History of the Labrador Retriever

Labrador Retriever History began upon the island of Newfoundland, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, a northerly region of Canada. It is here that the ancestors of today’s Labrador Retrievers lived and bred.

It’s widely believed that human settlers in the late 1500 brought working dogs along with them to Newfoundland, to help with tasks in hunting and fishing.

Through ad-hoc breeding of these early settlers’ dogs, likely a random mix of working dog breeds from the British Isles and Portugal, a couple of different Canadian working water dog breeds were developed:

  • The Chesapeake Bay Retriever (see dogbreedinfo.com)
  • The Landseer (see dogbreedinfo.com)
  • The flat-coated Retriever (see dogbreedinfo.com)
  • The Greater Newfoundland (see dogbreedinfo.com)
  • And most importantly, The Lesser Newfoundland, also known as St. Johns Dog, and is widely accepted as the breed from which modern-day Labrador Retriever history stems from (continue reading).

St. Johns Dog

The ancestors of the Labrador Retrievers today originated from Newfoundland and Labrador which is a region in Canada’s north. Newfoundland was discovered by traders from Bristol in 1494 and a few years later the Bristol Company established settlement on the new land.  Newfoundland’s fishing industry grew and soon other European countries started fishing in the cold waters of Newfoundland.

The St Hubert’s Hound was also known as the Lesser Newfoundland which evolved into St John’s dog. It is believed that the St John’s dog descended from the large, long haired Newfoundland dog. Short hair was preferred because the long hair started to freeze while the dogs were coming out of the cold waters. St John’s dogs had a short and oily double coat that repelled the water and kept them warm. This was very useful as the dog assisted the fishermen in hauling fish nets, retrieving fish, pulling ropes from boat to boat and even pulling boats, all this in icy cold water.

They quickly became widely popular as a result of their love for retrieving and the water but also trainability, endurance, excellent temperament and loyalty.

The Earl of Malmesbury and the Modern Labrador Retriever

In the early19th century St John’s dogs were imported into England by an English aristocrat, the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury and he soon fell in love with the Labrador and dedicated all his breeding efforts to the breed. He trained them for duck hunting on his estate. A few years later he donated some of his dogs to the 5th and 6th Duke of Buccleuch in Scotland who then started breeding Labradors.

This breeding program is considered to be the starting point of the  today’s Labrador Retriever breed.

In England they named the St John’s dogs Labrador dogs, this because the dogs were retrieving in the cold waters of the Labrador Sea in North America.

The Extinction of the St John’s Dog in Newfoundland

Two factors contributed to the extinction of the St John’s dog. To encourage sheep raising, the Governor decided that there could be no more than one dog per family. A few years later a heavy tax rate for dog ownership was introduced, the tax rate for females being higher than the one for  males. This was followed by many female pups being destroyed at birth and had a great impact on the population of the St John’s dog as there were not as many of them in Newfoundland.

The 6th Duke of Buccleuch was able to import a couple of more dogs despite the fact that they had to be quarantined for six full months. The breeding stock in Newfoundland became lesser and the numbers went down over the next years. The last two male St John’s dogs died in early 1980 at a very old age after having lived in a very remote area.

Nell born 1856

Wolters indicated in his book that this is the earliest photograph of a female Labrador Retriever and was taken in 1867 (Nell is 12 years old here. Nell was owned by the Earl of Home (1799-1881)).

This (St. John’s) dog was part of the breeding stock for the Labrador and had white feet and a white muzzle.  This trait was noted in some other Labradors being bred in the 1800’s in England.

Today the breed standard prefers no white in the coat colour.  Sometimes as the present day Labrador ages you will notice that areas that gray tend to be the paws and muzzle. Perhaps a leftover of the St. John’s Dog?

Extinction of the St. Johns Dog in Newfoundland

In Newfoundland the St. John’s dog eventually became extinct.  The reasons seem to be political.  In 1780 the Governor wanted to encourage sheep raising and to stop any menace to sheep he ordered that there could be no more than one dog for a family.  The St. John’s dog were native to Newfoundland and so all but the ones that had been exported to England were vulnerable to this order. This action had a great impact on St. John’s dogs since they were not wide spread and now their numbers were being discouraged in their homeland.  Later, in 1885 another measure was taken by the legislature to encourage sheep breeding.  A heavy license was imposed on dogs.  There was a higher tax rate on females than males which lead to many female pups being destroyed at birth.  Couple this with the English passing the British Quarantine Act and it made importation next to impossible.  The Quarantine Act on 1895 prohibited dogs from entering Great Britain without a license and without first undergoing a strict six-month quarantine. Britain did not have the disease of Rabies native to their island and they did not want to have it introduced. By the 1930’s the St. John’s dog was rare in Newfoundland.

