Few dog breeds have more fans than Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers. These two hunting retrievers are historically the most popular household pets in the country, holding the No. 1 and 3 spots respectively on the American Kennel Club’s Most Popular Dog Breeds list for decades. (The German Shepherd usually clocked in at No. 2, and the French bulldog dethroned the Lab in 2022, ending the Lab’s 31-year streak.) So which retriever makes a better hunting dog: the golden or the Labrador? In this showdown of the golden retriever vs Labrador retriever, we break down each breed’s strengths and weaknesses.
Golden Retriever vs Labrador Retriever: The Upshot
Golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers are similar dog breeds. In general, both are known and valued for their flushing and retrieving abilities, making them both a great choice for upland bird hunters and waterfowlers alike. Neither breed is known for pointing birds, so if you’re looking to hunt over a pointing dog, go with a pointer or a setter. (Pointing Labradors do exist, though they’re a niche and sometimes controversial retriever.)
Show Dogs and Field Dogs
Labs and goldens are also similar in that they have long been bred for two purposes: as conformation dogs (also known as show dogs), or as working field dogs. According to amateur handler and longtime hunting retriever owner Kari Laufenberg, conformation retrievers are usually bred for their looks and stocky stature. They are meant to meet breed standards in a show setting. Field dogs, on the other hand, are bred to perform in field trials and hunt tests. They’re often sleeker, their coats shed water faster, and they’re more utilitarian. But those long-standing divisions are fading.
“I hunt and train with the more conformation-bred dogs, but the two worlds are starting to come together,” she explains. “In the past, it might have been thought that a conformation-bred golden retriever or Lab would not have the drive to hunt and do field work, whereas the field-bred dogs had high drive. But now these conformation breeders are seeing the value of breeding some of that into their lines.”
That value includes creating a more well-rounded and versatile dog that appeals to a wider population of owners, from hardcore hunters to young families.
But Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers have a few distinct differences that bird hunters should take into consideration when picking which one to bring into their life.
Get a Golden Retriever If…
- You’re spending more time on dry land than water. Golden retrievers take longer to dry off and can develop hot spots, or acute moist dermatitis, if water gets trapped in their coats, Laufenberg explains. Goldens tend to require more grooming attention in general.
- You’re looking for a pet that can make a good teammate. Golden retrievers are generally great with small children, in hospital settings, and any other circumstances that require extra gentleness. They are well-suited for being considered pets first and hunting dogs second.
- You want your dog to enjoy downtime with you. As a breed, golden retrievers are slightly lower-energy and less task-oriented than Labs, although there are lots of exceptions, Lauenberg points out.
- You need a quiet dog. According to the AKC, goldens tend to bark less than Labs. But again, there are exceptions.
- You don’t need a watchdog. Goldens are known for their affectionate personalities—not their protective nature. They have little instinct for guarding homes or being suspicious of strangers.
Get a Labrador Retriever If…
- You’re spending more time on water than dry land. Field-bred Labs have sleek, short coats that look almost waterproof. They dry quickly and aren’t as prone to hot spots as goldens. They also don’t require as much grooming.
- You’re looking for a teammate that can make a good pet. Labs are just slightly more intense and less reserved than goldens, although they were America’s favorite dog breed for a long time.
- You want to play fetch with your dog for hours on end. Labs tend to have a bit more energy than goldens, and might be more prone to playing than snuggling.
- You don’t mind a little barking or whining. Labs can be a bit louder than goldens.
- You want a watchdog. Labradors also have friendly personalities, but they tend to be more protective of their homes and handlers, according to the AKC.
How Are Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers Similar?
When it comes to size and demeanor, these two breeds are more similar than they are different.
- Both have historically been bred for long days sitting in a duck blind, working a field, or slipping through the timber.
- Both breeds weigh, on average, in the 55- to 80-pound range and stand at about 21 to 24 inches at the shoulder, depending on sex. Some Labs might get heavier and taller than some goldens. Conformation retrievers tend to be heavier and have thicker coats than field retrievers.
- Both Labs and goldens make great companions for families of all ages. While the lower-energy golden might let your toddler sleep on it or pull its tail, the higher-energy Lab will lick the peanut butter off your toddler’s face and keep them entertained.
- Both goldens and Labs are good-natured. Since the personalities of individual dogs vary, nitpicking the personality differences between the two breeds is like splitting hairs. Both breeds are so primed for obedience training, Laufenberg explains, that a solid obedience foundation can help mold them into the perfect dog for your exact situation.
Do Golden Retrievers Make Good Hunting Dogs?
