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History of the Labrador Retriever

The Labrador Retriever belongs to a class of popular dog breeds called the sporting dogs. Dog breeds that belong to this group are those which have been initially bred to hunt game birds and waterfowl.

The Labrador retriever traces its roots to the late 1700’s in Newfoundland, a province in Canada. During that time, there were two dog breeds—the Greater Newfoundland and the Lesser Newfoundland, also known as the Greater and Lesser St. John’s dogs—which were primarily used as working animals. Aside from being used for draft work hauling carts loaded with fish, these two breeds were favorite companions of the fishermen. After being out in sea and working alongside the fishermen, these dogs find time to play with the children.

The Greater Newfoundland possessed a long thick coat while the Lesser Newfoundland had a smooth black coat and was known to be a devoted and loyal companion. These dog breeds soon became known for their excellent hunting retrieving abilities that Great Britain started importing and breeding them.

Private kennels dedicated themselves to develop and refine the breed. The second Earl of Malmesbury and his son, the third Earl kept importing these dogs and continued breeding them. It was the third Earl of Malmesbury who is credited for the name of the breed. In 1887, he wrote a friend and told him that he called his dogs “Labrador dogs” and that he had kept the breed as pure as their parents from Poole (Harbour). He further described his Labrador dogs as having a coat that can hardly get soaked with water and a tail like an otter.

Still in the 1800’s, the fifth Duke of Buccleuch, his brother Lord John Scott, and the tenth Earl of Home also engaged in an independent breeding program. Together, they developed the Buccleuch line. However the breed nearly became extinct upon the death of the eleventh Lord of Home.

By some twist of fate, the third Earl of Malmesbury, the sixth Duke of Buccleuch and the twelfth Earl of Home crossed paths. The Earl of Malmesbury gifted his two friends with some of the dogs from his lines. These dogs were instrumental in revitalizing the Buccleuch line until the 20th century. Many believe that theBuccleuch’s Ned and Buccleuch’s Avon are the ancestors of all modern day Labrador Retrievers.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when dogs which are used for hunting and retrieving game were simply called “retriever”, dog owners and breeders tried to come up with a dog that possessed specific outstanding qualities—a dog with strong retrieving instinct to help fishermen retriever fish and swim lines and possess a high level of endurance for fishing entails long hours of work. Thus, the Lab’s gene pool is a mixture of retriever dogs.

In 1885, the combined effects of Newfoundland’s Sheep Act and Britain’s Quarantine Act stopped the importation of the Lesser Newfoundland dog. Yet British kennels continue to import lesser St. John’s dogs and bred them to work as gun dogs for large estates.

In 1903, the Labrador Retriever was given official recognition by the English Kennel Club as a separate and true breeding strain. The breeds became very popular in British Kennel Club’s events.

In the early part of the 20th century, Britain saw the existence of the country’s most influential kennels including Lady Howe’s Banchory Labradors and Lord Knutsford’s Munden Labradors. At this time, the breed was distinguished as Dual Champions in both field trials and conformation shows.

During the First World War, Labrador Retrievers were imported to the United States. During this time, the breed was very popular in events sponsored by the English Kennel Club. They were also mainly used as gun dogs during the war.

In 1917, the American Kennel Club also officially recognized the Labrador Retriever as a distinct dog breed.

In an effort to preserve the original purpose of the breed, the Labrador Retriever Club requires that a dog should earn a Working Certificate that will prove that it has met minimum standards set for field work before it can be recognized a conformation championship.

Today, the Labrador Retriever continues to win the hearts of people, young and old. They are not only great family dogs but they are also top choices when tracking, retrieving, and hunting. Labrador Retrievers have also earned a niche as a guide dog for the visually impaired and as service dogs for the disabled.

Photo of Orson provided by Just Labradors Forum member The Texas Tank