Ah, Josh, the old damnation by adulation trick. But let’s face it, you just can’t help talking about Labs.
As dogs go, I prefer the ones that can wear their mud, pull shotgunned ducks from the freezing marsh, and show up for drinks at Spago without so much as a bath. (No offense, Jack, but the blow-dried look is so Westminster.)
The beauty in a well-trained Lab—training is crucial, because without it they’re as crazy as any cur—is a go-for-broke athletic drive paired with a blessed off-switch. I’ve got two of them that sleep under my desk all day and go everywhere and do everything with me. The yellow weighs just 55 pounds and is tough, calm, and faithful. He holds out a paw for me to snip his nails and pull cactus spurs, and even Superglue a ski-edge laceration. The chocolate, Danger, is faithful.
He’s not obedient, but he’s by far the smartest dog I know. They say border collies can learn 150 words. A toddler can do that. Danger has taught himself how to open the fridge like he’s got opposable thumbs. He pretends like he’s just going to the kitchen for water, peeks around the corner to see if anyone’s looking, and then helps himself. I read somewhere that deception is one of the most advanced forms of cognition and that only humans and maybe one or two great apes can do it. It requires empathy—placing yourself in your opponent’s reality in order to outsmart him (me).
Labs also inspire empathy. That’s why Hollywood mints tear jerkers about them every few years. There’s a reason Yeller and Marley were Labs. They do the cute human things with their eyes. That and it’s a lot harder to make a thrilling scene about a boy and his dog going herding.
A light-framed field-bred Lab, can run like a husky—even Iditarod king Lance Mackey mixes some Lab genetics into his sled-dog lines—swim like a Newfy, and snooze like Homer Simpson. They do a lot of the same working-dog jobs border collies and Aussies are good at, but they excel at one in particular: hunting.
Despite being brought up in polite urban society and kept safely away from our one or two southern uncles, guys our age are finding their way back to hunting. I don’t really have hard numbers to back my claim, but easily half the guys I work with have taken it up in the last five years—most of them not having hunted with their fathers. And on this score, there just isn’t a more versatile hunting dog than the Labrador retriever. I’ve skied a lot of powder runs and kayaked some nice rivers, and I’m telling you: watching a dog you trained find a bird and then make a long retrieve after the shot is every bit as good.
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