Posts Tagged ‘Labrador Retriever History’


One the latest fads in the mass production of pet retrievers is the so-called silver Labrador.

There are two theories about what it is.

1. The dogs are the result of adding a little Weimaraner blood to a Labrador line. (This is the most popular theory).

2. When outcrossing was allowed in the Labrador retriever, some Norwegian elkhounds were crossed in to make the coat denser and to ensure good bone.

3. The coloration has always been in chocolate Labradors. It is like the ash coloration in the Chesapeake Bay retriever.

The dogs are all livers (bb), but they are diluted (dd). A dog that is bbdd will look silver.

If a Bb or BB dog is also dd, then the dog looks blue.

In Weimaraners, the standard coloration is bbdd, but a dog with rare (and faulty) blue coloration is a dog that has the Bbdd or BBdd genotype. (Check out this website on blue Weimaraners.)

The first and third theories are the most plausible. If there were no ash Chessies, I’d totally accept the Weimaraner theory.

The second theory makes very little sense. Norwegian elkhounds are gray, but their coloration comes from the so-called agouti series. You will never find a Norwegian elkhound with the silvery gray coloration on its nose, lips, nails, and the skin around its eyes.

It is interesting that the AKC has decided to register silvers as chocolates. However, the fact that the dilution gene even exists in this breed means that the “charcoal” coloration will pop up.


One of the common things I hear is that many silver Labs look houndy, and that alone is evidence of their miscegenation with the dogs of Weimar.

However, many Labs look houndy.

Yellow Labradors may have received some augmentation from in the influx of lemon foxhound blood. When I look at many yellow Labs, I see the foxhound influence coming through.


I should note here that most silver Labs don’t come from the English show, American show, or field lines. They seem to be very heavily concentrated in what I call the “American giant Lab.” Most Labs in America are of this type, and some of which are significantly larger than the standard requires. In fact, I’ve read of dogs that were almost double the size they should be. These dogs are approaching something like a smooth-haired Newfoundland.

I’ve never understood why it is so fashionable to breed huge Labs.  A big dog can withstand cold water longer than a smaller one, and a big one can break ice better.

One must remember that the big Newfoundlands were once used as retievers, but they just got so big and cumbersome that they are now relegated to their own water rescue tests.

The Newfoundland was the Labrador retriever of the late eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century. Everybody wanted one. They were great with kids. They had a remarkable history as working water dogs in Newfoundland, and more than a few worked on Western and Arctic explorations. They were useful. They were smart. They were the dog everyone had to have.

By the end of the Second World War, the Newfoundland dog was almost extinct. The dog that exists now is a survivor from that dwindled population.

Could the same thing happen to the Labrador?

Well, history suggests that it is indeed possible.

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The St. John's water dog in this photo looks an awful lot like a Labrador/collie-type cross. Any dogs that look like St. John's water dogs are Labrador crosses or Labs that are throwbacks to that breed.

The St. John's water dog in this photo looks an awful lot like a Labrador/collie-type cross. Any dogs that look like St. John's water dogs are Labrador crosses or Labs that are throwbacks to that breed.

Now, I haven’t received any comments or messages yet from people claiming to have a St. John’s water dog, but before I do, I’ll just say it again. The St. John’s water dog died out in the 1980’s. The last two dogs were found. They were both dogs, and they were both ancient. When they died, the strain was no more.

Now, does that mean we won’t see Labs with St. John’s water dog features? Of course not, and that is precisely the problem. Within the Labrador, the blood of this breed runs strongest. The Lab is the last retriever breed to receive an infusion of this native Newfoundland blood. St. John’s water dogs were imported as late as the 1940’s to add genetic diversity to the Buccleuch strain, which is the strain from whence the Labrador retriever came.

Now, some Labrador crosses really do look like the old breed:

Labrador cross

And it’s not just Labrador crosses that could be mistaken for the St. John’s water dog.  Because the genes this breed also run strongly in the other retriever breeds, it is possible to get mixed breeds from other retrievers that bear a strong resemblance to the St. John’s water dog.

