The Labrador Retriever Yesterday and TodayThere are many theories about the origin of the breed known today as the Labrador Retriever. One point on which all historians seem to agree is that the breed originally came from Newfoundland in far northeastern Canada, not Labrador. They were known by several names— including the St. Johns Water Dog, the Little Newfoundlander, and the Black Water Dog.
Some believe the Labrador Retriever was developed by the fishermen off the coast of Newfoundland, and that the breed was the result of an attempt to pro¬duce a somewhat smaller dog because the Newfoundland breed is a bit cumber¬some. The dog had to be a good retriever, had to have good bone and strong limbs to pull heavy loads, and needed a dense coat thick enough to withstand the cold water, but one that would not ball up with ice. She had to be eager to please, able to swim great distances, and happy to live on a diet of fish and what¬ever else could be scrounged up. The Labrador Retriever became that dog. But how?
That is the mystery. Some believe the large Newfoundland dogs were indige¬nous to Newfoundland. Others believe there were no dogs there until the Europeans came to the coast to fish.
It appears that the native inhabitants of the island, the Beothucks, did not have any dogs. The British began to fish in Newfoundland in 1498, and about twenty years later they built some settlements. Most of the settlers were hunters as well as fishermen. They wanted dogs to hunt and retrieve their fish and work around the settlement. Most historians of the breed agree that the fishing boats commonly ran between Newfoundland and Poole Harbour, in Dorset. The fish¬ermen went back and forth to sell their salted codfish, and their dogs often made the trip as well.
The dogs brought by the settlers were probably the only dogs in Newfoundland, and over the centuries they were bred and trained to meet the needs of their owners. From these various breeds of dogs, bred over a period of 280 years under rigorous conditions, the Newfoundland dog and the Labrador Retriever were developed. They were the product of their environment and sur¬vival of the fittest and, perhaps, selective breeding.
Some time around 1818, some of these dogs were seen and purchased in England. The English waterfowl hunters were quick to appreciate these talented dogs. The Second Earl of Malmesbury was said to have purchased several from some of the fishing boat captains, and, liking these dogs, he continued to import and breed them. Although the earl said that he kept his lines as pure as possible, it’s likely that at some point the dogs were bred with the retrievers that were being used in England before the fishermen arrived—to improve the local dogs. The Third Earl of Malmesbury gave some of his dogs to the Sixth Earl of Buccleigh, and it was he who actually started keeping good breeding records.
In 1904, the Kennel Club in Britain listed Labrador Retrievers as a separate breed. Before that time, retriever covered the broad category of all retrievers. Labs were gaining popularity by leaps and bounds, winning at field trials and in the ring at dog shows.

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