History of the Labrador Retriever
The Labrador Retriever is a retriever in the class of Sporting dogs. They are considered a 'flushing' dog that will retrieve the game for the hunter once down. They are generally used to hunt both upland game birds and waterfowl. More recently some have worked on perfecting a pointing characteristic with Labradors. No matter what it's AKC classification, Labradors have come to be one of the favorite family house pets in America today due to its wonderful personality, gentle disposition and loyalty.
Labrador Retrievers were recognized
in England as a Kennel Club breed in 1903 and first registered by the AKC
in the United States of America in 1917. Labradors were originally
called a St. John's Dog or lesser Newfoundland dog. The breed was in
Newfoundland in the 1700's and imported to England beginning the early 1800's.
The Labrador's exact origin unknown but some speculate the Greater Newfoundland
dog or the French St. Hubert's dog is part of the cross that made the St. John's
In 1887 the Earl of Malmesbury first
coined the name Labrador in a letter he wrote referring the them as his Labrador
Dogs. The Territory of Labrador is just Northwest of Newfoundland
geographically. Richard Wolters in his book the "Labrador Retriever"
writes that the 19th century Brits lumped that area together as the same land
mass, so it could have referred to dogs from that area.
Newfoundland was settled by English
fisherman as early as the 1500's and the St. John's dogs seemed to develop along
with the fishing occupation . The English fisherman in Newfoundland used the St.
John's dog to retrieve fish that had fallen off their hooks as well to help haul
in fishing lines through the water. The St. John's dogs were
considered "workaholics" and enjoyed the retrieving tasks given in the fishing
environment. This breed was very eager to please and their retrieving abilities
made them ideal for hunting companions and sporting dogs. In today's world
many see their hunting companion as living for the sport. He will break
ice to retrieve birds only to return and wait for the next one to come down.
You have to keep an eye on the dog in warm weather as he will gladly work beyond
his physical abilities and even overheat if you don't watch him. It was
said that the dogs would work long hours with the fisherman in the cold waters,
then be brought home to play with the fisherman's children. The wonderful
temperament of the Labrador Retriever is documented back to its early days in
England and has made them ideal family pets as well as accomplished sporting
The Labrador has a dense, short coat
that repels water and provides great resistance to the cold and water. Labradors
come in 3 colors; black, yellow and chocolate. Black is the most well
known color and it is dominant in Labradors. Black was also the color commonly
preferred and bred for up until more recent times. It should be
noted that the colors chocolate and yellow have been noted in the original St.
John's dogs from the Newfoundland. They are recessive genes and were
referred to as the color 'liver' or sometimes 'golden'. In 1807 a ship
called brig Canton carried some St. John's dogs destined for Poole, England as
likely breeding stock for the Duke of Malmesbury's Labrador Kennel. The Canton
shipwrecked and two dogs, one black and one chocolate, were found and
believed to have become part of the breeding program (along with other breeds)
that created the Chesapeake Retriever. So we know that chocolates
had been a color in the original St. John's dogs which later became established
under the name Labrador Retriever. As recessive colors the yellow
and chocolate pups would occasionally appear in litters throughout time.
During the earlier breeding programs these 'off colors' were often 'culled'
until they were finally accepted by the British and the American Kennel Clubs
and registered. Some people still favor blacks saying they are the best
Labradors. We think it is more personal preference as long as you have a
good well balanced pedigree and breeding program behind your dog.
Labradors almost became extinct a
few times and the St. John's dogs that Labs came from are now extinct in
Newfoundland. It was only through some events and efforts of some key
people that we have the wonderful companion we call the Labrador today.
It was the early 1800's that the first dogs were imported to England to a few aristocratic British sportsmen
- Earl of Malmesbury at Heron Court had used his St. John's dog for the shooting sports in England as early as 1809.
- The second Earl of Malmesbury was born in 1778 and was the most influential person in keeping the Labrador breed alive. He started the first kennel of Labradors. He kept his kennel well stocked until his death in 1841.
- The 5th Duke of Buccleuch (1806-1884) started his kennel in Scotland about 1835 independently from Malmesbury. The dog was first documented under the name Labrador in 1839. The Duke's brother, Lord John Scott also started importing the St. John's dogs from Newfoundland. A number of the dogs that the brothers imported were named Jock, Nell (1843) and Brandy. Brandy earned his name when he was being transported across the Atlantic ocean. He went overboard into rough water to fetch the cap of one of the crew. It took them 2 hours before they could pick up the dog and he was so exhausted they revived him with Brandy. The earliest photograph of a Labrador Retriever was of the Duke's dog named Nell. She was about 12 years old when this photo was taken in 1856.
Nell born 1856
Wolters indicated in his book that this is the earliest photograph of a Labrador and taken in 1867.
