Survival of the fattest: how greedy labradors convinced us they were clever

According to new research, the popular pooches aren’t as smart as we think – but they will do almost anything for food

Name: Labrador.

Age: Exactly 100, if we go by when the breed club was formed in the UK, although they are at least a century older than that.

Appearance: Barrel chest, floppy ears, pleading eyes. Typically black, yellow or chocolate-coloured. Like to hunt, swim and play with toilet rolls.

Misnomer: Labradors don’t come from the Canadian province of Labrador. They come from the Canadian island of Newfoundland – part of the same province – and are derived from the St John’s water dog.

Most popular dogs in the world, aren’t they? They are indeed. More than twice as popular as any other breed in the UK and the US.

And the cleverest? Depends how you look at it. Stanley Coren’s 1994 book The Intelligence of Dogs ranked them seventh – border collies were top – and new research suggests their intelligence and trainability as assistance dogs are mainly the result of their love of food.

Don’t all dogs love food? Maybe, but a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge has shown that many labradors are genetically incapable of stopping themselves eating. Those most disposed to eat are also the ones that learn to perform tasks fastest, because food is used as an incentive.

Your grasp of the science seems a bit vague. It’s something to do with a bit of the POMC gene having been deleted.

Why did the POMC gene get deleted? Possibly because among St John’s water dogs – which were used to retrieve nets, ropes and fish from the sea – eating enormous amounts conferred a genetic advantage. Survival of the fattest.

So, obesity is good for you? Only if you spend your life retrieving nets in freezing seas.

Three famous labradors: Injured serviceman Allen Parton’s assistance dog Endal, whose party trick was to operate a cash machine. David Blunkett’s guide dog Lucy, whose political astuteness was so great she once threw up in the House of Commons during a speech by David Willetts. Omar Riviera’s guide dog Dorado, who was with his owner on the 71st floor of the north tower at the World Trade Center on 9/11. He stayed calm among the chaos and led Riviera to safety.

Most likely to say: “Woof, woof.”

Least likely to say: “I think I’ll pass on the second helpings.”

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Doggone it! How an 18,000-year-old puppy could change everything we know about dogs
Dogor was two months old when he died and has been well preserved in the Siberian ice. But is he an early modern wolf – or one of the world’s very oldest domesticated dogs?

27, Nov, 2019 @2:48 PM

Article image
Why handbag dogs are going out of fashion
The trend of toting tiny pups around as accessories has subsided, with owners dumping the £2,000 hounds at rescue centres. Is big the new small?

16, Jan, 2017 @1:30 PM

Article image
How the world's funniest-looking dog finally found a home
Jubilee the wide-eyed husky lay languishing unwanted in a shelter, until her carers hit on the idea of sharing her sad saga on Facebook

21, Jan, 2020 @1:10 PM

Article image
Dogfishing: beware the man who poses with pets on a dating app
That Tinder picture of a nice, caring guy posing with his adorable best friend might not quite be everything it seems

13, Aug, 2019 @12:46 PM

Article image
Je regrette chien: why French bulldogs are being dumped
Battersea Dogs’ Home is being besieged by an influx of the popular celebrity pet, which is prone to serious health problems that are expensive to treat

19, Sep, 2017 @5:26 PM

Article image
Eau de pawfum: is it barking mad to buy cologne for dogs?
A runner-up at Crufts was scented with a calming floral spray – but canine perfumes aren’t just for show dogs

09, Mar, 2020 @2:35 PM

Article image
That’s barking! Why all dog owners need a poo wormery
It’s no longer enough to bag it and bin it – the green approach is to let worms munch through your dog’s waste

18, Jan, 2021 @3:26 PM

Article image
Small dogs: why are tiny hounds more aggressive than big ones?
Not only are little dogs more likely to lash out, they also tend to be less obedient and less well house-trained

05, May, 2021 @3:53 PM

Article image
Wanted, playing dead or alive: the sniffer dog with a bounty on his head
Scamp the spaniel is so good at finding illegal tobacco, crime groups have offered a £25,000 reward for his capture

23, Jan, 2019 @12:57 PM

Article image
Running with the pack: why your dog needs exercise buddies
Simply taking your pooch for a walk isn’t enough, a new study says – it should be playing team sports to keep anxiety at bay

31, Jan, 2023 @7:00 AM