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Ch. Earlsmoor Moor of Arden, Labrador Retriever. c. 1938.
Courtesy of the AKC Library and Archives

One of America’s most popular dog breeds 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 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 to when Europeans found 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 canine race that became known as the St. John’s Dog, after the capital of Newfoundland.

From St. John’s Water Dog to Labrador Retriever

You can’t find the St. John’s Dog today, save for the bronze statues standing 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.

A vintage photograph of a wet Labrador Retriever retrieving a bird.
Courtesy of the AKC Library and Archives

In short order, these prototypical Labrador Retrievers became well-known for their infatuation with water and their skill at operating in it. Working in Newfoundland’s burgeoning fisheries, the dogs hauled nets and long lines. They also dived for cod that had slipped off the hook, and even retrieved fishermen’s hats. Fishermen reportedly preferred the shorthaired dogs over their longer-coated brethren, as the ice didn’t 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. After their ships packed with salted cod crossed the ocean, they would dock in Poole on the southern English coast. Once there, they had their clever dogs perform for 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, enterprising Canadian sailors began to sell these dogs, 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. He concluded that the dogs would excel at duck hunting at his Heron Court estate. In short order, they established a breeding program. It’s due to this titled family that the early name “Labrador Dog” became associated with the breed.

Ch. Earlsmoor Moor of Arden, Labrador Retriever. c. 1938.
Courtesy of the AKC Library and Archives

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.” He also made mention of the “tail like an otter,” highlighting an important feature that’s prized to this day.

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

The Earls of Malmesbury weren’t the only British nobles fascinated with these Canadian-derived sporting dogs. The Duke of Buccleuch and Earl of Home in Scotland also imported Labrador dogs from Newfoundland. They attempted 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 Earl 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.

Photograph from the Labrador Retriever Club of a Labrador retriever winning an award at a conformation show dated Oct. 13, 1960.
Courtesy of the AKC Library and Archives

The third Earl of Malmesbury sent two dogs – “Ned” and “Avon” – to Buccleuch in Scotland. These dogs helped 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. These colors weren’t valued in the breed’s early years. However, 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. He swam for two hours before crew members could take him back aboard. Exhausted but resilient, Brandy was finally revived after they gave him doses of the liquor he was named after.

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. Even though one was named “Lassie,” they were both males in their teens. There were no females to whom 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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