What Is A Labrador Linage? Things You Should Know About Your Labrador

May 16, 2021

The Labrador Retriever, often abbreviated to Labrador, is a breed of retriever-gun dog from the United Kingdom that was developed from imported Canadian fishing dogs.

The Labrador is one of the most popular dog breeds in several countries in the world, particularly in the Western world.

A popular disability assistance breed in many countries, Labradors are frequently trained to aid those with blindness or autism, act as a therapy dog, or perform screening and detection work for law enforcement and other official agencies. 

The breed is best known for its obedience, loyalty, and playful composure. Additionally, they are prized as sporting and hunting dogs. Ancestors include a breed used in Newfoundland as fishing dogs, which would help bring in the fishing nets and recapture escaped fish.

In the 1830s, the 10th Earl of Home and his nephews the 5th Duke of Buccleuch and Lord John Scott had imported progenitors of the breed from Newfoundland to Europe for use as gundogs.

Another early advocate of these Newfoundland fishing dogs was the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury, who bred them for their expertise in waterfowling.

During the 1880s, the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury, the 6th Duke of Buccleuch, and the 12th Earl of Home collaborated to develop and establish the Labrador Retriever breed.

The dogs Buccleuch Avon and Buccleuch Ned, given by Malmesbury to Buccleuch, were mated with bitches carrying blood from those originally imported by the 5th Duke and the 10th Earl of Home.

The offspring are the ancestors of all modern Labradors.

Origin and lineage

The Labrador breed dates back to at least the 1830s when St. Johns Water Dogs bred by European settlers in Newfoundland were first introduced to Britain from ships trading between Canada and Poole in Dorsetshire.

These were then bred with British hunting dogs to create what became known as the Labrador Retriever.

Its early patrons included the Earl of Malmesbury, the Duke of Buccleuch, the Earl of Home, and Sir John Scott. Early writers have confused the Labrador with the much larger Newfoundland and the Lesser Newfoundland, with Charles St. John even referring to the Lesser Newfoundland as the Newfoundland.

Colonel Peter Hawker describes the first Labrador as being not larger than an English Pointer, more often black than other colors, long in its head and nose with a deep chest, fine legs, and short and smooth coat, and did not carry its tail as highly as the Newfoundland.

 Hawker distinguishes the Newfoundland from both the “proper Labrador” and St. John’s breed of these dogs in the fifth edition of his book Introductions to Young Sportsman, published in 1846.

The first photograph of the breed was taken in 1856 (the Earl of Home’s dog “Nell”, described both as a Labrador and a St. John’s water 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 Liver (now typically called Chocolate) Labrador emerged in the late 1800s, with liver-colored pups documented at the Buccleuch kennels in 1892.

The first dog to appear on the cover of Life magazine was a black Labrador Retriever called “Blind of Arden” in the 12 December 1938 issue.

Do Labradors come from Retrievers?

It seems reasonable to assume that our much loved and lovable Retriever is called a Labrador Retriever because it retrieves things and comes from Labrador in North America!

In fact, the dogs that formed the foundation of the Labrador breed in England in the 1800s were imported not from Labrador but Newfoundland.

Two areas tended to get lumped together for general discussion purposes.

What is more, those Newfoundland dogs were almost certainly not natives of Newfoundland at all. Let’s investigate.

Our story really gets going, in the harsh and inhospitable region that was 18th Century  Newfoundland.

The Dogs of Newfoundland

When we think of Newfoundland dogs, we tend to think of the large heavy, and very hairy black dog whose breed carries the Newfoundland name. A breed that was long thought to be the ancestor of the Labrador.

Newfoundland had been colonized at various times in history but had been largely uninhabited for around 200 years when European settlers arrived.

When Europeans began to visit and later colonize the island of Newfoundland, there were almost certainly no dogs there at all.

The peoples who settled there and fished in the rich waters around the coast brought their own dogs with them.

Newfoundland had been colonized at various times in history but had been largely uninhabited for around 200 years when European settlers arrived.

When Europeans began to visit and later colonize the island of Newfoundland, there were almost certainly no dogs there at all.

The peoples who settled there and fished in the rich waters around the coast brought their own dogs with them.

The fishermen’s dogs

Wolters notes that there are no records of any native dogs on the Island and that the majority of settlers were fishermen and hunters from Devon in the South West of England.

Wolters believes that these men brought their dogs with them from England and that their hunting dogs were the ancestors of the dogs that became known as Newfoundland dogs.

Today we think of Newfoundlands as large even giant and very hairy dogs with thick wavy coats, dogs from which some have concluded the Labrador Retriever may have descended.  But Wolters believes it was the other way around.

He thinks that the smaller fishermen’s dogs with their oily short coats that are the forebears of the Labrador, were also of the ancestor of the Newfoundland and that the bigger dog was bred up in size to cope with the heavier work of hauling carts in the inhospitable climate.

The St John’s Water Dog

The resourceful people that defied the authorities and made their homes in this cold wilderness developed an unusual relationship with, and dependence on, the dogs that they brought with them.