The 6th Duke of Buccleuch was finally able to import a few more dogs between 1933-1934 to continue the line. The importing of stock for breeding was severely limited. And so the St John’s Dog numbers steadily declined over the decades until it finally became extinct in the 1980s.

A fortuitous meeting of the third Earl of Malmesbury (at age 75) with the sixth Duke of Buccleuch (1831-1914) and twelfth Duke of Home (1834-1918) saved Labs from extinction.  Buccleuch and Home were visiting a sick Aunt and decided to participate in a waterfowl shoot on the South Coast. There the two men were impressed by what Malmesbury’s dogs were capable of doing.  These were the same bloodlines as their father’s kennels.  Malmesbury reported that he had keep the blood lines pure as he could with the imported dogs from Newfoundland.   Malmesbury gave them some of his dogs to carry on the breeding program.  The dogs were Ned (born 1882) and Avon (born 1885).  Many say that these two dogs are the ancestor of all British Labradors. Buccleuch Avon is said to have sired ‘liver-coloured’ pups. This would be the ancestor of most American Field Champion chocolate line or chocolate gene carriers line.

Two of the Last St. John’s Dogs


To the right are two of the last St. John’s dogs in Newfoundland.  Author Richard Wolters indicated in his book The Labrador Retriever that these two males survived extinction because they were in a very remote area.  There were no female dogs left to breed to, so these appear to have been the last two original St. John’s dogs.  Wolters’ book was published in 1981 and at that time Lassie (on the right) was 13 years old and his brother (left) was 15 years old.

Note these dogs also have the white toes and muzzle like the early Labradors in England.  This trait appears to have been bred out of the dogs since the only white markings AKC  allows at this time is perhaps a small white spot on the chest.  Sometimes one will find some white hairs on the toes or foot pads still today. That likely traces to the original dogs.  Often Labs will have their faces and toes get white as they age as well.

*Photo in Richard Wolters book The Labrador Retriever Dutton, 1992 p. 53

How the breed became known as the Labrador Retriever

It is not entirely known how or when the term ‘Labrador Retriever’ was coined, although the Earl of Malmesbury was known to use the phrase himself. In a letter found by him from 1887, he wrote:

‘We always call mine Labrador dogs and I have kept the breed as pure as I could from the first I had from Poole’. The real breed may be known by their having a close coat which turns the water off like oil and, above all, a tail like an otter.’

Although the dogs were certainly known as Labradors long before this date, this is the first written record. Two theories of how they became known as Labrador retrievers are:

  • They were merely named after the region where they originated in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
  • The Spanish and Portuguese term for workers or laborers is labradores and lavradores respectively. Also within Portugal there’s a village called Castro Laboreiro where a breed of dogs protecting livestock look very similar to the St. John’s dog. So the name may have Portuguese origins. We will never be truly sure.

History of Subtypes

Todays’ breed standard has 3 official colours, yellow, chocolate and black. Black being the most successful in show and trials, yellow being the most used as police and service dogs, and chocolate as being the rarest but with rapidly increasing numbers. All three colours can appear in one litter.

This was not always like that, the 3 coat colours only gained acceptance amongst the breeding world in the 20th century. Before that, newborn puppies carrying another coat colour than black were often killed at birth and the ones not killed were not used as breeding stock.

Yellow Labrador Retrievers

  •  The first recognized yellow Labrador Retriever, the legendary Ben of Hyde, was born in 1899.
  •  In the early years of the breed through to the mid-20th century, Labradors of a shade we would now call “yellow” were in fact a dark, almost butterscotch, colour (visible in early yellow Labrador photographs). The shade was known as “Golden” until required to be changed by the UK Kennel Club, on the grounds that “Gold” was not actually a colour. Over the 20th century a preference for far lighter shades of yellow through to cream prevailed, until today most yellow labs are of this shade.
  • Interest in the darker shades of gold and fox red were re-established by English breeders in the 1980s, and three dogs were instrumental in this change: Balrion King Frost (black, born approx. 1976) who consistently sired “very dark yellow” offspring and is credited as having “the biggest influence in the re-development of the fox red shade”, and his great-grandson, the likewise famous Wynfaul Tabasco (b.1986), described as “the father of the modern fox red Labrador”, and the only modern fox red Show Champion in the UK. Other dogs, such as Red Alert and Scrimshaw Placido Flamingo, are also credited with passing on the genes into more than one renowned bloodline.

