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

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