This week’s ‘Stare of the Dog’ takes a closer look at the anecdotal evidence out there suggesting brown Labradors are a cut ‘below’ their more distinguished black and yellow siblings. In truth and even as a so called Labrador virgin, I’ve seen enough madness already in Dud’s short life to realise he’s a certifiable crackpot and therefore probably doesn’t make the most reliable of ‘sample specimens for this already woefully inadequate scientific study. He is however all I’ve got!
So what of the gossip and legend that stalks my chocolaty chum so menacingly like a shark behind a listing dingy? One common rumour I’ve heard pedaled about in plenty of places is that brown Labrador retrievers don’t handle the ‘retrieving’ end of things at all well. Given that this is a skill not only expected of them through nature, but also clearly inferred upon them by name, there is surely a good case to be had under the ‘Trades Descriptions Act’ if proven to be true. After all, as modern consumers with rights, we’d all be quick to complain if the shiny new VW camper van we bought failed to offer any sleeping facilities and I don’t think the family pet should be treated any differently. If I buy a Labrador retriever, I want my slippers fetching. And often.
In Dudley’s case, it would be unfair to suggest he is a poor retriever, as he generally locates and collects most of his quarry. It would however be an act of extreme charity on my part to give the impression that he is in any way a useful one. For starters, our hapless brown hound is highly prone to dropping his catch just about anywhere, jettisoning them with the ease of a child discarding toys and comforters from their moving pram. Leaving tennis balls abandoned in the long grass is his favourite trick rather than bringing them back to me. Or in the stream, casually discarding each one as he absent mindedly trundles up and down its silty bed, apparently distracted within seconds by something altogether more interesting. This pattern of events happens most days when we are out on a walk, resulting in a loss rate for balls that would make a gender realignment specialist wince. More frustratingly still, on those rare occasions when the object has not been misplaced, Dudley never wants to hand it over, so you can begin to see exactly why the naysayers might have a point. Is there something wrong with the ‘brown uns’ and why don’t they retrieve?
I happen to think Dudley is extremely stubborn too, or put more politely, willful. A trait identified anecdotally by other owners of the brown breed, it means that the simplest of requests from me or my wife are met with a flat rejection. He just won’t be taken outside at night to perform his ablutions unless food incentives are on offer. Without them, I find myself having to push him across our tiled floor and out into the garden like a snow plough clearing an alpine pass. The same thing happens when he refuses to come downstairs or to extricate himself from the sofa or worse still, our bed. Letting out indignant groans like a badly played bagpipe, he’ll grudgingly acquiesce to my demands only after the sternest of protests has failed and I’ve begun hoisting him off manually, inch by inch. In short, I have a petulant teenager in the house.
That brown Labs are ‘more difficult to train’ is another slight I’ve heard said a time or two. In our case, my wife and I found Dudley eminently capable of meeting all of our admittedly low expectations in this department. In fact, with enough food bandied about, I reckon we could have trained him to be a fighter pilot. However, I always felt this said more about his greed than his intelligence or our skill. And although I have no experience of training the other colour variants within the breed, I strongly suspect that the ratio of ‘food provided to training success’ would be far more favourable with a black or white variety. The trouble with Dud – and by extension, I shall casually tar all brown Labs with the same brush – is the simple fact that he is totally dependent on a steady supply of treats with which to bribe him whenever there is any sustained educating to be done.
Despite this, I don’t agree with those zealots who suggest that ‘browns’ are not as smart and therefore not as trainable – the other age old myth. Far from it, I reckon they are the smartest of the bunch. For Dudley and his band of chestnutty (emphasis on nutty) brothers have made a dynamite discovery. Rather like the British coal miners of ‘3-day week’ notoriety in the pre-Thatcher era, they’ve realised that their cooperation around the domestic home, like all commodities, can be bought. Worse still, these Machievellian figures in brown suits have set a high price for it and, if Dud is anything to go by, drive a hard bargain when extracting it. All in all, I’d say that Dudley and his brown chums are lauding it up over us humans pretty well and reserving the loudest laugh of all for their yellow and black siblings, each of them too dumb to catch on to their domestic ruse.
Of course, there is an alternative narrative. It could just be me. My canine training abilities might simply have fallen short of the standard required to tame a brown Labrador. Maybe so, but I defy anyone to lead train Dudley without a wheelbarrow full of treats and a supply chain longer than the NHS.