The Labrador retriever is a comparatively modern dog that was bred in the 19thC. Although we now think of the Labrador as a “pedigree” dog, it is, in common with all but the 13 “basal” breeds of dog, a result of deliberate, recent cross breeding – and perhaps a few accidents as well!
The Labrador is one of several modern field dogs that was developed to keep pace with the improvements in guns which meant that high birds could be shot from a greater distance than before. Somewhat confusingly, it was actually bred in the Canadian province of Newfoundland rather than neighbouring Labrador, but acquired its name because of its common use in the Labrador Sea. Its relative the Newfoundland was bred in Labrador!
The Labrador’s main ancestor is the now extinct St John’s water dog, the last of which died in the early 1980s. The St. John’s water dog (also known as the lesser Newfoundland) was a landrace dog, bred for working ability not appearance, that is thought to owe its ancestry to a mix of old English, Irish and Portuguese working dogs. The flat coated retriever, Chesapeake Bay retriever and golden retriever can also claim ancestry from the St John’s dog as can the Newfoundland. A Colonel Hawker described the St John’s dog as being “by far the best for any kind of shooting. He is generally black and no bigger than a Pointer, very fine in legs, with short, smooth hair and does not carry his tail so much curled as the other; is extremely quick, running, swimming and fighting….and their sense of smell is hardly to be credited….”
The geologist Joseph Beete Jukes described the St. John’s water dog as being “A thin, short-haired, black dog… [with] a thin, tapering snout, a long thin tail and rather thin, but powerful legs, with a lank body, – the hair short and smooth. These are the most abundant dogs in the country…They are no means handsome, but are generally more intelligent and useful than the others…I observed he once or twice put his foot in the water and paddled it about. This foot was white, and Harvey said he did it to “toil” or entice the fish. The whole proceeding struck me as remarkable, more especially as they said he had never been taught anything of the kind.”
St. John’s dogs were exported from Newfoundland to England in the 1820s by the 10th Earl of Home and his nephews the 5th Duke of Buccleuch and Lord John Scott. The 2nd Earl of Malmesbury also bred them for waterfowling. During the 1880s, as guns became more sophisticated, the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury, the 6th Duke of Buccleuch and the 12th Earl of Home collaborated to develop and establish the modern Labrador. Sadly the decline of the St John’s water dog was hastened by the sheep protection policy in Newfoundland and rabies quarantine in England that hindered their export.
A dog named Buccleuch Avon, born in 1885, is considered to be a founder of many modern Labrador lineages, although the first written reference to a dog called a “Labrador” dates from 1814. Edwin Landseer painted a dog called Cora in 1823, labelled also as a Labrador but much closer in resemblence to the St John’s dog than anything that most people would recognise as a Labrador today. Some of the confusion may arise because the St John’s dog and early crosses were called Labradors in England. The first photograph of a Labrador-type dog was taken in 1856 of Nell, a dog owned by the Earl of Home. She is described both as being a St John’s dog and a Labrador.
The Labrador is considered to be one of the most popular dogs in the world, although this was confined largely to Western Europe and North America until recently. Diplomats and ministers took Labradors to Russia in the 1960s, although they were not widely available. Outcrossing occurred as a result until the 1990s when travel to other countries became possible for Russian dog breeders. They are also popular in Australasia, especially as assistance dogs. The US Army refused to repatriate service dogs following the Vietnam war as they were regarded as “expendable equipment”, resulting in a population becoming established there. Since November 2000, retired US military working dogs can be adopted by personnel outside of the military and thus return to the US.
Colours and Markings
Labradors were originally black but are now seen in a variety of colours. The genetics of coat colour are complex and only began to be better understood in the late 1970s when a study using crosses within a population of “purebred” Labradors showed that the interplay (epistasis) of two specific genes produced the three main coat colours of black, brown and yellow. The first yellow Labrador on record was born in 1899 and the first chocolate Labrador in the 1930s, although liver spotted pups were recorded at the Buccleuch kennels in 1892. The original yellow Labradors were much darker than those that are common today and were originally known as “golden” until the Kennel Club pronounced that”gold” is not a colour. (It seems to have relented in the case of the golden retriever).