I know these dogs exist because I had one. Remember my “golden boxer”?

golden boxer standing

I also need to mention that it is pretty clear that the original imports of the St. John’s water dog to Britain often included long-haired dogs. That’s because the  long-haired dogs were deemed too cumbersome in the water. Ice tended to form in their feathering, and the dogs just couldn’t swim that fast. However, they were often good retrievers and quite biddable, so they were exported to Britain, where they played a role in developing the wavy-coated landrace and the curly-coats. The short-haired dogs were too important to the fishermen of Newfoundland.

I have found two specimens of the St. John’s water dog that had long hair.

One of them is this dog, listed as a”St. John’s Labrador”:

st. john's water dog with long-hair

Another is t “Zelstone,” who appears in the extended pedigree of the golden retriever and was an important sire in the old wavy-coated breed. That means he’s an ancestor of the golden retriever and many flat-coat. He is said to be a “Labrador,” a “half-bred Newfoundland,” a “Newfoundland,” and a “wavy-coated retriever.” His original owners were known to import dogs from Newfoundland, so it is very possible that he was derived from the St. John’s water dog or was partially of that breeding.



Now, all of these dogs look like modern dogs. The modern dogs are almost invariably crosses with the descendants of the St. John’s water dog or throwbacks to that old strain.

The St. John’s water dog as it once existed is gone forever. Within the bloodlines of the retrievers and the modern Newfoundland, the blood still flows. Those breeds are our only connection to that extinct breed.

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These field bred labs are built like flat-coats.

These field bred labs are built like flat-coats.

The Labrador retriever is the top retriever today, both in terms of registrations and in working tests and trials. However, this breed did not become even remotely common until just before the Second World War, even in field trials.

The most common trial retriever before the Lab’s ascendancy was the old wavy-coat landrace and then the old flat-coat breed (both of which included the golden). In Britain, these trials were almost exclusively land trials, that made use of pheasants or hares.  These land trials were perfect for dogs that have a high degree of setter in their background.

Labradors, as we know them today, were actually quite rare dogs in the UK. They were first bred by the Earl of Malmesbury out of the short-haired St. John’s water dog. These Malmesbury dogs and newly imported short-haired dogs from Newfoundland provided the basis for the Labrador breed that was finally established from the St. John’s water dog at the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate. Today, you can still find the Buccleuch strain of Labradors.

The Labrador was unknown to the fancy. One cannot find them in the works Hugh Dalziel or Idstone, although one must assume that the St. John’s water dog is the breed Idstone mentions as the “Newfoundland” that was used as a retriever outcross. However, we do know that the dogs that eventually evolved into the heavy Newfoundland were also used for retrieving shot birds.

The short-haired dogs were closely held by the Earls of Malmesbury through the nineteenth century. The same conditions applied with the Dukes of Buccleuch’s strain.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Buccleuch strain occasionally wound up into the hands of a few other sporstmen. However, they really weren’t that common.  These were not superior trial dogs, either, and they generally didn’t do as well at land trials as flat-coats did.

But then something happened. The Labradors fanciers began to outcross with lots of dogs to increase speed and soften the mouth. They crossed with foxhounds and pointers to add speed and endurance, and whippets and greyhounds to make them lighter on the ground. They also used lots of good flat-coat trial dogs as an important outcross.  The fact that a lot of field type Labs look like flat-coats is no accident.

It was during the Interwar Period that the Lab began to be perfected as a trial quality working retriever, and at the same time, the flat-coat was undergoing some bad fad breeding. The dogs were being bred way too light in build, and to make matters worse, they were developing a long, “borzoi” muzzle that had no strength or control to grip the birds as a more moderate muzzle. In fact, a lot of trialers began to claim that borzoi had been added to the flat-coat line, which further decreased their popularity.

This very lightly built flat-coat is similar to the "weedy" dogs that were being produced in the interwar period.

This very lightly built flat-coat is similar to the "weedy" dogs that were being produced in the Interwar Period.

By the late 1930’s, the Lab had finally replaced the flat-coat as the top retriever in British trials.

