The Labrador retriever is hands-down the most popular dog in the United States. The breed is famous for its easy-going personality, loyalty, brains and athletic ability. But there are a few things you probably don't know about this well-loved breed — things that may take you by surprise.

yellow lab on a dock

Photo: Maria Dryfhout/Shutterstock

1. The Labrador retriever isn't from Labrador at all.
Many breeds are named after the place of their origin, but the Labrador is an exception to this rule. The breed originated in the 1700s a bit south of Labrador, on the island of Newfoundland. It was known as the St. John’s dog, named after the capital city of Newfoundland.

The Labrador is famous for its love of water, which is no wonder as it was a helper for fishermen, fetching nets and rope or retrieving fish escaped from the nets from the icy sea.

From Newfoundland, the breed spread to England, starting with the second Earl of Malmesbury who brought over some of the first St. John’s dogs around 1830. The third Earl of Malmesbury was the first person to call the dogs Labradors and the name stuck even when the breed regained popularity in North America.

black labrador puppies
Photo: /Shutterstock

2. Before rising to supreme popularity in the United States, the Labrador retriever nearly went extinct.
The Labrador has been the most popular breed of dog in the United States for 24 years running. Its affable nature, loyal and helpful disposition, ideal size and strength for assisting people in everything from search-and-rescue to hunting to service animal has kept the Labrador as the top dog. But before the Labrador gained fame as a perfect all-around dog, the breed nearly disappeared.

In Newfoundland, the government limited families to only one dog per household and a tax had to be paid for owning a dog. Females were taxed more heavily, so female puppies were often culled from litters. By the 1880s, the breed was nearly gone.

Thankfully, though, it persisted in England where it was still favored as a hunting and family dog. England recognized the breed through the Kennel Club in 1903, and the American Kennel Club recognized it in 1917. So Labrador retriever fans have England and the Malmesbury family to thank for keeping this much-loved dog around.

black lab playing in sprinkler

Photo: dezi/Shutterstock

3. Labrador retrievers are practically waterproof.
Labrador retrievers are made for the water, from their webbed toes to their rudder-like tail. But what makes them ready for even the most chilly water is their double coat.

The breed has a distinctive coat that is made of an outer layer of dense, straight longer hairs and an under layer of soft downy-like fur that acts as an insulating layer. This undercoat traps heat and keeps water out as it allows the dog’s natural oils to repel water, making the coat essentially waterproof.

The coat is perfect for keeping warm and dry but can be a bit of a nightmare for owners when the Labrador sheds its coat twice a year. For anyone who has had a Labrador, you’re familiar with endless fur that piles up in heaps during a brushing session!

black yellow and chocolate labs standing in a row

Photo: /Shutterstock

4. Black, yellow and chocolate are not the only colors of Labrador retriever.
Silver Labradors are chocolate Labs with a dilution gene that causes their coat to be a lighter color. Black and yellow labs may also have these dilution genes, but the difference in their coat color isn’t as dramatic as it is with the chocolate.

The idea of silver Labs is still controversial among breeders, as no kennel clubs recognize it as an acceptable color. Still, some breeders passionately advocate for silver Labs to be recognized and allowed to compete in shows. It may be a problem for some breeders, but for those folks who care more about disposition and health than about color, the silver is a unique and lovely coat color to have!

silver labrador puppy

Photo: /Shutterstock

Fox red is another unusual color. It’s technically not a different color, just a very dark version of yellow. These dark yellow or reddish individuals used to be much more common, which made them less desirable than the pale yellow individuals. Breeders began to selectively breed for the light blonde dogs until the rufus-colored coat now has its turn to be a rare gem.

yellow labrador dog

Photo: avarand/Shutterstock

5. There’s no such thing as English Labs and American Labs
Well, there kind of is, but not really. There is only one breed of Labrador retriever, though individuals can have different body shapes based on the purpose for which they were bred. Those referred to as "English Labs" are also called show Labs, and those referred to as "American Labs" are also called field Labs. The difference in body shape has become so apparent that they now go by different names, even though they are one and the same breed.

Those built to be in the show ring having a very stocky build, heavier bones, broader skulls with shorter muzzles, and a thick otter-like tail. Meanwhile, Labs bred to be out in the field as working dogs have been bred with agility in mind. Their bodies have a more sleek, athletic shape with longer legs, a longer and more pointed muzzle, and they sometimes lack the double coat for which Labs are famous. They also usually have a much more energetic disposition than “show” or “English” Labradors.

The breed thus runs the spectrum of different body types and energy levels, which is probably part of why they are such popular dogs: they offer a perfect match for any owner or any job.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.