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How did dilute Labradors (informally known as “silver” labs) originate?

Speculation abounds on both sides of the dilute lab debate.

Let’s first review exactly what is a dilute Labrador.

A “dilute” Labrador is a lab that has a base coat of black, chocolate, or yellow, but also carries two copies of a recessive MLPH gene (referred to as the “dilute” gene) which makes the coat (and often pads, nose, and other pigmented areas) appear muted in color.

In a black lab, the resulting color is frequently referred to as charcoal, in a yellow lab as champagne, and in a chocolate lab as silver.

Dilute Labradors are registered with AKC by their base color, which in fact is their genetic color.

There are those that would like to claim that there is no such thing as a silver lab, and technically they would be correct. “Silver”, “Champagne” and “Charcoal” are actually slang words to describe the visually resulting colors when the dilute gene comes into play with a Chocolate, Yellow, or Black Labrador Retriever.

Registering a dilute chocolate (“silver” lab) as chocolate is not an attempt by dilute breeders to “sneak” their dogs into the Kennel Club registry. This was the decision of the AKC and LRC in the 1980s. Since the standard states that chocolate varies from light to dark chocolate, it was determined that dilute chocolates met the requirement of a “light” chocolate Labrador and should be registered as such.

Those against the dilute Labrador tend to believe that the Labrador Retriever as a breed was dilute-free until a deliberate out-crossing was made between a Labrador and a Weimaraner in the 1970s. They claim that “silver” labs did not exist until this time and that all silver labs originated from that single kennel in question.

That argument has been debated many times with those in support of dilute Labradors pointing out that the kennel in question did not own or breed Weimaraners and that the AKC and LRC visited the kennel and declared the dogs in question purebred Labrador Retrievers when this concern was initially brought to their attention.

Those against the dilute Labrador tend to see this as the ONLY viable option for how dilutes came to be but let’s step back further in history.

Let’s go back to when the Labrador Retriever standard was written in the early 1900s.

In Kristi Jensen’s previous article she touched on the beginning of the Labrador breed and some of the breeds that contributed to the formation of the dog that we call today the Labrador Retriever.

The following dog breeds are recorded as having played a role in the development of the dog that eventually became the Labrador Retriever: Newfoundland, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Foxhound, Greyhound, and Border Collie.

Interestingly enough, the dilute gene exists in EACH of these breeds, so it is not a stretch to hypothesize that the dilute gene became part of the Labrador Retriever through one or more of those breeds.

When this point is brought up with those that are not in favor of dilute Labradors, it is frequently met with the claim that if that was true, why did it take so long for “silver” labs… dilute chocolate labs… to materialize?

Jack Vanderwyk wrote: “It appears that dilutes just appeared out of nowhere, it must be a mix!”

Jack actually gives us part of the rebuttal to this claim in one of his other articles. In his article the Origin of the Chocolate Labrador Retriever, he writes:

“Studying the pedigrees of chocolate Labrador Retrievers, you often wonder where the chocs are coming from. All of a sudden they are there, out of the blue. I studied the files in the LabradorNet database, which contains the pedigrees of more than 90,000 Labradors, and came to the conclusion that there are roughly 8 routes to the origin of chocolate Labs. One of the reasons that you’ll find no chocolate Labs in the older files, is that they weren’t in fashion for many decades, so they just weren’t registered.”

This is very true! How do you track something in history that was not desirable and therefore not well documented? In the early years of the breed, labs were a status symbol and frequently bred by very influential people including Dukes, Earls, Lords, Viscounts, and Barons. They took great pride in their kennels and hunting was a huge priority. As pups were born, there were countless references to pups with undesirable traits being culled or given to the help and thereby removed from their prestigious breeding programs. Pups were removed for a myriad of reasons, including color.

As Jack mentioned, in the early days of the Labrador breed, chocolate dogs as a whole were normally culled or not used as breeding stock. Black was normally bred to black and typically produced black pups.

In the beginning black was the preferred color, followed later by yellow. Chocolate did not become fashionable until the 1960s and to this day there are still breeders… 50 years later… that attribute less-than-desirable traits to chocolate Labradors.

According to Countess Howe in her book The Labrador Retriever:

“Chocolates (or liver) are a very small minority; this colour either appeals or it does not. Those to whom it appeals are enthusiastic, others appear completely uninterested. With blacks or yellows the owner of one colour will discuss with interest the other colour, but they rarely want to discuss chocolates. This may be due to the palish eye of the chocolate which in fairness is complementary to the coat and pigmentation, but is of course too pale for the standard. The aim of chocolate Labrador breeders is however to produce a rich dark coat with a darker eye.”

