Labrador Retriever History began upon the island of Newfoundland, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, a northerly region of Canada. It is here that the ancestors of today’s Labs lived and bred.
It’s widely believed that human settlers in the late 1500s to the island of Newfoundland brought working dogs along with them, to help with tasks in hunting and fishing.
Through ad-hoc breeding of these early settlers dogs, likely a random mix of working dog breeds from the British Isles and Portugal, many Canadian working water dog breeds were developed:
- The Chesapeake Bay Retriever
- The Landseer
- The flat-coated Retriever
- The Greater Newfoundland
- And most importantly, The Lesser Newfoundland, also known as St. Johns Dog, and widely accepted as the breed from which modern-day Labrador Retriever history stems.
Contents & Quick Navigation
- St. Johns Dog
- The Labrador Retriever Breed Beginnings
- Extinction of the St. Johns Dog in Newfoundland
- How the Breed Became Known as the Labrador Retriever
- Landmark Moments in Labrador Retriever History
- Official Recognition in the UK and US
- VIDEO: The History Of The Labrador Retriever With Nick Hewer
- Anything to Add?
St. Johns Dog
The St. Johns Dog had a coat that would repel water and enabled the breed to stand the icy cold temperatures of winter seas.
It was a short-haired breed and preferable to the longer haired breeds for work in the water because the long-haired breeds would become weighed down and burdened by ice on their coats in freezing conditions.
Newfoundland fishermen would use the St. Johns Dog to help them in pulling ropes from boat to boat, retrieving fish that had floated free of nets or hooks and for helping in pulling in nets from the water.
The breeds hard-working behavior, loyalty and loving temperament were valuable traits in a working dog and the breed was highly prized by the fishermen.
The Labrador Retriever Breed Beginnings
Experts agree that Labrador retriever history officially began in the early 19th century when a number of St. Johns Dogs were imported to the Dorset area of England, then an important location for the Newfoundland fishing trade.
Once in England, the dogs were soon spotted by English Aristocrats who when observing their considerable stamina, loyalty, skill in the water and innate retrieving drive, recognized their suitability for working with the gentry in their favorite sport of hunting waterfowl.
The Earl of Malmesbury
It’s alleged that the Earl of Malmesbury became intrigued by the breed during a visit to Dorset after seeing a St. Johns Dog retrieve a fish that a fisherman had thrown from his boat.
He immediately requested some be imported for him and he soon dedicated his entire breeding kennels solely to the St. Johns Dog, breeding them to work with him during duck hunting on his estate.
A few years later, the Earl of Malmesbury donated some of his stock to the 5th and 6th Dukes of Buccleuch who started to breed the dogs in the now famous Buccleuch breeding program in the 1880s.
This breeding program is widely considered the place from which the true ancestors of today’s Labrador Retriever hail.
Extinction of the St. Johns Dog in Newfoundland
In an effort to promote the raising of sheep in Canada during the late 19th century, dog ownership was heavily restricted and large taxes were required of dog owners.
At the same time, England put in place very strict long-term quarantine requirements for imported animals during their attempts at eradication of rabies in the year 1885.
So although the Dukes of Buccleuch allegedly managed to acquire a few more pure-bred St. Johns Dogs in the 1930s and attempted to keep a pure breed, the importing of stock for breeding was severely limited. And so the St Johns Dog numbers steadily declined over the decades until it finally became extinct in the 1980s.
How the Breed Became Known as the Labrador Retriever
It is not entirely known how or when the term ‘Labrador Retriever’ was coined, although the Earl of Malmesbury was known to use the phrase himself. In a letter found by him from 1887, he wrote:
‘We always call mine Labrador dogs and I have kept the breed as pure as I could from the first I had from Poole’. The real breed may be known by their having a close coat which turns the water off like oil and, above all, a tail like an otter.’
