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The Origins of the Labrador Retriever

The Labrador Retriever is one of the world’s most popular breeds. They have topped the American Kennel Club (AKC) breed list for more than two decades. Their popularity can be attributed to a number of factors including their excellent reputation as a family pet and their love of retrieving and skills in the field. Where did the breed come from though?

The St. Johns Water Dog

The story of the Labrador begins on the shores of Newfoundland, Canada, in the 1500s. There a breed of dog known as the St. Johns Water Dog or lesser Newfoundland developed through the dogs that arrived with European fishermen, mainly from England and Ireland, and the local Native American dogs. These dogs served a variety of functions including fetching nets from the water, towing small rowboats, and bringing ropes between boats. They were excellent swimmers and worked hand in paw with the fishermen. They also helped fill the cooking pot by retrieving shot game. The St. Johns Water Dog was usually black with white on the feet and chest and sometimes the muzzle. They were sturdy dogs with straight tails that they used as rudder when swimming. They were described as having a close coat that “turned water off like oil” and a tail like an otter. These two characteristics are key aspects of the modern Labrador Retriever as well.

The Duke of Buccleuch & Earl of Malmesbury

The first two people to heavily import the St. Johns Water Dog to England for their own use were the 5th Duke of Buccleuch and the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury. They kept populations on their estates for use in duck shooting and game retrieval. They bred them with an eye on continuing to improve their field abilities. Over time, each developed their own line of St. Johns Water Dogs.

Their sons, the 6th Duke of Buccleuch and the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury, met while shooting in the 1880s. They began to work together and exchange breeding stock. These dogs became the founding stock of the Labrador Retriever. At the time, they were almost always black although black and yellow dogs did occasionally show up in litters. The black was preferred though and yellow and chocolate pups were often placed as pets. The white markings were bred out over time too. So that the preferred Labrador was a solid color.

The name Labrador was first used in 1839. It referenced the area of their origin in Canada. Although they actually came from Newfoundland, the British tended to lump Newfoundland and Labrador together and the greater Newfoundland dog ended up becoming the modern Newfoundland, so that name was already taken.

Recognition & A Return to North America

The breed was well enough known to be recognized by the Kennel Club in England in 1903. The AKC first recognized the breed in 1917. At the time, Labradors were not as common in North America with Springer Spaniels and the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, another offshoot of the St. Johns Water Dog, being more popular with sportsmen there. In 1927, there were only 23 Labs registered with the AKC. Over time, the Labradors abilities in the field combined with how easy they were to live with meant that their popularity began to grow. As more and more families began to keep dogs for pets as well as sport and hunting, the qualities of the Labrador Retriever with children and as a family pet began to be noticed by the general public. They didn’t reach the pinnacle of popularity until the early 1990s though. Today, the Lab remains extremely popular with both hunters and families.