There were only a few breeders deliberately producing chocolates in the early days including Hon. Lady Ward of Chiltonfolait and the Earl of Feversham. As Countess Howe mentions, their goals were to produce darker chocolates with darker eyes. It’s not a long shot to believe any lighter colored chocolates (possibly “silver” labs) would have been culled. They were already facing extreme scrutiny in showcasing the chocolate Labrador as an equal competitor in the field and on the bench. Accordingly, as breeders, they strove to reduce the criticisms by breeding for a darker dog with a darker eye that wouldn’t be referred to as having a “hard” expression.

While dogs that deviated from this standard were culled, acceptable littermates were most likely kept. In a litter where dilute chocolate labs are produced, 66% of the littermates of these culled dogs would be dilute factored (i.e. dogs that carry a single copy of the dilute gene and therefore do not EXPRESS the dilute color but carry it hidden in their genetics).

Also when breeders chose new mates for the parents of these litters in hopes of avoiding producing further pups that didn’t meet the standard of the day, these breeders were inadvertently producing litters where 50% of the offspring were also dilute factored.

It is in this way that a gene can remain hidden, being carried forward for generations but never surfacing until two dilute factored dogs are bred together.

It is possible that charcoal (dilute black) pups may have passed unnoticed as black or they too were culled or given to the staff. Champagne (dilute yellow) pups often look very similar to a traditional yellow Labrador. Breeders of yellows may have been producing dilute yellows without being aware.

From The New Complete Labrador Retriever:

“Regarding other rare colors, an interesting report from a 1933 issue of The Gamekeeper mentions a strain of “white Labradors” that was treasured by Mr. Austin MacKenzie at Carradale, Argyleshire. They originated from a dog owned by Mr. Fenwick, called Sam, whose grand sire was Stag, the sire of Major Portal’s Flapper. Sam came from the Duke of Buccleugh’s imported strain of Blacks, yet three litters by Sam were all buff-colored except one bitch which was pure white. This bitch was later mated with Lord Lonsdale’s Blanco, a bluish white dog by Capt. Radclyffe’s Ben of Hyde; the result was eight white puppies, and the color was apparently fixed.”

Lord Lonsdale was noted for keeping yellow Labradors so his “Blanco”, described as a bluish white dog could have very well been a Champagne (dilute yellow) Labrador which often have grey (“bluish”) tips on their ears and lighter yellow (cream to “white”) color bodies.

Anti-dilute breeders will claim that a breeder would have certainly known if they had a dilute yellow Labrador, but would they really?

Today there is a dilute yellow conformation Champion. Even multiple long-standing judges well versed in the breed were unable to discern that this was a dilute Labrador.

There are several accounts in the history of the Labrador Retriever prior to the 1970s of “silver” and “grey” Labrador puppies being born in litters.

In The Labrador Retriever by Dorothy Howe, she writes: “In both the past and present, there have been grey puppies of a lovely silvery color at whelping but they very soon start to darken.”

Any breeder of dilutes will recognize this statement as perfectly describing charcoal (dilute black) Labrador puppies at birth and the days that follow.

When chocolates began to become popular with the general public in the 1960s, the increase in the number of breeders focusing on chocolates as well as the number of puppies being born would have created an ideal condition for the dilute gene in the chocolate Labrador to surface and make its lasting mark.

So was the dilute gene there from the very start?

Did it enter the gene pool when the Labrador breed in its infancy was crossed with other dilute-carrying breeds?

Was it carried forward in the yellow lines, surfacing undetected in the occasional “buff”, “blue-white” and “white” Labradors?

Did it surface in chocolates when the practice of “culling” undesirable puppies became less prevalent and a kennel saw an opportunity to focus on that which was “less common”?

These are questions we will never have definitive answers to but the fact remains that we have to consider them as possibilities as to when the dilute gene became part of the Labrador retriever breed.

Without genetically testing EVERY founding dog in the breed, there is no way to state with surety that the gene has not been there from the very beginning. There is also no way to state with surety that it wasn’t introduced by the many planned crossings of the Labrador breed in its infancy to other dilute-carrying breeds in an effort to generate the quality dog we call the Labrador Retriever today.

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