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The Labrador Retriever, or just Labrador, is a large type of retriever-gun dog. The Labrador is one of the most popular breeds of dog in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.
A favourite disability assistance breed in many countries, Labradors are frequently trained to aid the blind, those who have autism, to act as a therapy dog, or to perform screening and detection work for law enforcement and other official agencies. Additionally, they are prized as sporting and hunting dogs.
A few kennels breeding their ancestors, the St. John's water dog, were in England. At the same time, a combination of the sheep protection policy in Newfoundland and the rabies quarantine in the United Kingdom led to the gradual demise of the St. John's water dog in Canada.
In the 1830s, the 10th Earl of Home and his nephews the 5th Duke of Buccleuch and Lord John Scott, had imported progenitors of the breed from Newfoundland to Europe for use as gundogs. Another early advocate of these Newfoundland dogs, or Labrador Retrievers as they later became known, was the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury who bred them for their expertise in waterfowling.
During the 1880s, the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury, the 6th Duke of Buccleuch and the 12th Earl of Home collaborated to develop and establish the modern Labrador breed. The dogs Buccleuch Avon and Buccleuch Ned, given by Malmesbury to Buccleuch, were mated with female dogs carrying blood from those originally imported by the 5th Duke and the 10th Earl of Home. The offspring are considered to be the ancestors of modern Labradors.
The modern Labrador's ancestors originated on the island of Newfoundland, now part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The founding breed of the Labrador was the St. John's water dog, a breed that emerged through ad-hoc breedings by early settlers of the island in the 16th century. The forebears of the St. John's Dog are not known, but were likely a random-bred mix of English, Irish, and Portuguese working breeds. The Newfoundland (known then as the Greater Newfoundland) is likely a result of the St. John's Dog breeding with mastiffs brought to the island by the generations of Portuguese fishermen who had been fishing offshore since the 16th century. The smaller short-coated St. John's Dog (also known then as the Lesser Newfoundland) was used for retrieval and pulling in nets from the water. These smaller dogs were the forebears of the Labrador Retriever. The white chest, feet, chin, and muzzle – known as tuxedo markings – characteristic of the St. John's Dog often appear in modern Lab mixes, and will occasionally manifest in Labradors as a small white spot on the chest (known as a medallion) or stray white hairs on the feet or muzzle.
In the early years of the breed through to the mid-20th century, Labradors of a shade we would now call "yellow" were in fact a dark, almost butterscotch, colour (visible in early yellow Labrador photographs). The shade was known as "Golden" until required to be changed by the UK Kennel Club, on the grounds that "Gold" was not actually a colour. Over the 20th century a preference for far lighter shades of yellow through to cream prevailed; until today most yellow Labradors are of this shade. Also fawn has been a common colour in the yellow lab variety. The paler shades of yellow are undesirable in working gundog lines as they are more easily seen by quarry than black and darker yellow dogs.
Interest in the darker shades of gold and fox red were re-established by English breeders in the 1980s, and three dogs were instrumental in this change: Balrion King Frost (black, born c. 1976) who consistently sired "very dark yellow" offspring and is credited as having "the biggest influence in the re-development of the fox red shade", and his great-grandson, the likewise famous Wynfaul Tabasco (b. 1986), described as "the father of the modern fox red Labrador", and the only modern fox red Show Champion in the UK. Other dogs, such as Red Alert and Scrimshaw Placido Flamingo, are also credited with passing on the genes into more than one renowned bloodline.
Jack Vanderwyk traces the origins of all Brown/Liver/Chocolate Labradors listed on the LabradorNet database (some 34,000 Labrador dogs of all shades) to eight original bloodlines. However, the shade was not seen as a distinct colour until the 20th century; before then, according to Vanderwyk, such dogs can be traced but were not registered. A degree of crossbreeding with Flatcoat or Chesapeake Bay retrievers was also documented in the early 20th century, prior to recognition. Chocolate Labradors were also well established in the early 20th century at the kennels of the Earl of Feversham, and Lady Ward of Chiltonfoliat.
The bloodlines as traced by Vanderwyk each lead back to three black Labradors in the 1880s—Buccleuch Avon (m), and his sire and dam, Malmesbury Tramp (m), and Malmesbury June (f). Morningtown Tobla is also named as an important intermediary, and according to the studbook of Buccleuch Kennels, the chocolates in this kennel came through FTW Peter of Faskally (1908).
The AKC describes the Labrador's temperament as a kind, pleasant, outgoing and tractable nature. Labradors' sense of smell allows them to home in on almost any scent and follow the path of its origin. They generally stay on the scent until they find it. Navies, military forces and police forces use them as detection dogs to track down smugglers, thieves, terrorists and black marketers. They are known to have a very soft feel to the mouth, as a result of being bred to retrieve game such as waterfowl. They are prone to chewing objects (though they can be trained to abandon this behaviour).
Labradors have a reputation as a very even-tempered breed and an excellent family dog. This includes a good reputation with children of all ages and other animals. Some lines, particularly those that have continued to be bred specifically for their skills at working in the field (rather than for their appearance), are particularly fast and athletic. Their fun-loving boisterousness and lack of fear may require training and firm handling at times to ensure it does not get out of hand—an uncontrolled adult can be quite problematic. Females may be slightly more independent than males. Labradors mature at around three years of age; before this time they can have a significant degree of puppy-like energy, often mislabelled as being hyperactive. Because of their enthusiasm, leash-training early on is suggested to prevent pulling when full-grown. Labradors often enjoy retrieving a ball endlessly (often obsessively) and other forms of activity (such as agility, frisbee, or flyball).
Although they will sometimes bark at noise, especially noise from an unseen source ("alarm barking"), Labradors are usually not noisy or territorial. They are often very easygoing and trusting with strangers and therefore are not usually suitable as guard dogs.
Labradors as a breed are curious and exploratory and love company, following both people and interesting scents for food, attention, and novelty value. In this way, they can often "vanish" or otherwise become separated from their owners with little fanfare. As a breed they are highly intelligent and capable of intense single-mindedness and focus if motivated or their interest is caught. Therefore, with the right conditions and stimuli, a bored Labrador could "turn into an escape artist par excellence". Many dogs are also stolen. Because of their curious nature and ability to "vanish," along with the risk of being stolen, a number of dog clubs and rescue organisations (including the UK's Kennel Club) consider it good practice that Labradors be microchipped, with the owner's name and address also on their collar and tags.
The steady temperament of Labradors and their ability to learn make them an ideal breed for search and rescue, detection, and therapy work. They are a very intelligent breed. They are ranked No. 7 in Stanley Coren's The Intelligence of Dogs. The AKC describes the breed as an ideal family and sporting dog. Their primary working role in the field continues to be that of a hunting retriever.
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