The Labrador Retriever was developed in England in the mid 1800s by
a handful of private kennels dedicated to developing and refining the perfect
gundog. That many such kennels were pursuing their own
vision of such a dog is the reason behind the variety of today's retriever breeds.
It's fairly clear that there were no indigenous dogs in Newfoundland
when the first fishing companies arrived. If the native Americans of the
time had any, the explorers never observed them. Thus it's quite
likely that the St. Johns dogs themselves come from old English Water Dogge breeds, insofar as fishermen were the primary people on Newfoundland for centuries. There is also some speculation that the
old St. Hubert's dog might have been brought over as well -- illustrations of the breed show a black, drop-eared dog with a certain resemblance to the Labrador. But it is unknown if the fishermen going to
Newfoundland would have had hound dogs used for game rather than water dogs.
We can only speculate what happened, but we do know that the cod fishermen
sent out from Britain practiced "shore fishing." Small dories were used
for the actual fishing, and they worked in teams of four
-- two in the boat and two on the shore to prepare and cure the fish. They would have needed a small dog to get in and out of the boat, with a short water repellent coat so as not to bring all the water into to
the boats with them. They would have bred for a strong retrieving instinct to help retrieve fish and swimming lines, and a high degree of endurance to work long hours. If the runs were heavy, the fishermen
were reputed to go for as long as twenty hours to haul the fish in.
The dog developed for this early work could be found in several varieties:
a smaller one for the fishing boats, and a larger one with a heavier coat
for drafting. The smaller dog has been called, variously, the
Lesser St. John's dog, the Lesser Newfoundland, or even the Labrador. These dogs came from Newfoundland; it is unknown why the name "Labrador" was chosen except possibly through geographical
confusion. Charles Eley, in History of Retrievers at the end of the 19th century comments:
The story [...] was that the first
Labrador to reach England swam ashore from vessels which brought cod from
Newfoundland [...] It was claimed for them that their maritime existence
had resulted in webbed feet, a coat impervious to water like that of an otter, and a short, thick 'swordlike' tail, with which to steer safely their stoutly made frames amid the breakers of the
Part of the confusion over the names is that "St. John's dog" and "Newfoundland
dog" were used interchangeably for both the greater (larger) and lesser
(smaller) varieties. And the term Labrador has also
been used to refer to the lesser St. John's dog, especially in the latter half of the 19th century. The greater is commonly held to be the direct ancestor of today's Newfoundland, while the lesser was used to
develop many of the retrieving breeds, including today's Labrador.
The exact relationship between the two varieties of the St. Johns dog
(and some 19th century writers listed up to four varieties) is also unclear;
we don't know which came first, or to what degree they were
related. Certainly the greater St. Johns dog was first imported to England nearly a hundred years earlier, and many contemporary and modern day writers assume that the lesser was developed from the
greater but we have no real evidence one way or another. Newfoundland has been used for fishing and other activities since approximately 1450 so there has been plenty of time for the development of the St.
Johns dog and its varieties.
Development in England
From the time these dogs were first imported back to England in the
early 1800s to 1885 when the combined effects of Newfoundland's Sheep Act
and Britain's Quarantine Act shut down further
importation, a handful of kennels regularly imported lesser St. Johns dogs and carefully bred them for gun dog work on their estates. These kennels include those of Buccleuch and Malmesbury, each of
which imported lesser St. John's dogs throughout the 19th century for their private lines.
The second Earl of Malmesbury (1778-1841) and his son the third Earl (1807-1889) imported the dogs and kept their lines going until the third Earl's death. In a letter he wrote in about 1887 he noted:
"We always called mine Labrador
dogs and I have kept the breed as pure as I could from the first I had
from Poole, at that time carrying on a brisk trade with Newfoundland. The
may be known by their having a close coat which turns the water off like oil, above all, a tail like an otter."
At about the same time, the fifth Duke of Buccleuch (1806-1884), his
brother Lord John Scott (1809-1860) and the tenth Earl of Home (1769-1841)
embarked on a similar but independent program. They
lived within a 30 mile radius and developed the Buccleuch line. The eleventh Lord of Home (1799-1881) continued his dogs, but the line was nearly extinct about the time of his death.
