The history of labrador retrievers is hard to pinpoint. Stories of coarse, thickly coated, black water dogs trained to work with fishermen date back to the sixteenth century, cited by sailors from Devon, England, who routinely saw them when trading with the fishermen of Newfoundland (then a British colony).
Through the centuries more refined specimens emerged. These water dogs were known as Newfoundlands or Labrador Newfoundlands – titles that applied to several breeds of dogs found there.
The dogs ranged from a large, heavy-coated variety known as the Large Newfoundland (progenitor of today’s Newfoundland) to a smaller, rough-coated variety called the Lesser Newfoundland or St. John’s Dogs.
It is theorized that the modern-day Labrador retriever descends from the St. John’s Dog, which was medium-sized, docile, easily managed, and possessed a very sensitive nose.
A number of breeds have been mentioned as early crosses that helped to set the type for the Labrador retriever.
A likely pairing would be the St. John’s with local black retrieving setters (then called water dogges). The resulting dogs likely featured a heavy, wavy coat. To evolve the hard, short coat that repelled the icy waters, crossings with black pointers or flat-coated retrievers may have taken place.
The Labrador retriever may have called Newfoundland its homeland, but the breed was developed and refined in England.
The name Labrador was finally settled on for the breed after its integration into the English sporting kennels in the 1800s. At this point basic breed structure and character were set and the breeding was kept pure.
The continuous trade between England and Newfoundland meant an ample supply of Labradors could be imported for the earliest fanciers, who quickly recognized these dogs’ superior talents for hunting and began breeding them in earnest for strictly private use.
The breed was unknown as a companion dog for many generations, as Labradors were bred exclusively for work.
The earliest known breeders of Labradors were wealthy sportsmen who maintained large kennels of shooting dogs. The Fifth Duke of Buccleugh, the Tenth Earl of Home, and Lord John Scott were all very active in the 1840s.
The most influential of the early breeders was the Third Earl of Malmesbury, who judiciously imported good specimens from the Newfoundland fishermen and are credited with having set the standard for quality Labrador retrievers. Many contemporary dogs can trace their pedigree to Malmesbury dogs, especially his renowned Tramp.
By the 1880s, word of this excellent worker had spread beyond the confines of the aristocracy’s private kennels to sportsmen throughout England.
However, two setbacks occurred that threatened the breed’s survival. In England, the Quarantine Act initiated a six-month quarantine for all imported livestock. In Newfoundland, the Sheep Protection Act of 1885 gave districts the right to prohibit dogs and to charge hefty fees for dog licensing, which resulted in many owners destroying all but those dogs needed to carry out their livelihood.
Both actions severely limited the flow of new Labrador retrievers to England. Breeders were forced to work with the available stock and perfect the breed through careful selection.
The conscientious efforts of these early breeders turned a potentially disastrous situation into a strengthening of the overall quality of the average Labrador retriever.