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History of Labrador Retrievers

February 12, 2019 - Reading time: 8 minutes

Nell - A St. John's Dog circa 1856.

The modern labrador's ancestors originated on the island of Newfoundland, now part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The breed emerged over time from the St. John's Water Dog, also an ancestor of the Newfoundland dog (to which the Labrador is closely related), through ad-hoc breedings by early settlers in the mid to late 16th century. The original forebears of the St. John's dog have variously been suggested to be crossbreeds of the black St. Hubert's hound from France, working water dogs from Portugal, old European pointer breeds, and dogs belonging to the indigenous peoples of the area.

From the St. John's Dog, two breeds emerged; the larger was used for hauling and evolved into the large and gentle Newfoundland dog, likely as a result of breeding with mastiffs brought to the island by the generations of Portuguese fishermen who had been fishing offshore since the 1400s.

The smaller short-coat retrievers used for retrieval and pulling in nets from the water were the forebears of the Labrador Retriever. The white chest, feet, chin, and muzzle characteristic of the St. John's Dog often appears in Lab mixes, and will occasionally manifest in Labs as a small white spot on the chest or stray white hairs on the feet or muzzle.

The St. John's area of Newfoundland was settled mainly by the English and Irish. Local fishermen originally used the St. John's dog to assist in bringing nets to shore; the dog would grab the floating corks on the ends of the nets and pull them to shore. A number of these were brought back to the Poole area of England in the early 1800s, then the hub of the Newfoundland fishing trade, by the gentry, and became prized as sporting and waterfowl hunting dogs.

A few kennels breeding these grew up in England; at the same time, a combination of sheep protection policy (Newfoundland) and rabies quarantine (England) led to their gradual demise in their country of origin.

A surviving picture of Buccleuch Avon (b.1885), the foundational dog of many modern Labradors.

The first and second Earls of Malmesbury, who bred for duck shooting on his estate, and the 5th and 6th Dukes of Buccleuch, and youngest son Lord George William Montagu-Douglas-Scott, was instrumental in developing and establishing the modern Labrador breed in nineteenth-century England. The dogs Avon ("Buccleuch Avon") and Ned are given by Malmesbury to assist the Duke of Buccleuch's breeding program in the 1880s are usually considered the ancestors of all modern Labradors.

Early descriptions of Labrador Retriever

Two early descriptions exist. In 1822, explorer W.E. Cormack crossed the island of Newfoundland on foot. In his journal, he wrote "The dogs are admirably trained as retrievers in fowling, and are otherwise useful.....The smooth or short-haired dog is preferred because in frosty weather the long-haired kind becomes encumbered with ice on coming out of the water."

Another early report by Colonel Hawker described the dog as "by far the best for any kind of shooting. He is generally black and no bigger than a Pointer, very fine in legs, with short, smooth hair and does not carry his tail so much curled as the other; is extremely quick, running, swimming and fighting....and their sense of smell is hard to be credited...."

The Fascinating History of Labrador Retriever Video

Name of Labrador Retriever

There is some confusion in the naming of the early breed; the breed we now know as the Labrador Retriever was originally called the St. John's dog (from which it emerged), or lesser Newfoundland, but these were also considered distinct breeds by other sources. Other origins suggested for the name include the Spanish or Portuguese word for rural/agricultural workers, Portuguese "lavradores" or Spanish "labradors," and the village of Castro Laboreiro in Portugal whose herding and guard dogs bear a "striking resemblance" to Labradors.

Historical  Landmarks

The first written reference to the breed was in 1814 ("Instructions to Young Sportsmen" by Colonel Peter Hawker), the first painting in 1823 ("Cora. A Labrador Bitch" by Edwin Landseer), and the first photograph in 1856 (the Earl of Home's dog "Nell", described both as a Labrador and a St. Johns dog).

By 1870 the name Labrador Retriever became common in England. The first yellow Labrador on record was born in 1899 (Ben of Hyde, kennels of Major C.J. Radclyffe), and the breed was recognized by the Kennel Club in 1903. The first American Kennel Club (AKC) registration was in 1917. The chocolate Labrador emerged in the 1930s, although liver spotted pups were documented as being born at the Buccleuch kennels in 1892. The St. John's dog survived until the early 1980s, the last two individuals being photographed in old age around 1981.

History of subtypes of Labradors

Ancestral chocolate and butterscotch-yellow colors (sometimes called "liver" or "golden") were noted in the original St. John's dogs as early as 1807 when the Canton shipwrecked carrying some St. John's dogs for the Earl of Malmesbury. Two dogs were later found, one black and one chocolate, evidence that chocolate had been a color in the original St. John's dogs. Yellow and chocolate pups, and occasional black and tan or brindling, would occasionally reappear (although often culled) until finally gaining acceptance in the cases of chocolate and yellow or being mostly bred out of the breed in the cases of black-and-tan and brindled, although until the 20th-century black was the preferred color.

The first recognized yellow Labrador was Ben of Hyde, born in 1899, and chocolate labs became more established in the 1930s.

Rabrador Retriever History

Ben of Hyde (b.1899), the first recognized yellow Labrador.; Yellow (and related shades)

In the early years of the breed through to the mid-20th century, Labradors of a shade we would now call "yellow" were a dark, almost butterscotch, color (visible in early yellow Labrador photographs). The shade was known as "Golden" until required to be changed by the UK Kennel Club, because "Gold" was not a color. Over the 20th century, a preference for far lighter shades of yellow through to cream prevailed, until today most yellow labs are of this shade.

Interest in the darker shades of gold and fox red was re-established by English breeders in the 1980s, and two dogs were instrumental in this change: Balrion King Frost (black, born approx. 1976) who consistently sired "very dark yellow" offspring and is credited as having "the biggest influence in the re-development of the fox red shade", and his great-grandson, the likewise famous Wynfaul Tabasco (b.1986), described as "the father of the modern fox red Labrador", and the only modern fox red Show Champion in the UK. Other dogs, such as Red Alert and Scrimshaw Placido Flamingo, are also credited with greatly passing on the genes into more than one renowned bloodline.

Chocolate Labradors Retrievers

Jack Vanderwyk traces the origins of all Chocolate labradors listed on the LabradorNet database (some 34,000 labradors dogs of all shades) to eight original bloodlines. However, the shade was not seen as a distinct color until the 20th century; before then according to Vanderwyk, such dogs can be traced but were not registered. A degree of crossbreeding with Flatcoat or Chesapeake Bay retrievers was also documented in the early 20th century, before recognition. Chocolate labradors were also well established in the early 20th century at the kennels of the Earl of Feversham, and Lady Ward of Chiltonfoliat.

The bloodlines as traced by Vanderwyk each lead back to three black labradors in the 1880s—Buccleuch Avon (m), and his sire and dam, Malmesbury Tramp (m), and Malmesbury June (f). Morningtown Tobla is also named as an important intermediary, and according to the studbook of Buccleuch Kennels, the chocolates in that kennel came through FTW Peter of Faskally (1908).


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