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America’s most popular dog breed took a roundabout route to get here, crossing from this side of the Atlantic to the other – and then back again.

The Labrador Retriever’s earliest origins are found across our northern border, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. If that sounds a bit confusing to geography buffs, that’s because it is: Yes, the Labrador Territory after which the breed is named is actually northwest of the island of Newfoundland. And, yes, there already is another breed from Newfoundland, called, logically enough, the Newfoundland.

To sort through these seeming contradictions, we have to rewind about 500 years, when enterprising Europeans were finding their way to the Canadian coastline.

Long before any European nation planted its flag on Canadian territory, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English fishermen were venturing to its Atlantic coast, presumably bringing their dogs with them. These various breeds commingled on the huge but isolated island, creating a land race that became known as the St. John’s Dog, after the capital of Newfoundland.

St. John’s Dog “Nell”, taken 1867. Nell was born in 1856 and owned by the Earl of Home (1799-1881.) The St. John’s Dog was the ancestor of the modern retrievers, including the Flat-Coated Retriever, Curly-Coated Retriever, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, the Golden Retriever, and the Labrador Retriever, plus the Newfoundland.

From St. John’s Water Dog to Labrador Retriever

The St. John’s Dog can no longer be found today, save for the bronze statues that stand in Harbourside Park in the city from which their name derived. These dogs of Newfoundland came in various sizes, the larger of which became the eponymous Newfoundland, and the smaller one the dog we are discussing here.

In short order, these prototypical Labrador Retrievers became well known for their infatuation with water, and their skill operating in it. Working in Newfoundland’s burgeoning fisheries, they hauled nets and long lines, dived for cod that had slipped off the hook, even retrieved the hats of fishermen. The shorthaired dogs were reportedly preferred over their longer-coated brethren, as the ice did not accumulate on their water-resistant coats. As a whole, these dogs were black, with dramatic “tuxedo” markings on their faces, chests, and legs.

Newfoundland’s fishermen were justifiably proud of their dogs. So after their ships packed with salted cod crossed the ocean and docked in Poole on the southern English coast, they had their clever dogs perform for the gathered crowds, having them retrieve objects tossed into the water.

“These dogs are remarkable for their diving powers,” wrote Irish dog authority H.D. Richardson in 1847. “I saw one some years ago with an officer, who was quartered at Portobello Barracks, Dublin, which dived repeatedly to the bottom of the canal, between the lochs, when full of water, and fetched up such stones, etc., as were thrown in.”

Eventually, the sale of these dogs became a lucrative sideline for enterprising Canadian sailors, and the St. John’s Dog became a popular export to England. There, it was incorporated into various dog lines, becoming the progenitor for all the modern British retrievers, from Flat Coats to Curly Coats.

One of the appreciative onlookers at those harborside displays in Poole was the Earl of Malmesbury, who concluded that the dogs would excel at duck hunting at his Heron Court estate. In short order a breeding program was established, and it is due to this titled family that the early name “Labrador Dog” became associated with the breed.

A Chance Meeting

While the Earl of Malmesbury may have had a fuzzy understanding of Canadian geography, his observations about his nascent breed were extremely precise. In correspondence, he noted that their coat “turns the water off like oil,” and made mention of the “tail like an otter,” highlighting an important breed feature that is prized to this day.

Meanwhile, over in its homeland, the lesser St. John’s Dog, as the breed was sometimes called, was struggling for survival. During the 1800s, in an effort to encourage sheep breeding, the Newfoundland government imposed stiff taxes on any dogs that were not used for herding and tending. In a finishing blow delivered from the other side of the ocean, in 1885 British legislators enacted long quarantines on any imported dogs in an effort to control rabies, causing the trans-Atlantic dog dealing to slow to less than a trickle.

The Malmesburys weren’t the only English nobles to be fascinated with these Canadian-derived sporting dogs. The dukes of both Buccleuch and Home in Scotland also imported Labrador dogs from Newfoundland, attempting with great difficulty to keep their bloodlines pure.

A chance meeting between these families in the 1880s cemented the breed’s survival. While visiting a sick aunt in England, the sixth Duke of Buccleuch and the 12th Duke of Home attended a waterfowl shoot at Heron Court. Impressed with the performance of the Malmesbury dogs, they discovered that their dogs shared similar bloodlines. The third Earl of Malmesbury sent two dogs – Ned and Avon – to Buccleuch in Scotland, helping to create the foundation of the modern breed. (After a modern-day brush with extinction, Buccleuch Labradors are still being bred to this day.) Later dogs from other bloodlines produced both chocolate and yellow puppies, and though these weren’t valued in the breed’s early years, they eventually came to be accepted by all the world’s kennel clubs.

A telling anecdote survives of “Brandy,” a St. John’s Dog imported by the 5th Duke of Buccleuch and his brother, Lord John Scott. On the trip across the Atlantic, Brandy jumped into the rough waters to retrieve the cap of a crew member, and was forced to swim for two hours before he could be taken back aboard. Exhausted but resilient, Brandy was finally revived after being given doses of the liquor for which he was named.

As for the St. John’s Dogs left back in Newfoundland, there were no such heroic rescue efforts. The breed dwindled until the late 1970s, when two surviving dogs were discovered in a remote area of the island. Despite the fact that one of them was named Lassie, they were both males in their teens, and there were no females to which they could be bred. They were the last St. John’s Dogs ever recorded.

But their gentle temperaments, enthusiasm for retrieving, and supernatural affinity for water survive in today’s Labrador Retrievers.

Related article: How to Train a Labrador Retriever Puppy: Milestone Timeline
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