For more than a quarter of a century, America’s favorite dog breed has been the Labrador Retriever, unequivocally, and unabashedly. In colors of comforting yellow, intrepid black, and goofy chocolate, the Labrador Retriever is the quintessential companion animal.
Sure, every pet owner thinks that his dog is the best – but mine actually is. Sorry, but it’s true. There is only one Blue, my amazing, loving, cerebral, and intuitive chocolate lab. While I can confidently say to pet owners everywhere that there will never be another dog like Blue, I can, with confidence give them the following sage advice: Everyone’s first dog should be a lab. Labs are more than just pets. They are teachers, caregivers, protectors, and friends. For any young couple or young family looking to adopt their first fur child, having never experienced the joys of puppy parenthood, and who are wondering which breed would make the best addition to their family, I can with absolute certainty advise that everyone’s first dog should be a lab.
Labs Teach Patience
Labradors are incredibly smart and trainable. They have a wholehearted desire to please, and their desire makes them willing to learn and be molded. Despite their overwhelming desire to make you happy, as puppies they are clumsy, erratic, high-energy, chewmaniacs wrapped in fur. They will try every last moment of your patience and teach you how to remain composed and poised in the face of disappointment and moments of frustration. Training your Lab when he’s a puppy, to be an exemplary adult dog requires an absolute commitment to a consistent, and disciplined training schedule. Otherwise, you’ll end up being pulled through an intersection on a college campus on your stomach like some tragic figure out of a Marmaduke comic strip. Yep. That happened.
Labs Teach Forgiveness
When Blue was a puppy, he obliterated every inanimate object that he could get his mouth on. Judging by the end result of any toy he was given labeled “indestructible,” his jaws may as well have been made of titanium and razor blades. Rubber balls, rope toys, and stuffed animals would give him minutes of enjoyment before being relegated to miniscule pieces that only a vacuum with a deep cleaning attachment could eviscerate. I didn’t mind the constant replacement of dog toys. I slowly learned which ones would last longer than an hour, and added them to my repeat purchase list. What was devastating, however, was the loss of items I never intended him to get his mouth on. Here I pay homage to my brand new red high heels, the one-pound raw pork loin that was meant for dinner, my black flip flops, my brown flip flops, that stick of butter, 25 individual socks, the kitchen wood floors, and my purple futon.
There were days when I swore we had made a bad choice, and there were days when I was sure my boyfriend was going to list Blue on Craig’s List. Each rage-fueled moment was tempered, by his warm, chocolate brown head on my lap, and downcast eyes, but only slightly. Then the day came when I truly understood that Blue’s actions were unintentional and uncontrolled, and that disappointing us was the worst unintentional tragedy that could ever befall him.
He had snuck out of our bedroom at night and climbed on top of our new leather couch to sleep. In the morning, we realized that in doing so, he had scratched the soft new leather, leaving claw marks across the surface. When he saw the look on our faces and heard the scolding words, he hung his head, tucked his tail between his legs, and vomited. Knowing we were mad at him made him physically ill. We felt like the cruelest dog owners in the world. Seeing the hurt that we caused him cured us of our unsympathetic ways. We never lost our temper with him again, and to this day, I never raise my voice, to anyone, before heavily considering if their actions were truly intentional, and if they truly meant to hurt me. In consideration of that perspective, there is rarely ever a reason to try to hurt another with words, or worse, the withholding of affection.
Labs Teach Selflessness
I was 24 years old when we adopted Blue. I had no understanding of what it meant to sacrifice my happiness, or my time, for someone else. While I thought that I knew what it meant to be a caregiver, Blue taught me the true meaning of being responsible. Long nights staying out late reverted to early bed times so as not to leave the puppy alone for too many hours. Happy hour invitations starting to become declines coupled with the explanation, “Sorry, I need to let the dog out.” Even vacations had to become more heavily calculated, as there is no room for spontaneity when you need to coordinate a dog sitter.
Then there is the part of pet owning that teaches you not just about responsibility and accommodation, but about true caregiving. Labs crave adventure and excitement, which can lead to accidents, even under the supervision of the most responsible pet owners. Labs, while a very common breed, are also not without their known health issues.
Each time Blue became sick, we realized just how much he meant to us, and we began to become more and more afraid of life without him. The time he pulled the cotton fibers out of a stuffed animal and swallowed the casing, we heavily weighed our options, begrudgingly called the vet, and sighed when we paid the bill for the vet’s vomit-inducing/fabric extracting hydrogen peroxide treatment. The summer he broke out in hives, we complainingly committed to a rigorous experiment to determine what he was allergic to. We swapped grocery store kibble for a high-end pet store brand, arguing about whose turn it was to buy the stuff, began a regular regimen of seasonal Benadryl, and invested in extra prednisone to keep on hand in case he experienced another full on attack of hives.
Then there was the day that we felt a lump on his chest. The words “mast cell tumor,” coming from our vet may as well have been “unforeseen, and uncertain disaster.” This was it. We were faced with making a true life-or-death decision for another being. While our immediate reaction was to opt for surgery out of a selfish desire to keep Blue with us, we had to consider what was best for him. Would the pain of the surgery be too much for him? Would the recovery leave him changed in ways that would reduce his enjoyment of life? Were we putting him through a scary and difficult procedure, short-term, that would not improve his standard of living long-term? If he could speak, what would he tell us that he wanted?
In the end, after weighing the pros and cons, we decided that what was best for him was to take the cancer out of his body and give him a chance for more, healthy years. Happily, Blue has been cancer free for three years, and despite the scar on his chest, you’d never know he had battled a frightening malignancy.
Labs Offer Comfort
When Blue was four we certified him as a therapy dog. Retrievers make some of the best therapy dogs. They are highly trainable, gentle, loving, and intuitive. All dogs have a way of sensing the mood around them, but Labs have an almost innate ability to sense the emotion that someone needs, and offer it to them. I have seen Blue make children laugh who are in a hospital, suffering from the pain, and uncertainty of cancer. I have seen him connect with a dementia patient who was unresponsive to all other humans around her. He has also somehow known, in my darkest moments, that his warm, soft, silent head in my lap offers more comfort and security, than 100 words spoken aloud.
Each dog, and each breed, has its special qualities, and is deserving of a good, safe home. The first experience one has owning and caring for a dog, however, will require the greatest amount of learning and sacrifice. No other breed will offer you the greatest opportunity to grow and change than a lab. They are forgiveness and kindness incarnate, and will gladly watch you stumble, and fall, and make mistakes, and try, and learn, and fail again, as long as you give them the very same opportunities.
In the end, I guarantee, you will both learn to be more disciplined, more selfless, and more caring beings, and most importantly, you will do it, together.