The origin of the Labrador is still not fully understood. It is known that the first representatives of this breed came to England from the east coast of Canada – from the island of Newfoundland, and therefore were first called Newfoundlands of St. John (after the name of the island and its main city). In order to trace the origin of the breed, it is necessary to study the history of Newfoundland. According to research, the first settlers in Newfoundland were the Eskimos, who did not have dogs. In addition, there is no evidence that the island was inhabited by dogs before them.
The so-called “new world” was discovered for Europe by whalers and fishermen around the 15th century. English fishing companies discovered the island in 1494, and the Bristol Company established the first settlement there in 1504. However, more than 100 years passed before the island was finally settled by fishermen who abandoned their ships and fled to the island. They say that two centuries later, there were no laws on the island – no courts, no police, no schools, and churches – they were simply not needed. The fishing industry in Newfoundland grew and flourished. Every year, fleets of fishing vessels from England and other European countries were sent to its waters to catch fish. The dried salted fish was sent back to Europe.
We delved into the history of this island in order to give some idea of the environment in which the first Labrador Retrievers emerged. The question of where these dogs originally came from remains open to this day, despite many different theories. Some argue that Labradors are descendants of the Newfoundland dog, although, as we said above, there is no evidence that dogs existed on the island before the fishing settlements. Therefore, many researchers agree with the theory that the Newfoundland dog was also brought to the island by fishermen from European countries.
Interesting research on the history of this breed by Dr. Michael Woods, owner, and breeder of Labradors from Canada. He strongly disagrees with the version of the “English” origin of the breed, suggesting that the formation of the breed in Newfoundland was attended by the dogs of the Vikings, who arrived there in 1000 BC, and the Basque dogs, which were on the island from 1500 to 1700 biennium.
Be that as it may, the dogs that lived on the island amazed Europeans with their love for water and a great desire to work in water and on land in any weather. Fishermen who lived in Newfoundland were engaged in coastal fishing. For these purposes, small flat-bottomed fishing boats were used as follows: two people in the boat and two on the shore caught and prepared fish. They needed a small dog that could hop in and out of the boat. Its main features are: a coat that repels water, a strong search instinct to help find fish and lost gear, and high endurance to work for a long time.
The researchers note that two strains of dogs began to develop on the island – the large and small Newfoundland dogs. ” Large Newfoundland” – a dog with long shaggy hair, large build, more often used by local residents to bring firewood to their homes. At the beginning of the 19th century in the circles of the English aristocracy, long-haired dogs were a symbol of prosperity and a tribute to fashion, thanks to which mainly larger long-haired individuals were exported from the peninsula, which later retained the name “Newfoundland”. The “Little Newfoundland” was a type of dog that was lighter, with short, coarse hair, of medium size, unusually agile and active, with excellent flair and a love for the water. He was known by different names: Lesser St. John’s, Lesser Newfoundland, or even Labrador, although it is not entirely clear why the dog was called a Labrador if it came to Europe from the island of Newfoundland.
Some confusion with the names was caused by the fact that the dogs of St. John’s and Newfoundland were called alternately both the large and the smaller breed. And the term “Labrador” was also applied to the smaller St. John’s dog, especially in the latter half of the 19th century. So, the large breed is now known as the modern Newfoundland, and the smaller breed has served to breed many modern Retrievers, in particular the Labrador.
The exact relationship between the two varieties of the St. John’s dog (and in the 19th century some experts counted not two, but four such varieties) is also not entirely clear; we do not know which happened earlier and which later, as well as the degree of relationship with which they were related. It is quite obvious that the large St. John’s dog was first imported to England a hundred years earlier, and many modern experts believe that the smaller breed was derived from the larger one, for which, however, there is no evidence. Newfoundlands have been used for fishing and other types of work since about 1450, so they have had ample time since then to develop into the St. John’s dog and its species.
In 1662 W. Cormack from St. John’s town hiked around the island. On his travels, he saw small “aquatic” dogs, which he describes as “highly trained bird hunters and useful in all other respects; predominantly smooth-haired dogs, since in the cold long-haired individuals were hard to comb out of the ice after emerging from the water.”
The versatility of the dogs was very important, they had to be excellent swimmers and be compact enough for fishermen to take them in their punt boats. A resident of the island noted in the 1920s that Newfoundland fishermen used to take Labrador retrievers into their boats to bring back fish that fell out of their nets.
On every long voyage, Newfoundland fishermen took rescue dogs with them on the schooner. They were traditionally called Surf and Volna. Superstitious sailors were convinced that these dogs were a guarantee against wrecks. But if the ship suffered such a disaster – near the coastal rocks, the dogs brought a rescue rope to the shore, and the whole team moved along it.
The good hunting and swimming abilities of the Labradors, as well as their pleasant character, did not go unnoticed by the English athletes. When organized hunts for pheasants and partridges became popular among the landed nobility in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it became the custom to replace Pointers and Setters with Retrievers. Retrievers were then known simply as “retrievers” and their owners freely bred short-haired and long-haired dogs. Many dogs were imported from Newfoundland and their owners noted that they were much better hunters than any other breed.
Colonel Hawker in 1830 wrote of Newfoundland’s “aquatic” dogs as “by far the best gun dogs, mostly black, no larger than a Pointer, with strong legs, short smooth hair and a tail that does not curl over its back. “
Since 1830, St. John’s dogs, or Labradors, began to be imported into England and bred there as an independent breed. One of these breeders wrote: “We always call our dogs Labradors and try to keep the breed from the first dog we got – this breed is characterized by smooth water-repellent coat and otter tail.” However, not all breeders adhered to this rule. Many of them, recognizing the special qualities of Labradors, crossed them with other Retrievers. Until now, if a Labrador is crossed with any other breed, the traits of the Labrador are almost always predominant, and their descendants are mostly called Labradors. The ancestors of all Labradors are two dogs: Buccleuch’s Ned and Buccleuch’s Avon.
Since the beginning of the century, Retrievers have appeared at exhibitions in British kennels. The original definition of “retriever” included the long-haired, short-haired, dark brown Retrievers and the Norfolk breed, which is now extinct. With the definition of the type of Retrievers, separate breeds for each type began to be formed and, finally, the Labrador Retriever breed received its separate registration at the Kennel Club in 1903, and in 1905 they were singled out as one of the varieties of Retrievers.
The first two decades of the 20th century saw the development of several influential kennels in England, which formed the basis of the breed as we see it today. At the same time, many dogs showed themselves both in field trials and at exhibitions. A great number of double championships of that time have fixed the versatility of this breed.
Labradors come in 3 colors: black, fawn, and chocolate. Black is the most famous color and is the dominant color in Labradors. Black was also the preferred color for breeding until recent years. It should also be noted that the chocolate-colored and fawn dogs were featured in the original St. John’s Dogs in Newfoundland. Their color is formed by recessive genes and has been referred to as ‘liver’ and ‘golden’ colors. Yellow and chocolate puppies occasionally appeared in litters all the time. In the past, when breeding Labradors, they were discarded and often destroyed until they were finally recognized and officially registered. Some people still prefer black Labradors, considering them to be the best, classic Labradors. But now, it’s personal preference, it’s more important to have a well-balanced pedigree and breeding program behind your dog’s back.
Labradors have almost completely died out on several occasions, and the St. John’s Dogs, from which Labradors descended, have now unfortunately completely disappeared in Newfoundland. It is only through a few events and the significant efforts of some people that we have a wonderful companion that we call a Labrador today.
Many studies and articles on hunting dog breeding state that fawn and dark brown dogs were the most common colors before targeted breeding began. In the early breeding period of Labradors, fawn puppies were discarded. The first officially registered fawn puppy was Ben of Hyde from two black dogs, who later produced fawn puppies from black females.
The “anti-fawn” sentiment was so strong that in 1920 breeders with fawn Labradors were sent to the same rank as the Goldens. A separate standard addressed this problem, although it was ultimately argued that fawn dogs should adhere to the same standard as black dogs. Today, dogs of both colors are approximately the same number. And only in certain hunting circles can one still hear that black Labradors are better hunters.
Chocolate, like fawn Labradors, has been present in the breed from the very beginning. Chocolate Labradors gained popularity much more slowly, and the color was officially recognized 30 years later than fawn.