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The Labrador Retriever

The Labrador Retriever, or just 'Labrador' is a large, retrieving-type Gundog.  It is one of the most popular dogs in the world by registrations and well-known for being outgoing, agile, intelligent, trusting, even tempered, gentle and kind.  Labradors were bred to be both friendly companions and useful working dogs. Historically, they earned their keep as fishermen’s helpers: hauling nets, fetching ropes, and retrieving fish from the chilly North Atlantic. Today’s Labradors work as retrievers for hunters, assistance dogs to the handicapped, scent detection dogs, show competitors, and search and rescue dogs, among other canine jobs.

"Understanding the origins of the Labrador Retriever almost requires a study of the history of Newfoundland, the island from whence  they came.  The first people to settle the island were the Dorset Eskimo’s (Beothucks), however they didn’t have any dogs, nor is there any evidence that any dogs inhabited the island when they arrived. These aboriginal inhabitants of the island might have been the descendents of the first Europeans to roam the oceans back in the times of the Vikings (1000AD).  The first written accounts of the history of the island came from around 1494. Traders of the Bristol Company in Britain “discovered” the island when venturing further and further away from Britain in the waters of the North Atlantic. Around 1498 the English began to fish regularly in the ocean around Newfoundland, so did the Portuguese and Spanish in 1501 and the French in 1504.

It was mainly the English fishermen, most of them from Devon, who engaged in shore fishery that made settlements on Newfoundland in about 1522, although it was only around 1600 that Newfoundland was properly settled. The island was abundant with game and fishermen and their trading partners brought hunting dogs from England and the Southern Catholic European countries, ie the Portuguese and Spanish – the great seafaring nations of the world. There was particular mention made in the historical writing of Cooper of the triangular trade between Britain, Portugal and Newfoundland, especially in fish and timber. There is only speculation of the sorts of dogs that these seafarers might have taken with them. The English had their guard dogs, Mastiff types and their Sheep dogs and Spaniels, many of whom were black. From Europe the Bretons, Basques, Spanish and Portuguese would have taken their massive guard dogs, the chien-dogue from France, the Pyrenean dogs, the Barbets, wonderful water dogs and the black hounds of St Hubert. The Portuguese had excellent water and cattle dogs and it is still known today that the Portuguese are fond of their dogs. It is accounted for that each fishing boat had all sorts of dogs aboard, with a sod of grass placed on the deck for the dogs to do their business.


Mary Roslin-Williams refers also in her writing of these early accounts to the Cane di Castro Laboreiro, a breed found in Northern Portugal. This clearly Labrador-like dog may have been one of the major influences upon the development of the breed over the 200 - 300 years before formal trade began between Newfoundland and Poole in Dorset in 1800. These dogs are now extremely rare in Portugal, although in a very recent account Mr and Mrs Jenkin from the Beadles Kennel in the UK described having seen these dogs in Southern Portugal and thought that they look like poor specimens of Labradors. They also found them in colours black, yellow and brindle. The Portuguese see these dogs as an ancient breed going back in time before the days of the first seafarers.

The Spanish account of a possible Labrador-like ancestor came in the form of an painting by the famous Velazquez (1599 – 1660), who painted the Infante Don Fernando as a sportsman with his dog. Vesey-Fitzgerald, an American historian of Spanish history and a known dog breeder and lover writes in his description of the painting that he is convinced that this is the first portrait of the Labrador as we know him today. Also the Spanish word Lavradores means Labourer, which is where the name of the Labrador coast of the Canada got its name.

It seems therefore that between the early 1500s and early 1800s, Newfoundland was home to a variety of European and English dogs. It was a rugged life for the settlers of the island and traders. They must have depended heavily on their dogs for hunting, fishing and timber work in icy cold water alongside a barren rocky coast-line. It leaves little doubt that from the many breeds of dogs we suspect were brought from England and Europe was developed over the nearly 300 years, the 2 major breeds of Newfoundland dogs. The bigger Newfoundland, more mastiff-like large breed with a long coat for protection in cold windy weather for dragging of heavy timber logs, and the smaller, brave, sturdy St John’s dog that was so devoted to his owner that he would jump without hesitation off high cliffs into icy water of the North Atlantic ocean or to retrieve fishing nets or to save maybe many a fisherman that was washed overboard in heavy seas. These were the same Newfoundland water dogs that were also used to retrieve smaller game during hunting expeditions on the island itself.

The St John’s dog was taken to Poole in the early 1800s when trade was formally established between Newfoundland and Dorset.  The 2nd Earl of Malmesbury whose estate, Heron Court, bordered Poole harbour in Dorset, noticed the little Newfoundland dog retrieve and play in the harbour and recognized how excellent they would be for his hunting. In 1809 he gives account of these little Newfoundlanders in his hunting journals. The Earl must have regularly bought in more of these dogs as more writing exists of his breeding and hunting with these dogs in 1823/4.