Chocolate Labrador Retrievers

  • Chocolate labs became more established in the 1930s.
  • Jack Vanderwyk traces the origins of all Chocolate labradors listed on the Labrador Net database (some 34,000 Labrador dogs of all shades) to eight original bloodlines. However, the shade was not seen as a distinct colour until the 20th century; before then according to Vanderwyk, such dogs can be traced but were not registered. A degree of crossbreeding with Flat coat or Chesapeake Bay retrievers was also documented in the early 20th century, prior to recognition. Chocolate labradors were also well established in the early 20th century at the kennels of the Earl of Feversham, and Lady Ward of Chiltonfoliat.
  • The bloodlines as traced by Vanderwyk each lead back to three black Labradors in the 1880s—Buccleuch Avon (m), and his sire and dam, Malmesbury Tramp, and Malmesbury June. Morningtown Tobla is also named as an important intermediary, and according to the studbook of Buccleuch Kennels, the chocolates in that kennel came through FTW Peter of Faskally (1908).

Milestones in Labrador Retriever History

  • There’s evidence of the Earl of Malmesbury using St. John’s Dogs whilst hunting in England from as early as 1809
  • The second Earl of Malmesbury is widely credited as being the most important person in the survival of the Labrador breed.  He started the first kennels with the aim of keeping a ‘pure Labrador dog breed’ and maintained a well stocked kennel until his dying day.
  • The 5th Duke of Buccleuch created a Labrador breeding Kennel in the mid 1830s and dedicated himself to keeping a ‘pure breed’.
  • Due to a desire for certain qualities, in the late 18th and early 19th century breeders began to cross the Labrador with other working dogs and retrievers to try to create the perfect working dog of their own design.
  • In these new cross-breeds, it’s said the genes of the St. Johns Dog were dominant and the dogs often had the appearance and personality of the St. Johns Dog.
  • As the 1890s approached, the pure-breed lines of the St. John’s Dog had all but died out in England due to the combination of cross-breeding, heavy taxes on dog ownership in Canada and heavy restrictions on importing dogs into the UK to keep out rabies.
  • A chance meeting between the third Earl of Malmesbury and the sixth Duke of Buccleuch is widely credited for saving the Labrador from possible extinction. Malmesbury had kept the blood lines in his kennel as pure as he could with the dogs he had imported from Newfoundland.  Malmesbury gave the Bucceluch kennels some of his dogs to carry on the breeding program. Many say these dogs, given in 1885, are the ancestors of all English Labs.
  • The first recorded Yellow Labrador, Ben of Hyde, was born in the Kennels of Major C.J Radclyffe In 1899.
  • By the 1930′s the St. John’s dog was becoming rare in Newfoundland.
  • In the mid-1930s, the 6th Duke of Buccleuch was able to import a small number of dogs from Canada and bring them into his breeding program to help preserve the breed.
  • Newfoundland in the 1980s and the St. John’s dog had eventually became extinct for the political reasons listed above. 

Labradors in America

In the later part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the American Sportsman used setters and pointers to hunt large areas and heavy cover. The driven bird shoots of Britain were unusual situations for Americans. The British driven shoots included walking at heel, marking game down and to track and retrieve it. The British style of hunting was different than the American hunter. The American terrain, size of the hunting areas, cover, different types of land called for a different more demanding kind of dog work. Americans liked to use Springer Spaniels as game finders for upland work.  The Chesapeake Bay Retrievers had been developed as water retrieving dogs and recognized by the AKC in 1878.  Americans began taking an interest once they realized Labradors were as good as Springer Spaniels for putting up game and as good as a Chesapeake as a water dog – some say better because its coat does not tend to ice up and it repels water well.  This dog had the combined skills of two other popular sporting dogs in America making it a very versatile all around sporting dog plus it had an excellent disposition.  The breed became popular in America during the ‘roaring twenties’ and increased after the end of WWII. 

