Author: Gregg Tonkin, Little River Labradors
We see today fox red Labradors being a far more common sight than even 10-15 years ago. Even though it is not as rare to see one today, it seems they are following the "chocolate craze" of ten years ago, breeding only for color, completely forgetting breed type. As you are aware, the result was Labradors, AKC registered, that hardly resembled our breed except for having four legs and a tail. Fox red web sites are springing up advertising this shade of yellow and charging outrageous prices for puppies that barely resemble a Labrador Retriever. These "so called" breeders are pretty easy to pick out. In reviewing their web sites, no pedigrees are posted, there is an absence of even the most basic required health clearances for Labrador Retrievers (OFA Hips and Elbows and yearly CERF exams), and you will not see evidence of any AKC titles or activity.
There are a few breeders that are trying to not only maintain breed type but improve it as well. The two pioneers of fox reds in the United States are still around, Sally Kelley of Kelleygreen Labradors and Judy McCormick of Keepsake Labradors. In recent years Sally Bell of Borador Labradors has been doing a lot of work in diversifying the narrow gene pool of the fox red shade. Pam Naranjo DVM of Penara Labradors has been producing some very nice fox red Labradors. In addition there are a couple field breeders that have some nice, talented fox reds. I'm sorry if I have missed anyone but after having fox reds for 14 years and active in the breed, these are breeders I know that are actively working with the shade.
Here in the United States and since the late 80's in Europe, fox reds and dark yellow Labradors have not done too well in the show ring. Quite frankly it is an uphill battle for several different reasons. In the UK, over the years a few dark/red Champions have been made up like Lady Barlow's Ch Knaith Beatty (1965-1979), Lady Barlow and Felicity O'Brien's Ch Castlemore Martin WC, CD (1975-1990), Lady Barlow's Ch Valleyview Seymour, of course Ch Wynfaul Tobasco, and the most famous of them all, the last Dual Champion in the UK, Mrs. Veronica Wormald's Ch Knaith Banjo (1946-1961). It certainly has not been a common place and has gone through a long dry spell for the last 20 years. In 1976 Mrs. Wormald wrote in the Labrador Retriever Magazine, "The type now exhibited is different...I feel that it is very sad that the deep golden colour is now rarely seen, and wish we could get it back again." Mrs. Jacqueline Barlow wrote in her Labrador Quarterly article, Gundogs, The True Yellow in the Spring of 1993 issue, They are having trouble with judges in England who have preconceived ideas about what they think a Labrador should look like and I believe we are having the same problem in North America. "The Trouble" according to an English breeder of an age with myself is that there are so many who never saw the GREAT DOGS as you and I were so privileged to do! I think those of us who did, we should pass on what we can, hence my article at this time on the true colour of the yellow Labrador."
The problem in the United States is more difficult to overcome than in Europe for one main reason even though a Champion is much easier to make up in the US. Mainly as Mrs Barlow stated, it is a lack of education. In the United States it is overwhelming the number of dog shows going on in any one week. A quick look in the AKC Gazette shows 3-5 shows on any given Thursday, 5-10 on Fridays, 10-15 on Saturday and again on Sunday. This can equal on average 37 dog shows on any one week-end of the year. In Europe you generally only see one a week-end. In the UK most of the Labrador judges are breeders who have a much better handle on, not only what the breed should look like but a good knowledge of its history. In the United States the vast majority of the people that judge Labradors have never even owned one much less bred a Labrador Retriever. In fact a good percentage of our US judges have never bred a litter of any breed but were professional handlers. We have found most of the judges not only have never seen a fox red Labrador in fact some have to be reminded that it is in the Breed Standard. They are just not quite sure what to do when one shows up in the ring. Years ago speaking to Sally Kelley, she was telling me of a recent experience of hers where one of her dogs was disqualified for color, the level of ignorance is that bad. On Judy McCormick's web site she states, "There seem to be two types of people in the Labrador world; those who love fox reds, and those who hate them. At first it was a struggle to even get fox reds looked at in the show ring, but nowadays people are starting to come around and give the fox reds a fair shake. The previous statement is truer in terms of specialty (all Labrador) shows, than it is of all breed shows, but nonetheless the tide seems to be turning in favor of the reds. Much of the reason for this is that despite what people might want to do they can not disregard the breed standard." Judy is correct that at a Labrador Specialty a fox red is more likely to be judged on its merits versus an All Breed show. This difference can be explained very easily. While over the course of the year there might be 30 to 40 Labrador Specialty shows. At these shows you will find highly respected judges who are or have been Labrador breeders from both North America and abroad. They are very familiar with the standard and the history of the breed. With the vast numbers of All Breed Shows, a huge number of judges are required to cover these shows and the 150 some odd breeds all over the country. One cannot expect the level of knowledge and experience in our breed that you would in a Labrador Retriever only show. In addition, quite frankly I feel most All Breed judges are afraid to award points to a fox red Labrador not knowing how it will be perceived by others. The only way this can be overcome is for more fox reds to be exhibited in the show ring but there are so few quality ones being bred, I'm not overly optimistic this will happen
Given the above, it is hard to imagine the accomplishment of Sally Bell's Keepsake Cajun overcoming all those odds and becoming only the second true fox red AKC Show Champion. I cannot think of a more deserving Labrador than Cajun. I saw Cajun at the age of 18 months at the Miami Valley Labrador Specialty in Dayton Ohio, what a stunning boy! A Labrador given his quality of any other color/shade would have finished quickly but even for Sally, it took her a while to gain acceptance of her red dog.
While a red Labrador success's come few and far between. A dog named Emerald Isle's Sirens Song back in 1994 owned by Abby Hoover, shown by Rusty Howard, and sired by Balrion Red Alert became the first AKC fox red Show Champion. He was not as dark as Cajun but certainly a fox red Labrador.
Keepsake Brickhouse has been competitive in the All breed ring and was Reserve Winners Dog at the 75th National Specialty in 2006. Another fox red boy, Keepsake's Red Badge of Courage co-owned by Patty Block and Judy McCormick was also Reserve Winners Dog at the Greater Atlanta Labrador Retriever Club in 2005. Our Willie is AKC Champion Pointed, has been a Specialty Class and Best of Breed Winner, consistently placing every time shown in the Open Yellow Class at Specialties and currently being shown in All Breed. the best we have been able to determine, he was the 3rd true fox red to be awarded AKC points. Ch Keepsake's Red Star Rising truely is a "rising star" in the world of fox reds. With his young age, his mark will be around for years to come. It should be noted that he has been handled by Rusty Howard the same person who also showed the Emerald Isles fox red dog to his championship.
Show bred fox red Labradors are only part of the story. The fox red shade of yellow is found throughout the breed, although not particularly common, it is found in field bred Labradors also. A titled fox red is just about as rare in the field as it is in the show ring. Currently the only living titled fox red is a very handsome dog named Copper, better known as FC CAFC Money Talks 11 owned by Van Ames of Abnaki Kennels.