What Is The Labrador History? Find Out Here

May 24, 2021

The Labrador origin story dates back to the very beginning of time. The first dogs were a breed of wolf that was the descendent of Irish Wolfhounds which were imported to Europe by the Romans.

The Romans called the breed Lupa, which was Latin for “Wolf”. The wolves were brought to England by the Vikings, and eventually, the word Labrador was created by Dutch-speaking people to describe the area where the Vikings had settled.

Labrador History Overview

The Labrador Retriever is the traditional waterdog of Newfoundland, long employed as a duck retriever and fisherman’s mate. The breed began its steady climb to supreme popularity in the early 1800s, when Labs were spotted by English nobles visiting Canada.

These sporting earls and lords returned to England with fine specimens of “Labrador dogs.” (Exactly how these dogs of Newfoundland became associated with Labrador is unclear, but the name stuck.) During the latter half of the 19th century, British breeders refined and standardized the breed.

The physical and temperamental breed traits, so familiar today to millions of devotees around the world, recall the Lab’s original purpose.

A short, dense, weather-resistant coat was preferred because during a Canadian winter longhaired retrievers would be encrusted with ice when coming out of the water. In its ancestral homeland, a Lab would be assigned to a fishing boat to retrieve the fish that came off the trawl.

Accordingly, in addition to having natural instincts as a retriever, the dog required a coat suited to the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

The Lab’s thick, tapering tail—an “otter tail,” it’s called— serves as a powerful rudder, constantly moving back and forth as the dog swims and aids the dog in turning.

As for the breed’s characteristic temperament, it is as much a hallmark of the breed as the otter tail. “The ideal disposition is one of a kindly, outgoing, tractable nature; eager to please and non-aggressive towards man or animal,” the breed standard says.

“The Labrador has much that appeals to people; his gentle ways, intelligence, and adaptability make him an ideal dog.” When defining a Lab’s primary attributes, the most important might be temperament since his utility depends on his disposition.

“If a dog does not possess true breed temperament,” wrote a noted dog judge, “he is not a Labrador.”

The Kennel Club (England) recognized the Lab in 1903, and the AKC registered its first dog of the breed in 1917. Labs topped AKC registrations for the first time in 1991 and have reigned as America’s favorite breed ever since.

Are Labrador and Labrador Retriever The Same?

All Labs should meet the same standard, Labrador and Labrador Retriever are the same dogs. There is no difference, there’s just only one Labrador Retriever (Canis familiaris).

In the Labrador breed standard, there is only one Labrador Retriever.

Where Did Labrador Retrievers Come From?

Although the name might suggest Labrador Retrievers came from Labrador, Canada, the breed actually originated in Newfoundland in the 1500s.

At the time, small water dogs were bred with Newfoundlands to create a breed called the St. John’s Water Dog or Lesser Newfoundland. These dogs were owned by fishermen and jumped into icy water to bring back fish that had fallen off the fishing hooks. They would also pull in fish-filled nets.

The breed was perfect for these jobs because their coat repelled water and their webbed paws made them excellent swimmers.

The dogs continued to live exclusively in Newfoundland until the early 1800s when they were imported to Poole, England.

The Earl of Malmesbury had seen the breed in action and immediately brought them home. In 1830, a British Sportsman named Colonel Hawker described the dogs as “the best for any kind of shooting… generally black and no bigger than a Pointer, very fine in legs, with short smooth hair… is extremely quick running, swimming and fighting.”

Both the Earl and Duke of Malmesbury used them in shooting sports and began to call them their “Labrador Dogs.” The name stuck and the Earl’s son began breeding the dogs. By 1903, Labradors were recognized by the English Kennel Club.

The breed began to grow in popularity. In the early 1900s, hunters and farmers from the United States learned of the breed’s work ethic and began incorporating “Labs” into their daily lives. The American Kennel Club recognized Labrador Retrievers in 1917 and the breed became a loving pet to many families.

Today, Labrador Retrievers are still ready to work and please their pet parents. They are also affectionate, outgoing, intelligent, and friendly to humans, especially children, and other animals. They don’t need much grooming but need a considerable amount of daily exercise.

They enjoy regular and vigorous walks, a game of fetch, or even a swim in a safe area. They regularly top the AKC list of most popular breeds.

From St. John’s Dog to Labrador Retriever

The Labrador Retriever’s earliest origins are found across our northern border, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. If that sounds a bit confusing to geography buffs, that’s because it is:

Yes, the Labrador Territory after which the breed is named is actually northwest of the island of Newfoundland. And, yes, there already is another breed from Newfoundland, called, logically enough, the Newfoundland.

To sort through these seeming contradictions, we have to rewind about 500 years, when enterprising Europeans were finding their way to the Canadian coastline.

Long before any European nation planted its flag on Canadian territory, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English fishermen were venturing to its Atlantic coast, presumably bringing their dogs with them.

These various breeds commingled on the huge but isolated island, creating a landrace that became known as the St. John’s Dog, after the capital of Newfoundland.

The St. John’s Dog can no longer be found today, save for the bronze statues that stand in Harbourside Park in the city from which their name derived. These dogs of Newfoundland came in various sizes, the larger of which became the eponymous Newfoundland, and the smaller one the dog we are discussing here.

In short order, these prototypical Labrador Retrievers became well known for their infatuation with water, and their skill operating in it. Working in Newfoundland’s burgeoning fisheries, they hauled nets and long lines, dived for cod that had slipped off the hook, even retrieved the hats of fishermen.

The short-haired dogs were reportedly preferred over their longer-coated brethren, as the ice did not accumulate on their water-resistant coats. As a whole, these dogs were black, with dramatic “tuxedo” markings on their faces, chests, and legs.

Newfoundland’s fishermen were justifiably proud of their dogs. So after their ships packed with salted cod crossed the ocean and docked in Poole on the southern English coast, they had their clever dogs perform for the gathered crowds, having them retrieve objects tossed into the water.

“These dogs are remarkable for their diving powers,” wrote Irish dog authority H.D. Richardson in 1847. “I saw one some years ago with an officer, who was quartered at Portobello Barracks, Dublin, which dived repeatedly to the bottom of the canal, between the lochs, when full of water, and fetched up such stones, etc., as were thrown in.”

Eventually, the sale of these dogs became a lucrative sideline for enterprising Canadian sailors, and the St. John’s Dog became a popular export to England. There, it was incorporated into various dog lines, becoming the progenitor for all the modern British retrievers, from Flat Coats to Curly Coats.

One of the appreciative onlookers at those harborside displays in Poole was the Earl of Malmesbury, who concluded that the dogs would excel at duck hunting at his Heron Court estate.

In short order, a breeding program was established, and it is due to this titled family that the early name “Labrador Dog” became associated with the breed.

Does The Labrador Breed Come From Labrador?

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 from 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.

Origins and Timeline

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 its AKC classification, Labradors have come to be one of the favorite family house pets in America today due to their 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 1700s 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 dog.

In 1887 the Earl of Malmesbury first coined the name Labrador in a letter he wrote referring to 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 landmass, so it could have referred to dogs from that area. 

Newfoundland was settled by English fishermen as early as the 1500s 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 the 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 dogs. 

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 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 a 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.

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