The Differences Between Flat-coated Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers

Flat-coated and Labrador retrievers are most commonly seen in black; however, both breeds can be yellow or chocolate in color, too.
Flat-coated and Labrador retrievers are most commonly seen in black; however, both breeds can be yellow or chocolate in color, too. (Image: black lab image by NorthShoreSurfPhotos from

The flat-coated and Labrador retrievers are similar breeds. Both breeds are descended from Newfoundland dogs, but their origins take different paths. While the flat-coated retriever is often mistaken for a long-coated Labrador, the two breeds are also dissimilar in breed type. Both breeds, however, can be engaging pets for active families, and many representatives of both breeds still retain their hunting instinct.


The flat-coated retriever and the Labrador retriever both descend from native Newfoundland dogs. Flat-coated retrievers descend from selected crosses between the Large Newfoundland and various sporting, herding and gun dogs. These crosses were used to create a mix referred to as the Retriever Proper, a direct ancestor of the wavy-coated retriever, which was later refined and renamed the “flat-coated” retriever. The Labrador retriever descends from the St. John’s Water Dog or “Lesser Newfoundland,” which was a cross between the small water dogs native to the area and the larger Newfoundland dogs. According to author Kolby McHale, when the St. John’s Water Dog was brought to England, it was called “the Labrador,” for the region from which it came.


According to their AKC breed standards, the flat-coated and Labrador retrievers may have setters, sheepdogs and water dogs in their ancestry. The flat-coated retriever retained the longer coat of its wavy-coat and Newfoundland ancestors. However, author Joan Mason states that early flat-coat retriever fanciers chose to breed “a dog similar to the Wavy-Coated Retriever but less heavily built . . . and a coat that would be waterproof, but not so heavy and dense. McHale explains that the Labrador was selected for its shorter, thicker coat, preferred “because in frosty weather the long haired kind become encumbered with ice on coming out of the water.”


The flat-coat retriever and the Labrador retriever share a common purpose: to return dead game to the hunter. Both breeds are primarily used for birds, although the flat-coat standard suggests that the breed should be able to carry a hare in its mouth, as well. Flat-coated retrievers are primarily used to hunt pheasants and other “upland” birds, but they can be used to hunt ducks and other waterfowl. Labrador retrievers are primarily used to hunt ducks and other waterfowl, but they can also be trained to hunt upland birds.


The two breeds differ most in three areas of conformation: the head, the tail and the underline. The flat-coated retriever has a head that lacks a significant “stop,” or difference in height between the muzzle and the forehead, while the Labrador has a moderate stop and brow ridges at the front of the forehead. The “otter tail” is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Labrador. It is of medium length, wide at the base and should not have any fringe. Finally, the underline of the two breeds is significantly different. The Labrador has almost a straight underline, from its ribs back to its hind legs, showing tuck-up at its loins in adult dogs. Unlike the Labrador, the flat-coated retriever has a deep setter-like chest, rising into a moderate tuck-up. These conformational differences give each breed a distinct silhouette, despite descending from similar breeds and performing similar functions.

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