pet-line Labradors, all Labradors tend to be high-energy dogs.
Varied Energy Among Lines
Labradors vary more than other dogs in energy levels. Breeders have been working to distinguish between show/pet lines and working lines nearly as long as they’ve been developing the breed.
Work and pet lines tend to look different. Pet lines lean more towards the American breed standard with square faces and shorter, thicker bodies. By contrast, working Labs tend to be leaner, longer, and more heavily muscled.
However, it’s in temperament that the difference really matters. Working Labs tend to have much higher energy and drive than pet lines.
That means that a pet line Lab may need an hour or an hour and a half a day of mental engagement and exercise. But a working line Lab may need three or four. Needless to say, some families will struggle to meet that need, particularly if they weren’t expecting it.
Slow (Never?) Maturing
Like most retriever breeds, Labradors are slow to mature. While some experts say that Labradors don’t reach maturity until they are 3 years old, I argue that Labradors never really grow up.
The Labrador’s lifelong puppiness is one of the things that is so endearing about the breed, and likely one of the reasons they get along so well with other dogs. However, it can be trying to have a mischievous Labrador continuously getting into something with no end in sight.
Especially true when you consider that Labradors are big, powerful dogs. It’s extremely unusual (though not unheard of) for a Labrador to deliberately hurt anybody, but Labradors have caused their fair share of injuries, nonetheless.
People who thought they could handle a dog like this in a small place or without a fenced yard may be overwhelmed and their things destroyed by a huge forever puppy. That puppy may live a long time too.
Labradors tend to be healthy dogs, with health problems that are more likely to cause mobility concerns or pain than be life-threatening, so you could have 10 to 14 years of forever puppy on your hands.
First of all, there’s lots of it. Labs may not be long-haired breeds, but you wouldn’t know it by the tumbleweeds of fur that flow in their wake. Labs have a dense, water-resistant double coat that’s great for fetching ducks in frigid water but less ideal for households who would prefer not to have everything covered in hair.
Next, it’s oily. Even a freshly washed Lab carries the slightest sheen of an oil slick. That oil is there for a reason; it’s what makes the Lab’s coat water-resistant.
However, I find that it carries a distinct smell, and it may give you the sense that you can never quite get your Labrador clean.
Can’t Resist a Good Run and Chase, Preferably Into Water
This may seem like an overly specific trait if you don’t know a Lab. However, ask anyone you know who owns a Lab what happens if you walk past a retention pond, and you’re likely to hear the same reply: bolt into the water. Even a well-behaved Lab may struggle to contain themselves, particularly if they see a duck.
Labs also tend to struggle with bolting out of doors. These problems come from a Lab’s instinct to wait quietly in a blind or in a down-stay until released by the hunter to retrieve the game.
It’s a great instinct in a hunting dog, not so much in a pet on a walk.
A well-trained Labrador never chases the game until he’s released to do so, and he never injures it either. However, he wants to chase and retrieve the duck because of a strong prey drive in the breed.
When not properly trained and channeled, that prey drive can result in a generalized desire to chase or even behave aggressively towards small animals, particularly birds. For many Labradors, the instinct extends to large animals like deer and horses and even to vehicles.
They’re Big Chewers and Eaters
Like many retrievers, Labradors are mouthy. The instinct to put things in their mouth is why they’re good at retrieving. However, while they’re working out what they’re allowed to pick up or if they haven’t been properly trained, they’ll probably put everything in their mouth.
They love to carry things around, and they love to chew. It takes a lot of consistent training and plenty of chew toys to teach a Labrador of any age what kind of chewing is appropriate.
Researchers have even identified a gene in some Labradors that prevents them from feeling full, even when they’ve eaten plenty. This results in the tendency of many Labradors to be obese and food-obsessed. They’re notorious trash rummagers and counter-surfers.
A specially formulated diet can make a big difference for Labs like this. Food with plenty of healthy fiber can help a Lab feel fuller without overeating. Take 50% Off Plus Receive Free Shipping On Your First Order of Nom Nom if your Lab needs a diet.
In working Labradors, especially Labradors trained as service dogs or scent detection dogs, a strong desire for food can be very useful. It enables Labs to be trained to do complex behavior for food rewards.
However, it can be a challenging behavior when Labradors forage for food in the home.
Breeding For Hunting
Labradors are actively used as hunting dogs, particularly in the South. While many hunters treat their Labradors like family, there are some who don’t raise, treat, or contain their dogs appropriately.
They may let their dogs wander and not have them spayed or neutered. They might deliberately breed many litters, selecting only the best hunters and selling or giving away the rest.
When a puppy doesn’t excel at hunting and all the friends already have dogs, it might be dumped or surrendered to a shelter. Unfortunately, the hunter might not decide a puppy isn’t a good hunter until it’s past its adorable stage, when finding a home for it is harder.
