From LL Bean catalogs to Norman Rockwell paintings, the Labrador Retriever is a ubiquitous symbol of love, loyalty, and friendship.

In a way, the Lab informally qualifies as America’s dog. First black, then yellow, then chocolate, Labs have maintained their essential energy, friendliness, and easy-going nature no matter the hue.

Yet appearance matters, and dog enthusiasts each have their favorite color for this breed. Of recent vintage is the Silver Lab. Considered an extremely pale Chocolate Lab, this sub-breed sparks controversy relative to its ancestry. At the same time, Silver Labs provoke intense human affection and many owner-wannabees.

Are They Purebred Labrador Retrievers?

Whenever a dog’s characteristics diverge from breed standards, suspicions arise as to the purity of its bloodline. Any assessment of Silver Lab’s unsulliedness, then, should begin with the identifying properties of the breed as determined by the American Kennel Club (AKC).

According to AKC, Without knowing the exact origins of Labrador Retrievers, historians ascertain that its earliest role was as a waterdog, retrieving ducks and providing overall companionship to fishermen.

Yet the early 19th century saw an expanding following for this canine variety, particularly among the English peerage (devotees of Downton Abbey will recall the Earl’s beloved Yellow Lab). Great Britain was where this breed was specified and standardized.

Among the Labrador’s consistent traits are:

  • A strong, athletic build
  • Medium in size, though pushing the upper limits of “medium”
  • A short, dense coat of fur
  • A thick, “otter” tail of medium length (functioning as a rudder)
  • A wide, but lean skull
  • Near or above the two-feet high for males; up to 23 inches for females
  • Muzzle proportionate with the head
  • Scissors Bite
  • Moderate-hanging ears, close to the skull

…and the list goes on. Especially notable are AKC specifications regarding color. “Chocolates can vary in shade from light to dark chocolate,” the official standard declares. This begs the question — does the Silver Lab qualify within this range of coloring?

The metallic appearance of the Silver’s coat resembles that of a Weimaraner, sparking skepticism among breed perfectionists.

Of course, other purebreds sport dilute colors. Yellow Labs range from platinum to reddish. Similarly, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, for instance, can appear in a very dark brown coat to light dead grass to all hues.

However, the difference is that Chessies have historically enjoyed this broad spectrum; Chocolate labs are less so. The silver coat is a more recent phenomenon. Where does that leave interested parties? Is the jury perpetually out regarding Silver Labs?

Hard to tell. Animal scientists, such as those at Cornell University, have determined that Lab coloring results from a genetic relationship known as recessive masking epistasis, i.e., a recessive gene pair modifies a dominant gene pair.

This means that color is a function of how gene groupings are arranged. Without complicating things, suffice it to say that there could be a recessive gene in Labs that can result in dilute shading.

Hypothetically, breeding dogs with recessive masking might–over generations–produce a color lighter than the acceptable “light chocolate” end of the spectrum, as declared by the AKC. Again, this is only speculation.

Why Is Purity Important?

For some, this is a matter of no importance whatsoever. Those who simply want a dog to love and care for — who seek the comfort and companionship of a canine friend — will not usually make a fuss about whether their pet is a purebred or a mutt. Others, loving their Labs no less, depend on purity for various reasons.

According to AKC, The most obvious reason relates to showing the dog. Dog shows measure how well a canine measures up to its breed standard. In a way, the dogs compete against themselves more than each other. Because of this, any question relating to purity is sure to disqualify.

Any activity requiring training is best prepared for the breed’s well-defined temperament. Hunting with dogs takes many hours of schooling a Lab for the tasks of flushing and retrieving, for example.

According to the AKC, a Labrador Retriever’s temperament should be “kindly, outgoing, tractable nature; eager to please and non-aggressive towards man or animal.” Should that Lab possess some Weimaraner blood, will that good nature be modified?

The temperamental ideal for Weimaraners is “friendly, fearless, alert, and obedient.” These are similar facets and desirable, but not the same. Training, then, is different, as is socialization and lifestyle around the house.

The same truth applies to hunting dogs, therapy dogs, guide dogs, and K-9 police dogs. Investment in training is optimized when a dog is developed according to breed. If its ancestry is questionable, the correct canine preparation method may be unclear.

Issues of diet are important, too. Labradors are more prone to become overweight than stick with the same example, the Weimaraner. Dr. Cailin Heinze of Tufts University Veterinary School points out that Lab-specific dry food is sometimes deliberately shaped to retard the process of chewing and ingesting.

What Are the Take-Aways?

As the debate over the Silver Lab continues, there are certain realities to bear in mind. First, as a domestic companion, this dog is a Lab. Treat it so the dog and the owner will enjoy many happy years together.

Breeders of Silver Labs can do likewise, especially if the dogs are to be advertised as Labs (recalling the genetic dispute described above).

Service dogs may require some flexibility as the preparation and discipline of the Silver Lab might not be as smooth as its yellow, chocolate, and black cousins.

On the other hand, the development may go precisely according to the breed’s temperament. This is the dilemma: should a good dog go to waste because of the hue? Even if Silver is not purebred, it still has a lot of Lab to offer. That cannot be denied.