This (St. John's) dog was part of the breeding stock for the Labrador and had white feet and a white muzzle. This trait was noted in some other Labradors being bred in the 1800's in England. Today the breed standard prefers no white in the coat color. Sometimes as the present day Labrador ages you will notice that areas that gray tend to be the paws and muzzle. Perhaps a left over of the St. John's Dog? Nell is 12 years old here
Nell was owned by the Earl of Home (1799-1881)
*Photo in Richard Wolters book The Labrador Retriever Dutton, 1992 pg.46
- The Labrador had so many excellent qualities that it had been used to breed into other "Retrievers". In the late 18th and early 19th Century (before any Kennel Club registration) some breeders tried to interbreed the hunting abilities of different retrieving dogs that met their liking. Other retrievers of the time included curly coats, flat coats and a now extinct Norfolk Retriever. It was said that often the St. John's genes were dominant and the crosses tended to still carry the looks and personality. Eventually the separate breeds became fixed and separated in the Kennel Club registration.
- By the 1880's nearly all the true Labrador (St. John's dog) lines had died out in England. A fortuitous meeting of the third Earl of Malmesbury (at age 75) with the sixth Duke of Buccleuch (1831-1914) and twelfth Duke of Home (1834-1918) saved Labs from extinction. Buccleuch and Home were visiting a sick Aunt and decided to participate in a waterfowl shoot on the South Coast. There the two men were impressed by what Malmesbury's dogs were capable of doing. These were the same bloodlines as their father's kennels. Malmesbury reported that he had keep the blood lines pure as he could with the imported dogs from Newfoundland. Malmesbury gave them some of his dogs to carry on the breeding program. The dogs were Ned (born 1882) and Avon (born 1885). Many say that these two dogs are the ancestor of all British Labs. Buccleuch Avon is said to have sired 'liver-coloured' pups. This would be the ancestor of most American Field Champion chocolate line or chocolate gene carriers line.
Bucceleuch Avon born 1885
- In 1892 two 'liver color' Labradors were born at Buccleuch's kennel. (Richard Wolters, The Labrador Retriever)
- In 1899 the first recorded yellow Labrador was born at the kennel of Major C.J. Radclyffe and named Ben of Hyde.
In Newfoundland the St. John's dog eventually became extinct. The reasons seem to be political. In 1780 the Governor wanted to encourage sheep raising and to stop any menace to sheep he ordered that there could be no more than one dog for a family. The St. John's dog were native to Newfoundland and so all but the ones that had been exported to England were vulnerable to this order. This action had a great impact on St. John's dogs since they were not wide spread and now their numbers were being discouraged in their homeland. Later, in 1885 another measure was taken by the legislature to encourage sheep breeding. A heavy license was imposed on dogs. There was a higher tax rate on females than males which lead to many female pups being destroyed at birth. Couple this with the English passing the British Quarantine Act and it made importation next to impossible. The Quarantine Act on 1895 prohibited dogs from entering Great Britain without a license and without first undergoing a strict six-month quarantine. Britain did not have the disease of Rabies native to their island and they did not want to have it introduced. By the 1930's the St. John's dog was rare in Newfoundland. The 6th Duke of Buccleuch was finally able to import a few more dogs between 1933-1934 to continue the line. Interestingly enough, sheep raising never became a mainstay of Newfoundland but the extinction of the St. John's dog did come to pass.
To the left are two of the
last St. John's dogs in Newfoundland. Author Richard Wolters
indicated in his book The Labrador Retriever that these two males
survived extinction because they were in a very remote area. There
were no female dogs left to breed to, so these appear to have been the
last two original St. John's dogs. Wolters' book was published in
1981 and at that time Lassie (on the right) was 13 years old and his
brother (left) was 15 years old.
Note these dogs also have the white toes and muzzle like the early Labradors in England. This trait appears to have been bred out of the dogs since the only white markings AKC allows at this time is perhaps a small white spot on the chest. Sometimes one will find some white hairs on the toes or foot pads still today. That likely traces to the original dogs. Often Labs will have their faces and toes get white as they age as well.
- In 1903 the Labrador Retriever was popular enough to be recognized by the Kennel Club in England.
- In 1916 the Labrador Club was formed in England with support from Lord Knutsford (Munden Kennel line) and Lady Lorna, Countess Howe (Banchory Labradors). Some chocolate labs are said to trace back to FC Banchory Night Light from the Banchory Kennel. He was a black dog born in 1932 in England. Night Light comes from the line of Dual Ch. Banchory Bolo (1915) who appears to be a carrier of the chocolate gene from Buccleuch Avon. Banchory Bolo was also known for carrying a trait of white hairs under the feet (Bolo pads).
LABRADORS IN AMERICA
In the later part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the American Sportsman used setters and pointers to hunt large areas and heavy cover. The driven bird shoots of Britain were unusual situations for Americans. The British driven shoots included walking at heel, marking game down and to track and retrieve it. The British style of hunting was different than the American hunter. The American terrain, size of the hunting areas, cover, different types of land called for a different more demanding kind of dog work. Americans liked to use Springer Spaniels as game finders for upland work. The Chesapeake Bay Retrievers had been developed as water retrieving dogs and recognized by the AKC in 1878. Americans began taking an interest once they realized Labradors were as good as Springer Spaniels for putting up game and as good as a Chesapeake as a water dog - some say better because its coat does not tend to ice up and it repels water well. This dog had the combined skills of two other popular sporting dogs in America making it a very versatile all around sporting dog plus it had an excellent disposition. The breed became popular in America during the 'roaring twenties' and increased after the end of WWII.