Hunting Labradors vs. Family-bred Labradors
Hunting Labradors aren’t the same as family-bred Labradors. Labradors from hunting lines have much higher drive and energy needs. Moreover, most hunters who treat their dogs this way do not raise them in the house, so they may not be potty-trained or understand how to behave appropriately in a typical household.
This means that Labradors from hunting lines who have been discarded by their families and placed in a shelter are set up for failure in finding a home.
This trend can be seen in the higher concentration of Labradors in shelters in rural areas after the hunting season, when a dog might have been injured, gotten too old, or proven itself not worth keeping until the next season.
Regional Differences and Challenges
Labradors are popular nationwide, but the South tends to have more Labs, and more of them tend to end up in shelters than up North.
The South, in general, tends to have a more laid-back attitude about the welfare of our canine companions. While most Southerners love their dogs just as much as anybody, there is an often dominant culture here that treats dogs more like property and tools than valued companions, particularly in rural areas.
That attitude is reflected in Southern laws as well. States like Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi have higher shelter populations in general, including Labradors.
Lax or non-existent spay and neuter laws and policies that allow many dogs to be kept and bred without much regulation mean that even a couple of bad actors can produce a lot of homeless Labradors.
The abandoned Labrador problem is typically less intense in more urban areas. But since Labradors are still one of the most popular dogs, there are still plenty of them that end up in shelters.
The regional abandonment of Labradors has actually fueled a nationwide market. Homeless Labradors from the South are shipped to the North, where they are quickly adopted.
In general, Labradors are pretty healthy. However, there are a couple of diseases that are unfortunately quite common in the breed. These diseases are particularly problematic when the dog hasn’t’ been well-bred or cared for.
This is especially true since many of these diseases will require significant accommodation. Dogs with advanced hip or elbow dysplasia need help getting up and down, as well as sometimes expensive medications to manage their pain.
Since these diseases are often chronic rather than terminal, owners may get rid of the dog rather than treating their symptoms long-term or euthanizinng.
Hip and elbow dysplasia are both very problematic in Labradors. Their tendency to overeat doesn’t help matters. Owners who free-feed their Labradors or let them scrounge on table scraps set them to get these diseases earlier.
Labradors are also prone to some heart conditions, which can also be worsened by obesity.
Labs can be prone to progressive retinal atrophy, especially as they get older. It will eventually cause a Lab to go blind.
One disease that is often fatal in Labradors is cancer. They’re particularly prone to lymphoma, a cancer of the blood cells. A dog suffering from lymphoma may simply fail to thrive if you don’t notice the enlarged lymph nodes. This can result in some weight loss and lethargy.
Rather than having a veterinarian diagnose the problem, some owners dump the dog.
Bias and Adoption Challenges
Black Dog Syndrome
There likely isn’t one clear explanation for why black dogs have a harder time getting adopted from shelters, but it’s certainly true. It’s true for cats as well.
“…..entirely black dogs showed somewhat lower odds of adoption—and higher euthanasia risk—than those characterized as secondarily black or sans black.” – Anthrozoös
Superstitions or negative portrayals in the media might be at play. The fact that black dogs are harder to see in dimly lit kennels or that it can be harder to see facial expressions could also be factors.
Either way, if you’re a homeless Labrador, it’s better to be brown or yellow.
The graying face of an elderly Labrador is cherished by their loving family. But unfortunately, it’s a clear mark of a dog’s age at the shelter. This isn’t good for the dog’s chances of adoption.
Many breeds’ muzzles and faces gray as they age. It’s one of the clearest signs of old age in a shelter dog. However, Labradors seem to be particularly prone to marked and often premature graying, particularly black and brown Labradors.
Despite being calm, loving, well-adjusted pets, old Labs are often overlooked in shelters.
Another study of 763 shelter dogs by Anthrozoös found that “The age of the dogs upon arrival at the shelter was the most important determinant for length of stay, with younger dogs being adopted faster.”
If Labs happen to have one of the chronic diseases of aging common in the breed, like hip dysplasia, their chances are even slimmer.
Breed-Specific Rescue Rules
Strict rules on fostering and adopting reduce the number of Labs who can get out of the system and into foster or forever homes.
Most private rescues, especially breed-specific rescues, have specific rules about who can adopt their dogs. This is certainly true for Lab rescues.
The people and other pets in the home, the yard size, whether there’s a fenced yard, and past pet ownership can also exclude potential adopters.
While rescues wait for the ideal adopter, it limits space for other Labs in shelters. This reduces the number of Labs private rescues can take and place in foster homes.
Unfortunately, when there are many of one breed at the shelter, individuals of that breed get less attention. People tend to seek out what’s unique, simply as an instinct, regardless of the quality of what’s plentiful.
Labs have large litters; as many as a dozen puppies isn’t unusual, exponentially adding to the Labrador population.
In my area, it’s usually pit bulls and pit mixes in shelters (even though they’re often called Labs). But at more rural shelters, it’s often purebred or close to purebred Labs.