Although the dogs were certainly known as Labradors long before this date, this is the first written record. Two theories of how they became known as Labrador retrievers are:
- They were merely named after the region where they originated in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
- The Spanish and Portuguese term for workers or laborers is labradores and lavradores respectively. Also within Portugal there’s a village called Castro Laboreiro where a breed of dogs protecting livestock look very similar to the St. John’s dog. So the name may have Portuguese origins. We will never be truly sure.
Landmark Moments in Labrador Retriever History
- There’s evidence of the Earl of Malmesbury using St. John’s Dogs whilst hunting in England from as early as 1809
- The second Earl of Malmesbury is widely credited as being the most important person in the survival of the Labrador breed. He started the first kennels with the aim of keeping a ‘pure Labrador dog breed’ and maintained a well stocked kennel until his dying day.
- The 5th Duke of Buccleuch created a Labrador breeding Kennel in the mid 1830s and dedicated himself to keeping a ‘pure breed’.
- Due to a desire for certain qualities, in the late 18th and early 19th century breeders began to cross the Labrador with other working dogs and retrievers to try to create the perfect working dog of their own design.
- In these new cross-breeds, it’s said the genes of the St. Johns Dog were dominant and the dogs often had the appearance and personality of the St. Johns Dog.
- As the 1890s approached, the pure-breed lines of the St. John’s Dog had all but died out in England due to the combination of cross-breeding, heavy taxes on dog ownership in Canada and heavy restrictions on importing dogs into the UK to keep out rabies.
- A chance meeting between the third Earl of Malmesbury and the sixth Duke of Buccleuch is widely credited for saving the Labrador from possible extinction. Malmesbury had kept the blood lines in his kennel as pure as he could with the dogs he had imported from Newfoundland. Malmesbury gave the Bucceluch kennels some of his dogs to carry on the breeding program. Many say these dogs, given in 1885, are the ancestors of all English Labs.
- The first recorded Yellow Labrador, Ben of Hyde, was born in the Kennels of Major C.J Radclyffe In 1899.
- By the 1930’s the St. John’s dog was becoming rare in Newfoundland.
- In the mid-1930s, the 6th Duke of Buccleuch was able to import a small number of dogs from Canada and bring them into his breeding program to help preserve the breed.
- Newfoundland in the 1980s and the St. John’s dog had eventually became extinct for the political reasons listed above.
Official Recognition in the UK and US
The Labrador Retriever was officially recognized as a breed by The UK Kennel Club in 1903.
The first registration of a Labrador Retriever in The American Kennel Club was in 1917.
These two events were crucial for the future of the Labrador Retriever. Without a breed having official recognition and a standard set for them, the blood lines aren’t kept pure and the breed almost certainly gets diluted through crossbreeding and becomes lost.
VIDEO: The History Of The Labrador Retriever With Nick Hewer
This next video shows Nick Hewer, (famous in the UK as the presenter of Countdown and The Apprentice) in an interesting film about the history of Labrador Retriever On The One Show.
Labrador Retriever history can be traced right back to the cross-breeding of working dogs by early settlers of the island of Newfoundland in the 1500s. From these humble beginnings, a very loyal and hard-working water dog, the St. Johns Dog was developed.
Due to political pressures both in England and in Canada, the pure St Johns Dog became extinct. But in England, two noble families who had fallen in love with the breed, had dedicated their kennels breeding programs to maintaining as pure a line of Labradors as possible.
We owe a special debt of thanks to the families of the Dukes of Buccleuch and the Earls of Malmesbury, the first to fully appreciate the beautiful qualities of the Labrador Retriever and without whom, the breed would have been in danger of extinction.
They put in an enormous effort into keeping the breed going and to keep it pure. It is because of their passion, dedication and breeding programs that we have the Labrador Retriever for us to enjoy today.
Anything to Add?
We’d love to hear of any details you may know on the History of Labrador Retrievers that we haven’t covered in this article. If you have any stories, know of any landmark moments in their history or have any interesting facts that you’d like to share with other readers, please do so in our comments section below.
Sources and Further Info
The following articles were used as sources of information in the writing of this article. For further information and more detail, including time-lines of the labs history, please see the following articles: