"I've ever seen a grumpy looking Lab. Their people are usually quite nice too."
History of Labrador Retrievers
Labrador Retrievers originated in Newfoundland, Canada and are believed to have descended from the now extinct "St. John's Water Dog". At that time, Labrador Retrievers where trained to help retrieve fishing nets from the icy cold waters of the North Atlantic, and to retrieve escaping fish. Their dense, water-repellant coats, swimming skills and hard working nature made them the perfect dog for this task.
In the early 19th century, the Duke of Malmesbury was the first to coin the name "Labrador" and set up a breeding program in England. Labs where recognized by The British Kennel Club in 1903 and the American Kennel Club in 1917. Labradors are now considered the most popular dog breed in the world.
St. John's Dogs — Canada
The modern Labrador's ancestors originated during the 16th century on the island of Newfoundland, now part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The founding breed was often referred to as St. John's Water Dog, St. John's Dog or the Lesser Newfoundland (photo right).
When these dogs were brought to England, they were named after the geographic Labrador area of their origin to distinguish them from the larger Newfoundland breed. St. John's dogs are also the ancestor of the Flat Coated Retriever, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and Golden Retriever.
St. John's dogs were medium-sized, strong, and stocky – more closely resembling modern English Labradors than American Labs. They were typically black in color with characteristic white patches on the chest, chin, feet, and muzzle. This classic 'tuxedo' marking of the St. John's dog commonly manifests in modern day Lab mixes. In full-blooded Labs, there occasionally appears a small white chest patch – known as a "medallion" – or as a few stray white hairs on the feet (although not desireable, both are acceptable for AKC registration).
No records were kept of the development of the St. John's Dog, as they were likely a random-bred, working breed mix, developed by the English, Irish, and especially the Portuguese fishermen that settled in the area (in the Portuguese language, the word Labrador means 'laborer' ). The breed we know today as the Newfoundland was known then as the "Greater Newfoundland", and is likely a result of the St. John's Dog having been crossed with Portuguese mastiffs.
St. John's dogs were used by the local fishermen to assist in carrying ropes between boats, towing dories, pulling fishnets out of the water, and retrieving escaping fish. The Labrador's loyalty and hard working behavior were the most valuable assets for fishermen, so naturally those dogs most eager to please were retained for breeding.
St. John's Dogs — England
The first St. John's Dogs were brought to England around 1820 and the breed became somewhat popular. However, in 1895, the Rabies Quarantine Act put a halt to the import of all dogs, and the remaining pure St. Johns Dogs eventually died out.
During the late 19th century, the breed's reputation in Canada created a revived interest in England. Evidently, the Earl of Malmesbury saw a St. John's Dog working on a fishing boat in Canada and immediately made arrangements to have some exported to England. These ancestors of the first Labradors so impressed the Earl with their skill and ability for retrieving anything within the water and on shore that he devoted his life to developing and stabilizing the breed.
This English breeding program was undertaken by the first and second Earls of Malmesbury, the 5th and 6th Dukes of Buccleuch, and Lord George William Montagu-Douglas-Scott, all of whom bred primarily for duck shooting. Were is not for these dedicated sport hunters, we would not have the Labradors of today.
The dogs, Avon (photo right) and Ned — given by Malmesbury to assist the Duke of Buccleuch's breeding program — are considered the ancestors of true modern Labradors.
Disappearance in Newfoundland
Towards the end of the 18th century in Newfoundland, sheep protection laws were passed limiting each family to only one dog, with a severe licensing tax imposed on all dogs, significantly higher on females than on males. Because of this, the St John's Dog pretty much disappeared, perhaps only leaving a few today of mixed ancestry.
Interesting Early Descriptions
Several early descriptions of the St. John's Water Dog exist. In 1822, explorer W.E. Cormack crossed the island of Newfoundland by foot. In his journal he wrote, "The dogs are admirably trained as retrievers in fowling, and are otherwise useful. The smooth or short-haired dog is preferred because in frosty weather the long haired kind become encumbered with ice on coming out of the water."
Another early report by a Colonel Hawker described the dog as, "By far the best for any kind of shooting. He is generally black and no bigger than a Pointer, very fine in legs, with short, smooth hair and does not carry his tail so much curled as the other; is extremely quick, running, swimming and fighting... and their sense of smell is hardly to be credited.
In his book, Excursions In and About Newfoundland During the Years 1839 and 1840, the geologist Joseph Beete Jukes describes the St. John's Water Dog: "A thin, short-haired, black dog came off-shore to us today. The animal was of a breed very different from what we understand by the term Newfoundland dog in England. He had a thin, tapering snout, a long thin tail, and rather thin, but powerful legs, with a lank body - the hair short and smooth... These are the most abundant dogs in the country... but are generally more intelligent and useful than the others... I observed he once or twice put his foot in the water and paddled it about. This foot was white, and Harvey said he did it to "toil" or entice the fish. The whole proceeding struck me as remarkable, more especially as they said he had never been taught anything of the kind."