Mixes and Misidentification
Everybody’s a Lab
These are the first couple of results that appear if I search for “Labrador Retriever” on Petfinder for my area. These dogs might have some Lab in them, but to call them a Lab mix seems like a stretch.
Even when they’re trying their hardest, experts in the shelter dog field are terrible at identifying breed mixes, as research from the University of Florida has found.
Check out the examples below from the dogs who participated in the study.
Dog #1 looks like a Lab, but he’s actually more Cane Corso and Chow Chow… very different breeds from the Lab. On the other hand, dog #2 and #3 are just as much Lab as #1, although they don’t look like Labs at all. Only the first dog was correctly identified most of the time.
The following dogs were identified as Labs, although they have no Lab in them at all.
This study is a superb demonstration of how difficult dog breed identification really is, especially, it seems, when it comes to America’s favorite dog.
Better to be a Lab
And the fact is, it’s simply better to be labeled a Labrador mix than a pit or hound mix, at least in the shelters around me, and likely in the shelters around you as well.
In a retrospective analysis of 23,932 animal records from shelters, researchers found that “Dogs labeled as pit bulls have been shown to spend longer in the shelter compared with phenotypically similar dogs labeled as alternative breeds.”
I don’t believe that most rescue organizations or shelters are trying to be deceitful. It’s more that when you’re looking at a mixed breed dog, or even a dog that you’ve got to admit probably has more pit in it than Lab, it’s tempting to try to give it a better shot by labeling it a Lab.
This is especially true when you consider that many places have bans on bully-type dogs but allow Labradors. Labeling the dog a Lab mix may increase the number of people able to adopt it.
Unfortunately, this tendency can make it hard to find actual Labs using tools like Petfinder or even by calling the shelter to ask if they have Labs. This can mean that Labs go unnoticed and unadopted, even if there are people out there actively looking for them.
Labs Going Unrecognized
It’s very likely that dogs that do have Lab in them are mislabeled as well. Labs have a pretty nondescript look that is easily lost in a mix. Unless they have highly distinct characteristics like a yellow color pattern, webbed feet, or a rudder tail, they can easily look like many other kinds of dogs.
It can get even more confusing because there is a recessive gene in Labradors that results in black and tan coloring, like a Rottweiler’s coloring.
When a Labrador who has this recessive gene mixes with a breed for whom this gene is common, it’s likely the puppies will have black and tan coloring and very unlikely that anyone will identify it as a Labrador.
Being labeled a Rottweiler mix instead of a Labrador mix isn’t great for the dog’s adoptability.
Consequences of Unplanned Mixes
Unfortunately, when Labradors are mixed with other breeds without planning or deliberation, the result can be a very difficult-to-handle dog.
The stamina of a Labrador mixed with the strength of an American pit bull can result in a dog with extremely high energy, drive, and power.
Did I mention a dog that doesn’t do well at the shelter?
A Labrador’s love of food and high prey drive, when mixed with a dog that isn’t as affable or good-natured and more likely to take a stand, can easily develop food possessiveness.
More often than not, Lab mixes are delightful. However, it certainly occurs that the mix can result in a challenging dog.
Labradors & Service Work: Impact on Shelter Numbers
Labradors are among the most popular breeds for service work. They work as service dogs, especially seeing-eye dogs, and they also work as military and police dogs, particularly in scent detection.
Most of the Labradors who are bred for these roles never end up in shelters. There are often long waiting lists for dogs disqualified from official training programs.
Similarly, dogs that retire from these programs typically stay with their handlers or have someone ready to adopt them.
However, every displaced service dog that goes into a family home takes a place that a Lab in the shelter might have gotten.
Furthermore, the visibility of Labradors as service dogs and the degree of training that military, police, and service dogs demonstrate can create the perception in potential owners that they could also achieve this level or a similar level of control with their dog.
People may get a Labrador in hopes of an easy-to-train pet. Others may be trying to train their own service dog.
However, this level of training is challenging, requires commitment and know-how, and most importantly, demands just the right dog.
No matter how hard they try, many people are unable to train a Labrador to the level that they intended, at which point they may rehome the dog.
How You Can Help Labs in Shelters
There are Lab mixes in just about every shelter in the US. What can you do to help them?
Volunteer. Lab mixes are often as happy and easygoing in the shelter as they are in most environments, making them easy dogs to volunteer with. Basic training to curb hyperactivity, dog day outs to show off how nice these dogs are, and pictures that highlight their lab characteristics to attract adopters are all invaluable.
Foster. Black Lab mixes often get overlooked, despite how sweet and happy they are, even in the kennel. Fostering, even short-term, gives potential adopters a chance to see how smoothly a Lab mix can fit into their homes.
Get educated. If you or someone you know wants a Lab, make sure to get educated on just what it takes to hande a powerful, intelligent working breed. Labs are the quintessential family dog for good reason, but that doesn’t mean they’re right for every family.
Here are some books to help you understand Labs and the kind of training they’re capable of and may need to thrive.