History of the Labrador Retriever Breed


The Labrador Retriever originated from the Island of Newfoundland, now part of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The area was populated with small water dogs, who when bred with Newfoundlands produced a breed referred to as the St John’s Water Dog (also known as the St John’s Dog or Lesser Newfoundland). 

Nell – A St. John's Water Dog circa 1856

These dogs were the forbearers for the Labradors of today. These smaller short coated dogs were used for retrieval and the pulling in of nets from the sea, to help the fishermen. Their white chest, feet, chin and muzzle - known as tuxedo markings - characteristic of the Saint John’s dog often appear in modern Lab mixes and will occasionally manifest in pedigree Labradors as a small white marking on their chest - known as a medallion.

The first Saint John’s dog was brought over to England about 1820. The Earl of Malmesbury saw a Saint John’s dog on a fishing boat liked it and made arrangements with traders for some to be exported to England. He was so impressed with their ability to retrieve anything in the water and on shore, that he devoted his time to developing the breed.

Initially the dogs were not known as Labradors until the Earl of Malmesbury was said to have always referred to them as Labradors. But some sources claim they were named after the geographical area they came from. Many labs were interbred with other types of retrievers but luckily the breed prevailed and fanciers drew up a definitive breed standard. Accurate pedigrees of today’s Labs go back to 1878.The 1st & 2nd Earls of Malmesbury and the 5th & 6th Dukes of Buccleuch were instrumental in developing and establishing the modern Labrador in the 19th Century. The first written reference to the breed was in 1814, the first painting in 1820 and first photograph in 1856.

 A surviving picture of Buccleuch Avon (b.1885), a foundational dog of many modern Labrador lineages (also same picture at the top of this page)

By 1870 the name Labrador Retriever became common in England and in 1903 they were given official recognition by the English Kennel Club as a separate and true breeding strain. In the early part of the twentieth century Britain saw the existence of the county’s most influential kennels including Lady Howe’s Banchory Labradors and Lord Knutsford’s Munden Labradors.

During the First World War Labradors were exported to the United States, during this time the breed was very popular in events sponsored by the English Kennel Club. In 1917 the American Kennel Club officially recognised the Labrador breed.

The first recognised yellow Labrador was called Ben of Hyde, born 1899. 

Labradors of a shade that we know today as yellow were originally much darker, almost a butterscotch colour. Over the 20th century a preference for far lighter shades of yellow through to cream prevailed, and has continued into the 21st century.

Chocolate Labradors became more established in the 1930's. The origins can be traced back to eight original blood lines. A degree of cross - breeding with Flatcoat or Chesapeake Bay Retrievers was also documented in the early twentieth century. The bloodlines were traced back to 3 black Labradors Retrievers in the 1880's; Buccleuch Avon (dog), Malmesbury Tramp (dog) and Malmesbury June (bitch). Morningtown Tabla was also named as an important intermediary and according to the stud book of Buccleuch Kennels, the chocolates in this kennel came through FTW Peter of Faskally (1908).

A Mrs Austin was said to have imported the first Labradors into Australia in the early 1930’s.

Page created January 2012.