However, a chance meeting between the third Earl of Malmesbury and the
sixth Duke of Buccleuch and the twelfth Earl of Home resulted in the older
Malmesbury giving the two young Lords some of the
dogs from his lines. From these dogs, given in 1882, the Buccleuch line was revitalized and the breed carried into the 20th century. Buccleuch's Ned and Buccleuch's Avon are generally agreed upon as being
the ancestors of all Labradors.
That two different kennels, breeding independently for at least 50 years,
had such similar dogs argues that the Labrador was kept very close to the
original St. John's breed. Thus it is probable that today's
Labrador, of all the modern retrievers, is the most closely related to the original St. John's dog and by extension, as closely related to the modern Newfoundland as to the other retriever breeds such as Golden
Retrievers, Flat Coat Retrievers, etc.
The Twentieth Century
By the turn of the century, these retrievers were appearing in the British
Kennel Club's events. At this point, retrievers from the same litter could
wind up being registered as different retrievers. The initial
category of "Retrievers" included curly coats, flat coats, liver-colored retrievers and the Norfolk retriever (now extinct). As types became fixed, separate breeds were created for each and the Labrador
Retriever finally gained its separate registration under the Kennel Club in 1903.
While there have been strains of Labradors bred pure up to this time,
it is unknown how many of these cross-bred dogs were folded into "Labradors"
or into other breeds as the registrations began to
separate. Many breeders feel that crossbreeding at this time accounts for much of the poor type that can appear today; however claims about the use of Pointers or Rottweilers can probably be safely
The first two decades in the 20th century saw the formation in Britain
of some of the most influential kennels that provided the basis for the
breed as we know it today. Lord Knutsford's Munden Labradors,
and Lady Howe's Banchory Labradors are among several. At this time, many dogs distinguished themselves in both field trials and conformation shows; the high number of Dual Champions at this time
attests to the breed's versatility.
Labradors were first imported to the United States during World War
I. At this point, the AKC still classified them as "Retrievers;" it was
not until the late 1920's that the retrievers were split up into the
breeds we know today in the AKC. The Labrador Retriever has been used heavily in the US as a gundog; the American Labrador Retriever Club, Inc. (LRC, Inc), is to this day primarily a field trial
organization, and it was instrumental in forming the AKC field trials.
The two World Wars greatly diminished the breed in numbers (as it did
many others). After the second World War saw the rise of the Labrador Retriever
in the United States, where Britain's Sandylands
kennel through imports going back to Eng CH Sandyland's Mark influenced the shape and direction the show lines took in this country. Other influential dogs include American Dual CH Shed of Arden, a
grandson of English Dual CH Banchory Bolo, especially evident in field trial lines.
This return trip to the Americas resulted in the widely expanded use
of the Labrador as a gun dog. In Britain, the Labrador was, and still is,
used primarily for upland game hunting, often organized as a
driven bird shoot. Typically, separate breeds were used for different tasks; and the Labrador was strictly for marking the fall, tracking and retrieving the game. But in the United States and Canada, the breed's
excellence at waterfowl work and game finding became apparent and the Labrador soon proved himself adaptable to the wider and rougher range of hunting conditions available. The differences between
British and American field trials are particularly illustrative.
Many old treatises and articles on gun dogs make it clear that yellows
and livers were evident and even common before any recorded breeding was
the rule. Spaniels, Poodles, Setters, Retrievers, and even
pointers occasionally displayed yellow and liver coloring. In fact, calling a dog "liver" one or two hundred years ago could mean any color from yellow to red to liver or brown.
In the earliest years of the Labrador, yellows were simply culled. The
first registered yellow was Ben of Hyde, out of two black dogs, themselves
from import stock. Ben produced many yellows when bred to
black bitches; if the genetics were the same then as now, this indicates that many blacks were actually heterozygous for black. Oddly, his yellow littermate Juno produced few if any yellows when she was
bred to blacks. However, bitches produce few puppies compared to dogs so chance probably stepped in with homozygous dominant black mates for Juno.
The anti-yellow sentiment was so strong that in the 1920's experienced
breeders reported being directed to the Golden Retriever ring! At this
point, dogs of this color did suffer a wide variation of incorrect
type -- it's easy to find pictures of old yellow Labradors with very houndy features. A separate standard was briefly drawn up to address this problem, but eventually it was felt that yellows should simply
adhere to the same standard as blacks. Today, you will find as many, if not more, yellows as blacks of the same quality. Only in some hunting circles will you still find the erroneous opinion that "blacks
make better hunters."