Kennel Clubs across the world continue to make pronouncements about the “accepted” colours of Labradors as with other breeds. Lighter shades of yellow have predominated in the last half a century or so, producing Labradors that are fawn or cream. Breeders in the 1980s began breeding to produce darker dogs and a colour known as “fox red”. It is possible that this colour may have been the result of “throwing back” to earlier crosses with flat coat or Chesapeake Bay retrievers. The chocolate Labrador was, however, well established by the early 20th century at the kennels of the Earl of Feversham and Lady Ward of Chiltonfoliat although it took a couple of decades or so for it to become popular. Reports of “silver” Labradors seem to have first appeared in the United States in the 1950s; they are also known as blue Labradors. There is a great deal of controversy raging over the origin of this colour, some thinking that it resulted from outcrossing with the Weimeraner and others from a colour dilution gene occuring as a result of natural mutation. The appearance of colours other than black can be difficult to trace as non-black dogs were often culled as they were considered to be “impure”. To this day, the UK Kennel Club and others around the world “recognise” only “wholly black, yellow and chocolate” as being “acceptable” colours, although they “allow” that a “small white spot on chest [is] permissible. The “acceptablility” of colouring amongst the show fraternity also extends to skin pigmentation.
Although no longer a landrace, there is a great deal of variety in body shapes seen among Labradors, with significant differences being notable between dogs bred for show in the UK and the US. Similarly, there is a difference between the dogs bred to work where appearance is considered secondary to ability. Generally speaking, show-bred Labradors are heavier built, shorter-bodied and have a thicker coat and tail. Field Labradors are generally longer legged, lighter and more lithe in build because of the need for agility. “Show” Labradors tend to have broader heads, more defined stops and more powerful necks, while field Labradors have lighter and narrower heads with longer muzzles. The Labrador’s comparative slowness in reaching maturity, coupled with being a medium – heavy set dog, mean that exercise and feeding need to be controlled verty carefully to prevent rapid, damaging growth or mechanical damage.
The Labrador is generally considered to have an innately placid temperament although this is affected not only by genetics but environment. Field-bred Labradors tend to be more highly-strung compared to the Labrador bred for conformation showing. Labradors mostly do not mature until they are about three years old. They can be boisterous, demanding dogs prone to jumping up, pawing and nudging for attention and pulling hard when on lead. As with all dogs, training is essential throughout their life, especially if they are not to be kept as a working dog where much of their energy can dissipate in the field. They are not generally noisy dogs but a bored Labrador is capable of making as much noise as an excited terrier and they can dig like one too!
It is thought that Labradors have a genetic predisposition to gaining weight. They are considered to be greedy and food-orienated and Labradors that have broken into food stores have been reported to carry on eating even when close to death from satiety. They do not always discriminate between food and non-food objects either. This can be potentially dangerous as dogs are natural scavengers and will swallow whole anything in their mouth very quickly if they think that they might be deprived of it. Many Labrador owners use a “gobble bowl” to feed their dogs; the indentations in the bottom slow the dog down and prevent him from gulping food and air.
Labradors were bred to swim in cold water for long periods. They will happily substitute a stagnant puddle if deprived of better opportunities to get into water. As their name suggests, they are also natural carriers and will happily play with a ball, dumbell or piece of rope if not being used to retrieve game.
Although not as popular as the Newfoundland for life saving work, they have been used as water-rescue dogs as well as being the dog of choice for assistance duties. The high failure rate of dogs that begin training for assistance work and that are specifically bred for the purpose is an illustration of the rôle that upbringing and training play in temperament and reliablility.
Generations of in-breeding following the closing of stud books in the early 20thC has affected drastically the health, longevity and fertility of most “pedigree” dogs. Labradors are prone to hip and elbow dysplasia, luxating patella, progressive retinal atrophy, cataracts, corneal dystrophy and retinal dysplasia. Narcolepsy and exercise-induced collapse are also beginning to become prevalent in the breed. Much of this can be difficult to eliminate, although tests are available for some diseases. Not all diseases become evident in early years and not all tests can be performed before puppies are re-homed. Heritable diseases are often the side-effect of breeding for appearance such as colour or a specific shape. Diseases of the joints and muscoloskeletal problems can be exacerabted by over-feeding and over-exercise or allowing the dog to run, twist and turn on slippery surfaces or jump too frequently.