In the US, retriever trials were largely duck dog events. In fact, the earliest American retriever trials consisted of Chesapeake “duck-dogs” and water spaniels (Irish and American). The Labrador was then adapted into the duck dog trials. It proved to be an easier dog to handle than the Chesapeake, simply because the Chesapeake is a market hunter’s dog, designed entirely for efficient retrieving, not fancy trial work. It was also faster in the water than the water spaniels, so it very quickly became the top duck dog on this continent.

The Labrador replaced the top retrievers in both the US and the UK by the late 1930’s. It was able to do so because its breeders were willing to experiment with crossbreeding to make a dog that was as efficient in the water as any Chesapeake, as biddable as any collie, and as birdy as any setter. And to think that this breed was virtually unknown 40 years before it took over.

Today, the Lab is the top retriever, and it will probably never be replaced. I will bet on it as long as stud-books remain strictly closed and no one can do the experimental breeding that Labrador people used to perfect their dog.

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Buccleuch Avon was one of the founders of the modern Labrador, and he carried the "liver" gene. He is believed to be the ancestor of all chocolate Labs.

Buccleuch Avon was one of the founders of the modern Labrador, and he carried the "liver" gene. He is believed to be the ancestor of all chocolate Labs.

NB:  This post needs to be rewritten to reflect new information and my new perspective on this issue.

“Buccleuch Avon” was one of the foundation sires of the Buccleuch dogs. The other foundation sire was Buccleuch Ned. Both of these dogs had very close short-hair, although one can obviously see that  Avon’s coat isn’t exactly like the modern Labrador. It is longish, perhaps the result of breeding short and long-haired dogs of this type together. (See my post on Zelstone to see two St. John’s water dog’s with long hair.)

Avon was born in 1885, and he was brought into the breeding program to save this type of “Newfoundland.” The Earls of Malmesbury had been using smooth-haired St. John’s water dogs for many generations, and the Dukes of Buccleuch had founded their own strain.  In the 1880s, the breed was so interbred with long-haired dogs, setters, and water spaniels, that the strain nearly died out. The Fifth Duke of Buccleuch and the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury got together, and the Earl of Malmesbury provided the Buccleuch Estate with dogs that were descended from recently imported stock from Newfoundland, as well as actual imports. Avon was one of these dogs, as was Ned. The most of the bitches used in the breeding program were “made in England,” descendants of the Malmesbury dogs.

At some point in the 1890s, “liver” puppies were born at the Buccleuch Estate. These resulting in breeding two dogs that descended from Avon, and it was assessed that it was Avon who carried this gene into the program.

The dogs were bred for even closer coats as the breed standardized. Patches of white that once appeared on the toes and chest were being bred out.  In 1887, the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury referred to his dogs as “Labrador dogs,” and this name has stuck ever since. Of course, the dogs aren’t from Labrador, but from Newfoundland. Labrador and Newfoundland make up the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which was known simply as Newfoundland until 2001.  It was the last province to join Canada and was a separate British territory until 1949.

At the Buccleuch estate, the dogs were maintained through constant importation of  “water dogs” from Newfoundland until the 1890s. At that time, two things happened: Newfoundland passed a Sheep Protection Act that severely taxed dogs and Britain instituted its quarantine on imported dogs. No new imports were made to Britain until the 1930’s, when a few more were imported.

It is rather interesting to follow the politics of these retriever breed, for the golden retriever’s founders were all members of the Liberal Party, while the Labrador’s founders were Conservatives. The flat-coat was so common that it was pretty much the bipartisan dog.

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Nell was a St. John's water dog from the Duke of Buccleuch's strain. This strain is the line from which the Labrador descends.

Nell was a St. John's water dog from the Duke of Buccleuch's strain. This strain is the line from which the Labrador descends.