Chocolates, like yellows, have also been present all along in the breed.
In fact, the well known story of the origins of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever
refers to an 1807 shipwreck involving two St. John's dogs
probably destined for Poole and hence to Malmesbury or Buccleuch: one black and one liver. Some believe that the chocolate color was introduced into Labradors around the turn of the century by crossing
with Pointers. This is unlikely for several reasons:
Prior documented presence of livers
in the St. John's dogs.
The presence of the liver color in many other closely related breeds, such as the Flat-coat, Chesapeake, and Newfoundland.
Since liver is recessive to black, it is perfectly possible to "hide" the gene in many generations of black, especially if the occasional liver is quietly culled.
Chocolate Labradors have gained favor much more slowly than the yellows
have, although culling of them probably declined about the same time. They
did well in early field trials at the turn of the century
but it was not until 1964 that Britain had its first chocolate bench champion, Cookridge Tango.
Chocolates are by far the rarest color in the ring, whether show or
field. They are increasing in popularity steadily, though, and in another
10 years may equal the other colors in numbers, acceptance, and
quality. Prejudice against chocolates in both show and field arenas is still widely present today. They are either "too ugly" for the show ring or "too stupid/stubborn" for the field.
The Standard is the physical "blueprint" of the breed. It describes
the physical appearance and other desired qualities of the breed otherwise
known as type. Some characteristics, such as size, coat quality,
and movement, are based on the original (or current) function for the dog. Other characteristics are more cosmetic such as eye color; but taken together they set this breed apart from all others. The Standard
describes an ideal representive of the breed. No individual dog is perfect, but the Standard provides an ideal for the breeder to strive towards.
American Kennel Club
Australian National Kennel Club
Canadian Kennel Club
Kennel Club of Great Britain
United Kennel Club
(this list is incomplete)
Special Medical Problems
Labradors are susceptible to hip dysplasia as well as other joint problems.
All breeding stock should be x-rayed and certified clear of hip dysplasia
by OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) and/or by
the Wind-Morgan program (see below) and/or by the PennHip methods. Most breeders will use OFA and may optionally use Wind Morgan or PennHip as an adjunct. The breeder should be able to provide
you with copies of certifications done on both sire and dam.
Labradors are also at risk for several eye problems including: PRA (
Progressive Retinal Atrophy), cataracts, and retinal dysplasia. All breeding
stock should be examined annually by a board certified
veterinary ophthalmologist. Most responsible breeders will turn that evaluation in to CERF for tracking of various eye problems in the breed and thus have a CERF number for their dog, good for one year.
You should ask to see a copy of the paperwork that is turned in to CERF, though, because this form will report on other things that may not deny the dog a CERF number but could be of further interest.
Diagnosis of PRA is not easy. The dog may be diagnosed via an Electroretinogram
(ERG), which will give advance notice by about two years from actual blindness.
However, unless PRA is known to
show up early in the individual dog's lines, it is not recommended unless the dog is at least five years old. In addition it is a very difficult test to administer. Not all ACVO veterinarians are qualified to do a
diagnostic ERG because of the delicate skill necessary and it requires anesthesia of the dog.
Because PRA often does not appear until the dog is older (as late as
8 years or more), this disease has been difficult to eradicate. Please,
if your dog appears to be losing his sight, have him checked by a
veterinary ophthalmologist, and if he is diagnosed with PRA, contact his breeder and send his pedigree, if known, to the PRA Data books (see Resources below).
Dr. Gus Aguirre has been working on identifying the genes responsible
for PRA in Labradors (and other breeds; the markers for Irish Setters have
already been identified) for several years now. It appears
from his reports that a DNA test may be available within a few years.
You can also contact Michele Feitler of VetGen at 800-4-VETGEN FAX 313/669-8441;
their research team is trying to locate the gene that causes PRA and need
DNA samples from affected dogs and their
families. Only with complete information can we begin to remove this problem from the breed.
Swedish PRA Labs
Labradors are also prone to other joint problems such as OCD and arthritis. Look for breeders who not only OFA hips but also elbows or who use the Wind Morgan program in addition to OFA.