  • While the first Labrador was registered in the AKC in 1917 there were still only 23 Labradors registered in 1927.  It wasn’t until after a 1928 AKC article in the magazine American Kennel Gazette called “Meet the Labrador Retriever” that they became more well known.
  • In 1929 a dog named Kinclaven Lowesby was the first yellow Labrador registered in the AKC stud book.  He was an imported son of FC Hayler’s Defender and registered as the color ‘golden’.  
  • In 1931 the Labrador Retriever Club was formed in the United States and the first American field trial for Labs held at the Glenmere Court Estate in Chester, NY.
  • In 1932 the first ‘liver colored’ Labrador was registered by the AKC.  The dog’s name was Diver of Chiltonfoliat who was heavily linebred from a dog called Borris de main.  Borris de Main was a yellow bitch born in 1920 that seemed to carry the chocolate gene.  Color was a descriptive category at one time and you could write in the markings.  Today you can only select Black, Yellow or Chocolate for Labradors.
  • In 1933 Ming was born in England.  He was exported to America and he became the first yellow American Field Champion.
  • In 1938 the first picture of a dog appeared on the cover of Life Magazine. The dog was a black Lab called ‘Blind of Arden’.  He was the 4 year old dog of W. Averell Harriman and had won the top US Retriever stake that year.
  • In 1940 the first clearly American bred chocolate Labrador was registered in the AKC as Kennoway’s Fudge. This dog was a line breeding of the English dog FC Banchory Night Light descended from Buccleuch Avon.
  • In 1941 the National Retriever Club was established in the United States.
  • Throughout the Post WWII era the popularity of Labradors grew to all of the population in the United States.
  • In 1991 Storm’s Riptide Star was born.  He became the first chocolate Labrador to earn the American National Field Championship title with his win in 1996.  NFC-AFC Storm’s Riptide Star’s pedigree also extends back to Buccleuch Avon born in 1885. 
  • In 1991 the Labrador Retriever also took first place as the most popular dog registered by the AKC.  Into the 2000’s (including number one in 2003) the dog continues to be among the most popular pets due to its great disposition and versatility.  They are devoted family members as well as excellent hunting companions. They are good with children, tend to enjoy the company of other dogs, they are even used as guide dogs, police dogs for sniffing out drugs and search and rescue dogs. The hunting season tends to be rather short, and so the Labrador’s most popular job nowadays seems to be sitting on a family couch or in front of the television.

Official Recognition in the UK and US

The Labrador Retriever was officially recognized as a breed by The UK Kennel Club in 1903, the first registration of a Labrador Retriever in The American Kennel Club was in 1917.

These two events were crucial for the future of the Labrador Retriever. Without a breed having official recognition and a standard set for them, the blood lines aren’t kept pure and the breed almost certainly gets diluted through crossbreeding and becomes lost.

Arrival in Australia

The first Labradors arrived in Australia in 1929, they where imported by the Liddy kennels in the UK and included a black dog and 2 black bitches. From these 3 dogs a serious breeding program began and the ever rising popularity of the Labrador in Australia.


Labrador Retriever history can be traced right back to the cross-breeding of working dogs by early settlers of the island of Newfoundland in the 1500s. From these humble beginnings, a very loyal and hard-working water dog, the St. Johns Dog was developed.

Due to political pressures both in England and in Canada, the pure St Johns Dog became extinct. But in England, two noble families who had fallen in love with the breed, had dedicated their kennels breeding programs to maintaining as pure a line of Labradors as possible.

We owe a special debt of thanks to the families of the Dukes of Buccleuch and the Earls of Malmesbury, the first to fully appreciate the beautiful qualities of the Labrador Retriever and without whom, the breed would have been in danger of extinction.

They put in an enormous effort into keeping the breed going and to keep it pure. It is because of their passion, dedication and breeding programs that we have the Labrador Retriever for us to enjoy today.


  • Wikipedia, ‘St. John’s water dog’, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._John%27s_water_dog, 2015, (accessed 2 May 2015).
  • Wikipedia, ‘Labrador Retriever’, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labrador_Retriever#Historical_landmarks, 2015, (accessed 2 May 2015).
  • Drumlangrig Castle, ‘History of the Buccleuch Labrador’, http://www.drumlanrigcastle.co.uk/field-sports/buccleuch-gundogs/history-of-the-buccleuch-labrador/, no date, (accessed 2 May 2015).
  • Jack Vanderwyk, ‘Buccleuch and the History of the Labrador Retriever’, http://labradornet.com/buccleuch.html, no date, (accessed 2 May 2015).
  • Just Labradors, ‘ Little Known Facts about Labrador Retrievers’ , http://www.justlabradors.com/labrador-retriever-facts/little-known-facts-about-labrador-retrievers, no date, (accessed 2 May 2015).
  • Stephen Smith AKC, “Most Popular Dog Breeds in America’,  http://www.akc.org/news/the-most-popular-dog-breeds-in-america/, 2015, (accessed 2 May 2015).
  • Wikipedia, File:Buccleuch Avon (1885).png [online photograph], http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Buccleuch_Avon_(1885).png, no date, (accessed 2 May 2015).
  • Retrieverman, ‘The Last Pair of St. John’s Water Dogs, http://retrieverman.net/2009/04/10/the-last-pair-of-st-johns-water-dogs/ [digtal image], 2009, (accessed 2 May 2015).
  • Wikipedia, ‘Newfoundland and Labrador’, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newfoundland_and_Labrador, 2015, (accessed 2 May 2015).
  • National Labrador Retriever Breed Council of Australia, ‘Labrador Retriever Breed Standard’, http://www.nationallabradorretrieverbreedcouncilaustralia.com/breed-standard.asp, 2010, (accessed 2 May 2015).

A positive result

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