     Nell was whelped in 1856 at the 5th Duke of Buccleuch’s estate in Scotland. He had founded his own strain of smooth-haired St. John’s water dogs in the 1830’s, but there had been imports of this breed going back to 1809, where the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury worked them as retrievers. The dogs are from the island of Newfoundland, where they evolved from a diverse lineage of water spaniels, water dogs, herding dogs, and livestock guardian dogs.
     The dogs varied a great deal in type, especially those early imports. The bigger and always long-haired dogs of this type were common in Europe and the United States. These dogs would be crossed with bigger mastiff type dogs in Europe to make the Newfoundland dog (as we currently know it).   
     The word Newfoundland could be used to describe several different strains of dog.  American strains of Newfoundland, for example, were not of the heavy type in nineteenth century. They were retriever-like and almost always were of the Landseer color variety. The dog below resembles a black and white golden retriever.
Custer captured this Newfoundland from Confederate troops during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. The dog is more retriever-like than the modern Newfoundland.

Custer captured this Newfoundland from Confederate troops during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. The dog is more retriever-like than the modern Newfoundland.

     To make things even more confusing, the some of the big dogs were called Labradors, and some of the little ones were called Newfoundlands. Some of the smaller dogs had long hair as you can see in my post about Zelstone, who was a long-haired St. John’s water dog that is called a “Newfoundland” in The Complete English Shot,  a “Labrador” in the Guisachan kennel records, and a flat-coat by his owner, Mr. Sewallis Shirley.
      However, this short-haired strain was held very closely by the Earls of Malmesbury and the Dukes of Buccleuch. While the wavy/flat-coated breed was having its first run as the top retriever, these two lines were being developed separate from those dogs.  These short-haired dogs were always preferred by the 2nd and 3rd Earls of Malmesbury.  The 3rd Earl of Malmesbury declared to the 6th Duke of Buccleuch:  “We always call mine Labrador dogs and I have kept the breed as pure as I could from the first I had from Poole [known] by their having a close coat which turns the water off like oil and, above all, a tail like an otter.”
     In the 1880’s, the 6th Duke of Buccleuch was afraid that the short-haired St. John’s water dog was becoming extinct. He had considered the short-haired dogs to be the original form, as the quote from the Earl of Malmebury suggests. However, I have found various accounts of long-haired and smooth-haired forms of this dog, as well as different sizes. The  truth is that the St. John’s water dog was a type, not a breed, and the size and coat varied. Different imported strains begat different types of dogs.  
     The 6th Duke of Buccleuch was able to obtain new blood from the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury, who was able to procure new breeding stock from Newfoundland.  These dogs would be the ancestors of the modern Labrador retriever. The current Buccleuch estates maintains a Labrador breeding program, solely for working purposes.
     Nell was an early descendant of these dogs. When this picture was taken, she was 12. She looks to be a healthy 12 year old. Richard Wolters claims that this is oldest picture of a Labrador, but I count this as one of the few photographs of the short-haired St. John’s water dog.
     In 1885, a major blow was inflicted upon the St. John’s water dog in Newfoundland. The Sheep Protection Act placed a heavy tax on all dogs in Newfoundland.  The fishermen’s dogs were soon no longer economically viable. Mechanized wenches were used to pull nets out of the ocean, and there was no need for a net retrieving dog. The fish trade between Britain and Newfoundland began decrease, and then Britain placed a quarantine on all imported dogs. These events provided the death knell for the St. John’s water dog.
     In the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, Richard Wolters was able to find the last remaining St. John’s water dogs in a remote part of Newfoundland. He was specifically looking for the short-haired dogs that fit the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury’s description. He found two dogs of this type. Both were aged. One was 15, and the other was 13. And both were male. Like so many other good things, the ancestral bloodline of the retrievers died out in the 80’s.
     Some of you might be wondering what the deal is with the choice of a short-haired dog  for this sort of work. Well, if you go back to the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury’s quote, the short haired dogs really can cut through water. It’s why Labs today are such good water dogs. Goldens, even those with less feathering, are not able to move through the water in such a way. Think of a Lab’s coat as the canine equivalent to that of an otter or a seal.
      The Germans in their development of the poodle created lots of hair on the dog to make it able to stay warm in the water. To make it streamlined, the dogs were clipped. The same goes with the Portuguese water dog.
      The short, dense hair that was common in the St. John’s water dog was an advance in creating a water dog that had a coat that was both manageable and streamlined for the practical sportsman or fisherman and also keep the dog warm in the water.

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