23 February 2016

History of the labrador dog

I have always had a dog, as a child in my parents’ home and then in my own home as the parent of the next generation of children. It was always a big, intelligent, loyal dog that loved the beach – a red setter, a collie or a labrador.

The labrador dog has been recognised as a great retriever and gun dog for hundreds of years. And intelligent and trustworthy enough for seeing-eye work since World War One. Now is the time for me to buy a new Labrador puppy, young enough to train and smart enough to manage my grandchildren with care. As always, it will have to be a dog that can handle the hot Australian summers and will love running on the beach after work.

I needed to find where this breed of dog came from and how adapted to our life style it could be. My initial information came from the thelabradorsite, topped up later by the excellent work of Ben Fogle.

There was no history of native dogs existing on Newfoundland in Can­ada. Since most of the 18th century settlers on that island were Bri­t­ish fishermen and hunters from Devon, they would have brought their dogs with them. Thus the first recorded sightings of the so-called “St John’s Dogs” or “Little Newfoundler Dogs” in Britain had come BACK across the Atlantic to their original home, aboard the vast fleet of cod ships. This St John’s dog had a dense, oily waterproof coat (short or long) and thick tail, oblivious to cold and happy to swim in exceptionally icy conditions.

Black and golden labrador puppies
with intelligent and soulful eyes.

Adult labrador on the beach
awaiting further instructions.

Did those 18th century settlers not know the difference between New­foundland and Labrador? These large provinces in the east of Canada were quite separate, divided by the Strait of Belle Isle, a huge tidal channel. So we have to assume that back in Britain, few people cared about unimportant geographical details in a very distant colony.

Fogle added another genetic pool from which the modern Labrador dog might have descended. He noted that Portuguese fishermen were also attracted to Newfoundland, that remote Canadian island, for its rich harvest of cod. The Spanish black pointer, obedient and skilled at hunting, might have mated with the Portuguese shepherd dog. This genetic mingling would have gone a long way to meet the specific needs of the fisher­men. Then the new Iberian dog may have been bred with the St John’s dog whilst in Canada and brought back to Britain on the Portuguese cod ships. Not to Devon this time, but to the fishing port of Poole in neighbouring Dorset.

After the cod fleets landed in Devon or Dorset, the fishermen apparently did some brisk business on the side. Shrewd sailors sold the ice used to pres­erve their catch and, even more profitably, established a dog-import trade. But potential dog buyers were not going to make their decisions just on the word of a stranger. For the benefit of the locals who had assembled at the port, the fishermen had to put on a show of human-canine teamwork in which the dogs retrieved items thrown over the side of the boat.

Labrador, Newfoundland, Strait of Belle Isle and NS (Nova Scotia)
Eastern provinces of Canada

One contemporary (18th century) Labrador lover was the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury, a parliamentarian and keen field sportsman. A large part of his Dorset estate included the floodplain between the River Stour and River Avon. The clever Earl of Malmesbury quickly began a breeding programme in his kennel on the south coast. Thus, said Fogel, some labradors thus went from being a fisherman’s companion to a specialist wildfowl retriever for the sporting hunting fraternity.

Perhaps it was the development of the breech-loading gun in the late 19th century that made Labradors stars; they were the only dogs could that could keep up with the guns. The records of the 5th Duke of Buccleuch are clear. He imported dogs from a Newfoundland fishing fleet that sailed into the river Clyde, establishing a kennel in 1835. They too became gun dogs.

Even by the early 1830s, when Colonel Peter Hawker’s Advice to Young Sportsmen was being published, the reputation of the St John’s dog was spreading. But Colonel Hawker called this dog a Labrador, perhaps to differentiate it from the larger Newfoundlands that were already becoming popular as house dogs.

I am still committed to my beloved Labrador. However I note the experts’ conclusions. The short coated labrador is actually from Newfoundland. The shaggy coated Newfoundland emerged at about the same time in Labrador. And the Nova Scotia retriever came from the island of Nova Scotia, just south of Labrador and Newfoundland. All three breeds have distinctive webbed feet, water-resistant undercoat and are great swimmers. What more could an Australian family want?

Devon and Dorset
South West counties of Great Britain


the foto fanatic said...

Yes, Labradors are wonderful company - so loyal, so happy. But they can be rogues with food.

I remember my lab coming home with a silly smile on his face and the lid to our neighbour's swing top rubbish bin around his neck. Of course he had been rifling through the food scraps. RIP Orfy (shortened from Orpheus, so named because he was jet black).

We don't have pets at the moment because we live in an apartment.


Joseph said...

I too love labradors, but there are some warnings would be owners need to heed. Labradors need a lot of tasty food, a lot of daily exercise and a lot of outside space behind the house.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Labrador is also famous for the iridescent gemstone labradorite. I finally checked on the history of Labrador and the origin of the name. The area was visited c.1499-1500 A.D. by the Portuguese explorer João Fernandes Lavrador.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

the passion for eating, and the resultant tendency to gain too much weight, are problems for labradors everywhere.