It was however his heir, the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury (1807 – 1889) who regularly imported the Newfoundland water dogs and he was the first to call them Labrador Retrievers. His friends followed suit. The 5th Duke of Buccleuch, his brother Lord John Scott and the 10th Earl of Home all had Labrador Retrievers in their hunting kennels. In a letter dated 1835 the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury wrote to his mate the 6th Earl of Buccleuch “We always call mine Labrador Dogs and I have kept them as pure bred as I could from the first ones I had – the real breed may be known by their having a close coat which turns water off like oil and above all a tail like an otter”.

In 1814 Col Peter Hawker, who crossed Newfoundland and gave detailed account of his journey that was later 1845 also published in America, wrote in his advice to Young Sportsmen ”Here we are a little in the dark. Every canine brute, that is nearly as big as a jackass and as hairy as a bear, is denominated a fine Newfoundland dog. Very different, however, are both the proper St John’s breed and Labrador of these animals. Hawker was the first refer to the St John’s dog or Labrador (from reference he must have known of the dog now in Britian as well), as the same breed and further describes them as “by far the best kind for any shooting. He is generally black and no bigger that a pointer, very fine in legs with short hair and does not carry his tail so much curled – is extremely quick retrieving, swimming and (behold) fighting.”

Referring back to the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury’s letter to his friend the 6th Duke of Buccleuch: This is where we maybe need to look at strength of type. The Labrador dog was manufactured through the ages by men that needed a versatile dog for retrieving under very strenuous conditions. Later to be refined by gentleman as hunting retrievers where the biddable, devoted, retriever instinct was already fixed in the breed. It seems though that an ancient lineage, perhaps going back from Cane di Castro Laboreiro was carried through to what we see in today’s Labradors. There is no scientific basis for this, but, like the old Portuguese breed, it is a well-known fact that if a Labrador is bred to any other sort of dog, most of the progeny look like Labradors. If one of the most Labrador-like crosses is then mated back to a pure-bred Labrador, it is almost certain that the whole litter will be decent Labradors. There is no doubt that the Noble Lords Malmesbury and their friends bred their Labradors to Setters, Pointers and Spaniels, but amazingly the whole colour and the type as such remained that of the St John’s or Little Newfoundlander that the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury first saw in Poole.

Stonehenge, writing in 1873 included the following description of the Labrador Retriever: “Symmetry and temperament – the symmetry and elegance of this dog are considerable and should be valued highly. The evidences of a good temper must be regarded with great care since his utility depends on his disposition”.  On 7 July 1903 the Kennel Club recognized the Labrador Retriever as a special breed and decided to give them special classes at the Kennel Club Show.  On 3 November 1903 Labradors were definitely recognized as a separate breed and on 3 January 1905 they were separately classified as a sub-variety of retrievers.  In 1923 the honourable A Hollans Hibbert (Lord Knutsfored) wrote the first official description of the breed:

Besides giving shoulder height and average weight he wrote:

  • Coat: Straight, neither wave nor curl, the thicker and closer the better. Dogs have a harder and coarser coat than bitches.

  • Head: Skull broad and well-domed leaving plenty of ‘brain pan’. Ears rather far back and set fairly high (but not cocked up like a collie’s) and rather small. Avoid mastiff-like head with its heavy hang and shape of ears. The ‘stop’is not very pronounced. Muzzle on the square side as opposed to the snipey shape, which is much to be avoided.

  • Colour of Eye: Brown – the colour of burnt sugar, a generous affectionate aspect is characteristic of the breed.

  • Shoulders and Body: Rather laid back, chest on the broad side – ribs really well sprung. Body compact – back straight and good loins.

  • Feet and legs: Forelegs straight and the more cat-like the better, Splay feet are much to be avoided.

  • Tails: The nearer the level carriage and the closer resemblance to an otter tail the better, i.e. short and thick at stump with the hair underneath divided almost as if parted.

  • General Appearance: The general appearance should be that of a strong-built, short coupled, very active dog. Wider in the head than a flat coat and wider through chest. Ribs well sprung. Coat close and dense, free from curl and wave. Skull wide giving plenty of brain room. Tail short and straight. Eyes colour of burnt sugar. Feet small and upright.

The Lady Jacqueline Barlow writes: 'In July 1992 the 6th Earl of Malmesbury came to Newfoundland. Four generations and 159 years later a man who knows and understands Labradors more than anybody I have ever met came and saw the countryside that shaped his family’s dogs and was very happy'."

Renier Jansen van Vuuren
October 2004

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