Survival of the Fattest

Boat Race 2015
Dogs like to be around boats. Photo: Tim Koch.

7 May 2016

Chris Dodd writes about man’s best friend.

It used to be the case – maybe it still is – that no coach’s launch was complete without a Labrador figure-heading in bow. I remember a time when Mark Lees of Nottinghamshire County Rowing Association was always accompanied by his black lab Steel, and when London University’s Rusty Williams’s lab ran the Putney towpath for miles while his master bounced around on the river hollering at people from his rubber duck. Neil Campbell of Ridley College spent his spare time reading up on dog training when he visited Cambridge to sharpen the Blue Boat, and didn’t Bill Stowe of the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, have a lab? The British Rowing coach Ron Needs, who died just the other day in his 91st year, was married to a dog breeder, though I don’t know if labs were his wife Katie’s speciality.

LabI’m remembering this because it turns out that Labradors are far and away the most popular dogs on both sides of the Atlantic – twice as popular as any other breed in the UK and U.S. Furthermore, they are high in the canine intelligence rankings, which boffins at the University of Cambridge put down to their love of food. According to the lab research, many Labradors are genetically incapable of stopping themselves eating, and those disposed to eat learn to perform tasks fastest because food is an incentive.

Anyway, this finding about intelligence probably explains why rowing coaches and Labradors are mutually attracted. It’s a sport for the cerebral, right? It turns out that there is more to it than brains, too. Labradors don’t come from Labrador, but from the nearby Canadian island of Newfoundland, and are derived from the St John’s water dog. St John’s water dogs were used to retrieve nets, ropes and fish from the cold sea. According to The Guardian, eating enormous amounts conferred genetic advantage on a water dog. Survival of the fattest.

Now, you coaches, send pictures of your water dogs to HTBS! I would contribute mine, but she’s a golden retriever – related to labs but definitely a land dog.

One comment

  1. That brings back memories – I clearly remember Rusty’s black labradors accompanying us on outings from ULBC.

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