My beloved Rudy (short for Emperor Rudolf II of Prague) weighted 45 ks and the vet instructed me to get him down to 36 ks. It was such a misery that, had there been a Dog Protection Society, Rudy would have rung it :(

Hels said...


I am guessing that the need for endless physical exercise, and lots of open space to run around in, are direct results of their genetic history in Canada. All that fishing, hunting and swimming in cold weather made them very fit and athletic dogs.

Hels said...


as often as I have been to Canada, it has never been to Labrador. When my family left Russia, a third came to Australia, a third to Israel and a third to Canada. Thus my late mother had lots of first cousins in Winnipeg, and some of _their_ children moved to Vancouver and Toronto. But our family reunions have never been in the Maritimes.

How perfect that João Fernandes Lavrador was a Portuguese explorer. Whatever their reason for travelling to far flung corners of the globe (sic), trade or wealth or glory at home, or even to convert the locals to Christianity, going to unknown ice-bound islands must have been hugely risky.

Mandy Southgate said...

I love this post! I have a golden Labrador who was given to me by an employee in South Africa. We moved both her and my other dog, a Boerboel-Boxer cross, over with me. She is adorable but at 12 is getting old. If I had to describe her in one word? Wilful! Her gentle giant sister is far more obedient but both are very much loved.

Dog Lover said...

I am watching a British tv series on the breeding, raising and training of labrador puppies who will one day become Seeing Eye Dogs for their new owners and best friends. If they do not pass selection at 12 months of age, the puppies stay with the family they were raised by. Amazing.

Hels said...


giant dogs live for fewer years than tiny dogs, so we have to prepare ourselves for losing our beloved "family members". And pure-bred, pedigreed labradors live for a shorter time than mixed breed dogs (because of cancer, normally). So my heart goes out to you.... in advance.

Hels said...

Dog Lover

I saw a couple of the episodes and was soooooo moved by those dogs' intelligence, loyalty and endless work on behalf of their owners with poor/no eyesight.

But the families who had to give up their one year old Labradors were heartbroken. So was I :(

Leon Sims said...

We did have a shepherd/lab cross who just loved given a job, then there was our escape artist Beagle but our true love was Murphy, our Irish Wolfhound. He was a very member of the family but a true couch potato.

marc aurel said...

Are they related to the Portuguese water dog ?

Hels said...


there is something very special about a large dog who will work with the family, protecting the children or keeping strangers off the property. Even more so in rural areas/regional towns than in the big cities I think.

Couch potato dogs are like coach potato humans. Some people love to play footy and go camping; others of us prefer listening to music and watching tv :)

Hels said...


Fogle says the Portuguese Water Dog used to be all along Portugal’s coast where it worked very hard with fishermen, in and especially out of their boats. Being a strong swimmer, it seems inevitable that generations of the Portuguese Water Dog would have been bred with the St John’s Water Dog in Canada, and brought back to Europe on the Portuguese cod ships.

Anonymous said...

Years ago we had a black lab named Alice. She actually taught our little dog at the time to bark! Incessantly! Sadly she died of lymphatic cancer, and was buried at home. I think she was about 9 or 10 years at the time of her passing.
Jim of olym (Olympia WA)

Hels said...


I know about the cancer from first hand experience. I had to hold our beloved labrador's head while the doctor put him down .. the cancer was so far advanced that even surgical intervention had failed. However the pleasure you and the family had in those 9 or 10 years will remain with you forever. So will the photos.

the foto fanatic said...


Andrew said...

Apart from a rather prolonged puppy stage, it is a terrific breed of dog. I have known so many labs over many years and never come across a bad one, and only once have I heard of one with a poor temperament. So, if you have the space and the energy, a Labrador is a great choice.

Hels said...


agreed totally. Even the prolonged puppy stage is because they want to be adorable for years. So a puppy jumping onto the couch to watch tv in your lap is very cute! A 45 kilo adult lab wanting to leap into your lap is less cute :)

In 2015 Australia's most popular breeds were, in order : Staffordshire bull terrier, Labrador retriever, German shepherd, Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Golden retriever and Border collie.

In the UK, in order: Labrador retriever, Cocker spaniel, Springer spaniel, German shepherd, Staffordshire Bull terrier and Border terrier.

Geri Walton said...

Had a Labrador years ago. He was a great dog. Got to Pomeranians now (I guess you could say I downsized.) Nice post.

Hels said...


Thank you. Every dog owner loves his/her dog but there is something so special about a lab *sigh*. When my sons used to wait for the school bus in the morning, the labrador would wait inside the front gate and not leave his "post" until the bus got them safely on board.

Rahul Roy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hels said...

Rahul Roy

many thanks for your interest in dogs. I do not accept advertising, even for dog-related products.