The phrase “hunting dog” might bring a Lab, setter, or spaniel to mind. But field-bred golden retrievers have serious prey drive and unmatched noses, which puts them squarely among the top hunting dog breeds. The first golden retrievers were born in England in the late 1860s, from a litter between a golden, “wavy-coated dog” named Nous and a Tweed water spaniel named Belle. (Tweed water spaniels are now extinct.) Belle belonged to a wealthy member of Parliament named Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, and Nous belonged to a cobbler who received him as payment for a debt.
“It was an inspired combination, crossing a retriever to a water spaniel to create a robust hunter capable of navigating both land and water to hunt grouse, partridge and even red deer,” an AKC article reads. “Marjoribanks’ famous 1868 litter contained the … puppies who are considered the world’s first Golden Retrievers.”
Today, goldens especially rise to the top when it comes to conformation-bred retrievers doing field work.
“The pros will notice that, when working with a conformation-bred golden retriever versus a conformation-bred Lab, the golden retriever does a little more on the thinking side,” Laufenberg says. “That’s not to say Labs are stupid, because they are not. But it’s kind of the joke in that world—the Labs will just go do something, but we have to think hard about the training with the golden retrievers.”
A golden’s propensity to think more before acting shines through in its calmer, more deliberate demeanor.
“In general, a golden retriever is going to be a little more laid back,” she explains. “Once they retire from field work, they [might] go do therapy work. They have a real soft presentation about them and they just want to be next to you. They’re a good sponge. That’s not to say a Lab couldn’t do it, but it’s just more common in the golden retrievers.”
Still, there’s no denying that golden retrievers are far less common hunting dogs than the ever-popular Labrador retriever. Labs are more versatile when it comes to hunting land or water, and duck hunters might even pick a Chesapeake Bay retriever over a golden when given the choice. And while many goldens have respectable prey drive, it doesn’t meet that of the field-bred American Lab.
Why Are Labrador Retrievers Good Hunting Dogs?
If golden retrievers have sharper minds for field work, Labrador retrievers tend to have bodies built for bird country. Water rolls right off their backs. They slither through tight brush and glide through rivers and lakes. Their seemingly endless energy gives them the power to tackle long days effectively. And when those days are done, their shorter coats are extremely low-maintenance.
“Grooming comes into play. A lot of the [Lab] guys I train with look at my dogs, and say they love how my dogs work but they’d never want the responsibility after,” Laufenberg chuckles. “A lot of guys will go with the Lab because the maintenance is easier.”
Labrador retrievers originated in Newfoundland from the packs of dogs that ran around the capital city of St. John, according to the AKC. Originally, a “land race” of St. John’s dogs emerged, and eventually the Labrador retriever evolved from that breed. They spent a lot of time in the water near the fisheries and were known to retrieve any cod that spat a hook, as well as nets and lines. All modern British retrievers were born from St. John’s dogs.
The Labrador retriever’s hunting instincts are obvious when you watch a retriever field trial. These competitions involve retrievers following their handler’s commands to find a duck or bumper (both known as a “mark”) hundreds of yards away without any knowledge of where it landed. Field trials are generally more taxing on a dog’s memory and endurance than hunt tests, which are shorter-range and test retrieving skills, Laufenberg explains.
“In [field trials], you’ll mostly see black Labs—very few yellow or chocolate Labs. And you almost never see a conformation-bred golden retriever there. They’re logical thinkers, so they’ll say ‘This is not reality, we will never be out hunting and do a 300-yard mark, so why are we doing this?’ Whereas the field-bred Labs will fly out there and do it because they love it.”
That prey drive in Labs shines through in the last seven decades straight of National Championships for Retrieving results: a golden retriever hasn’t won since 1951.
Golden Retriever vs Labrador Retriever: Training Tips
Once you settle the golden retriever vs Labrador retriever debate and bring a dog into your life, the best thing you can do for them is lay a foundation for training, Laufenberg says. The training approach is the same for both breeds, and obedience training should come first.
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“When they’re puppies, we’re working on pulling out their [prey] drive and getting them exposed to birds. But I’m always making sure that their obedience is good,” she explains. “No matter what you do with your dog, obedience has value. That’s whether you’re walking down the street with your dog, if you’re hunting with your dog, if you’re doing agility with your dog, obedience is in everything. It just makes for a great relationship with the dog, and it’s also a safety factor.”
Final Thoughts on Goldens vs Labs
Lots of people prefer golden retrievers for their demeanor, but you can’t argue with the field-bred Lab’s prey drive on land and in the water, their longtime position at the top of the AKC Most Popular Breeds list, or even their short, fast-drying coat. Based on factors like versatility, ease of care, general popularity, and seven straight decades of NRC wins, in the match up of Golden retriever vs Labrador, Labs take the title.