Tricuspid Valve Dysplasia (TVD)
Breeders are beginning to recognize a new problem in the Labrador breed,
a defect of the heart termed Tricuspid Valve Dysplasia. After a stud dog
on the west coast produced a number of young puppies
dying of this disease, he was tested and found with a very mild case, detectable only through an echocardiogram, an auscultation (stethescope) exam was not adequate. It is NOT known at present what the
mode of inheritance of this disease is, or how widespread it is in the breed. Ask the breeders whether their dogs have been cleared by an echocardiogram. At the moment, very few dogs are so cleared as we
know very little about this problem.
Some further sources of information:
Also called "wash tail" and "limber tail", "cold tail" occurs when your
dog's tail goes limp and he bites at it as if it were a foreign body attached
to him. This condition is not serious and should go away in
two or three days. It seems to be associated with swimming in cold water (hence the name). It's thought to be a reaction on the part of one of the glands at the base of the tail, or perhaps a sort of muscle
spasm. M. Christine Zink covers the condition in Peak Performance; it is not typically listed in veterinary handbooks.
Because of their drop ears and their love of swimming, Labradors can be prone to ear infections. Not all Labs get them, but many that do can be chronic about it unless you take regular preventive steps.
It's a good idea to check your dog's ears regularly. You are looking
for two things. First the ear's appearance: should be light pink or flesh-toned
(yellow Labs will have pinker skin) and clean. Second, the
ear's general odor: should not smell anything from the ear or the canal.
If the ear is dirty, use a tissue or cotton ball and wipe the ear out.
Because of the shape of the dog's ear canal, you will not injure him by
swabbing down there, but use only your fingers, never a Q-tip or
something similar. If your dog seems to generate a lot of waxy material, you may want to put him on regular cleaning program. You should not have to wipe out the ear very often, perhaps once a month or
less, unless he's been out swimming.
If the ear smells bad, you should take your dog into the vet to be treated for it. There are a variety of types of ear infections. Thereafter, you should clean your dog's ears regularly to prevent further infections.
Many Lab owners commonly use a solution like the following:
2 tablespoons Boric Acid
4 oz Rubbing Alcohol
1 tablespoons Glycerine
Shake well. Put 1 small eyedropperfull in each ear. Rub it around first,
and then let the dog shake. Do this once a week and you shouldn't see any
ear infections. It works by raising the pH level slightly
inside the ear, making it less hospitable to bacteria. This will NOT clear up an existing infection, this is a preventive remedy only. If the dog's ears are presently infected or sensitive, this solution may
further irritate the ear tissues.
For whatever reason, Labradors appear to be especially prone to ruptured
cruciate ligaments. This injury is usually sustained during some type of
activity involving twisting the legs -- jumping to catch an
object in mid-air, for example. Treatment involves any of a number of surgical options and extremely restricted activity for at least 6 weeks after surgery. It can take up to 6 months for performance dogs to
Laryngeal paralysis occurs when one or both sides of thelarynx do not
open and close properly. Depending on the severity of the paralysis will
impede the dog's ability to get oxygen. This can lead to
overheating, as dogs pant to cool themselves down, but a dog with laryngeal paralysis cannot pant effectively. Labs seem to develop LP mainly as a function of old age although some younger dogs come
down with it. Labs are not congenitally disposed to LP as some other breeds are, however.
The earliest sign of LP is a change to the sound of the dog's bark and
a rough sound in the breathing. To diagnose LP, the dog must be lightly
anesthetized and the movement of the larynx studied. It does
take some experience to correctly diagnose this, so ask for a referral if your vet suspects LP, but has not much experience with the condition.
The only treatment for Laryngeal Paralysis is surgery to tack open at
least one of the laryngeal folds. However, while oxygen is now assured
to the dog, the dog is also at increased risk for aspiration
pneumonia as food or water can now be more easily inhaled. LP patients are typically fed from raised bowls and prohibited from swimming in non-chlorinated water. In addition, LP patients no longer bark
normally, and sound as if they had been debarked (in fact the surgery is similar).
The other option is no treatment. Several owners report that with no
treatment and careful monitoring of the dog's condition (especially on
warm days), some dogs do well for a while longer. Discuss all
possibilities with your vet, as there are varying levels of severity of LP which can factor into your decision about treatment.
Other issues to discuss with breeders are epilepsy, skin allergies and thyroid function.
Rimadyl should be administered with due caution. Most of the major side
effects (liver toxicity) to this drug have been observed in Labradors,
although it is unknown if that is due to the proportion of dogs
needing such medications being Labradors, or if Labs as a breed are subsceptible to it. Discuss this issue thoroughly with your vet.