By breeding from the most useful of these dogs, some important characteristics were fixed in the dog population there. And by the early, the St. John’s Water Dogs of Newfoundland were beginning to get quite a reputation as something rather special.

There is no doubt that the St John’s dog or St John’s water dog was the ancestor of the modern Labrador Retriever.  And that its descendants formed the basis for our Labrador Retrievers today.

If Wolters is correct, it is also the ancestors of the much larger Newfoundland breed. But what was so special about these dogs?

The amazing skills of the St John’s Dog

The name water dog comes from the St John dogs’ role in the fishing communities where they were found.

Historical documents tell of dogs that were as at home in the water as they were on land. They specialized in retrieving nets, lines, ropes, and even dived underwater to retrieve fish that had slipped from their hooks.

The St John’s dogs worked alongside their human companions in a remarkably cooperative way and were much valued by them.

What did the St John’s dog look like?

The St John’s dog had a  dense, oily waterproof coat and thick tail though his ear carriage was probably more primitive and forward-facing (and it must be said more healthy) than that of the floppy-eared dog we know today.

He was oblivious to cold and happy to swim in exceptionally icy conditions.  A characteristic that many of you will recognize in our modern-day Labradors.

Some St John’s dogs had short coats, some had longer coats.

The Newfoundlanders probably preferred the shorter coat as it was more practical in icy water.

Many longer coated dogs were exported to England

An early painting of a St John’s dog is by famous artist Edwin Landseer.  If you take a look at the dog, you’ll see it looks as much like a border collie as it does a Labrador.  It has a longish coat and plenty of white fur among the black.

The painting is entitled: Cora  A Labrador Bitch

Landseer also painted the larger Newfoundland dog and it is interesting to note that it too is black and white, not black as we know it today.

We have to forward in time a few more years before we have a photograph of St John’s.  And then we have a dog that looks much more like the modern Labrador.

The end of  the road

Sadly, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the St John’s dog was heading for extinction.

According to Wikipedia, the new taxation place on dog ownership in North America played its part, as did the rabies quarantine controls set up in the UK.

The last example of St John’s water dog died in the 1980s.

Despite their demise, these dogs left behind them a legacy that would soon provide us with the most popular dog breed in the modern world.  Our wonderful Labrador Retrievers.

The first Labrador Retrievers

The key to the beginnings of the Labrador breed was the work of two English Aristocrats: the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury, and the 5th Duke of Buccleuch.  And the key to the establishment and survival of the breed was their two sons.

James Harris

James Harris was the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury, in addition to his life as a member of parliament, the young James devoted his life to the sport.  Specifically to shooting.

Malmesbury imported some St John’s dogs in the early 1800s and began breeding them to work as shooting companions.

Walter Scott

Just a few years later, a Walter Scott, the 5th Duke of Buccleuch established similar kennels breeding from imported St John’s dogs in Scotland

But it wasn’t to be until a chance meeting between the sons of these two men, that Labrador Retriever breeding became truly established in the UK.

Without that chance meeting between the sons of these two aristocrats – the two isolated kennels and their individual breeding programs, may not have survived.

According to the records of the Buccleuch Estate,  the 6th Duke of Buccleuch and the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury met whilst shooting in the late 1880s.

Malmesbury made a gift of two male retrievers to the Duke, who mated them to the bitches that descended from those imported by his father.

And the puppies that resulted are the ancestors of the Labrador breed we know and love today.  The Buccleuch Kennels still exists today and is still producing top-quality Field Trial winning Labradors.

Hunting Retrievers

So, even by the early 1830s, when Hawker was writing, the reputation of the St John’s dog or Labrador dogs as it became known – perhaps to differentiate it from the larger Newfoundland that was already becoming popular as house dogs – was spreading.

And between the 1880s when our two aristocrats had their chance meeting, and the 1930s the Labrador Retriever became firmly established as the darling of the British shooting community.

There is no doubt that the popularity of the St John’s dogs amongst the sporting community in the UK was due to their extraordinary ability as working retrievers and all-round hunting companions, and their amenable good nature.

Yet over in America, there was yet no sign of this new breed at all.  Hunting and shooting folk were predominantly using the Chesapeake Bay Retriever for waterfowl, and the springer spaniel for flushing game on land.

Let’s take a look now at the Kennel Club’s role in the next important phase in the development of the Labrador as a breed.

Should I Be Concerned About My Labrador’s Health if It Has a Lump on Its Chest?

If you notice a labrador lump on chest, it’s important to have it checked by a veterinarian. While not all lumps are harmful, some could indicate a serious health issue. Your vet can determine if it’s something to be concerned about and recommend the right course of action.

The Rise Of The Labrador

Whatever their color, the amazing working ability of this happy and hardy dog, has been nurtured and protected down through the generations.

Not only are Labradors the most popular pet dog in the USA and the UK, but they are also now the most popular working retriever in the world.

No mean achievement for a small fishermens’ friend who found fame in the harsh environments of newly settled Newfoundland

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