Labrador Retriever History Part 1 – Are Labradors Really from Labrador?

The modern Labrador Retriever has become one of the most popular, if not the most popular, dog breeds of all time. Labrador retrievers have become ubiquitous in modern society and serve a variety of roles as working dogs, companions, and pets. Their willingness to please, intelligence, athleticism, and general hardiness have become universally accepted as consistent characteristics of the breed. As with many dog breeds, their name includes a geographic location linked to the dog. However, with Labrador Retrievers, we now know that the area of Labrador actually had little to no impact in the development of the breed.

The modern Labrador retriever is a descendent of what are commonly referred to as St. John’s water dogs, which originated from a large island off the northeast coast of North America known as Newfoundland. Newfoundland is now a part of the Canadian province “Newfoundland and Labrador,” but does not actually include the area of Labrador, nor is it contiguous with it. Newfoundland was first settled by the Dorset Eskimos, and archaeologists have discovered Viking settlements that date back to 1000 AD. Robert Thorne and Hughe Elliot are credited as discovering the island for the British in 1494.

After European discovery, the island of Newfoundland became a summer fishing out post, initially housing temporary workers that were forbidden to permanently settle the island. However, by 1650 many of these European workers had settled the island and resided year round on its interior. It was a harsh life that was centered around the plentiful fishing found off the remote island’s coasts.

Lassie, one of the last surviving Water Dogs from Newfoundland. Credit: The Labrador Retriever, Richard Wolters.

There are many misconceptions about the origin’s of the St. John’s water dogs. Early historical accounts commonly refer to the dogs by different names, including Newfoundland dogs (not to be confused with the modern Newfoundland breed), St. John’s water dogs, lesser Newfoundland’s, and more. There is also some confusion as to whether the dogs ancestors were native to the island or imported. Notably, early descriptions about the Newfoundland island do not mention the presence of a native dog, despite more recent accounts from the 20th century having suggested otherwise. Historical records demonstrate that the English brought dogs over on ships as early at the 1600’s. In fact, the strongest currently available evidence suggests that fishermen from Devon, England may have taken the Labrador’s ancestors to Newfoundland around the 16th and 17th centuries.

Devon is a county in southwest England, and the Devon fisherman were respected throughout England as being skilled hunters and fisherman. They settled and fished in an area of Newfoundland known as Avalon, where the predominant method of fishing was shore fishing. Their role in maintaining English sovereignty on the Newfoundland Island was not minor, and they were described as “famous for their woodcraft, their sporting skill, and their daring courage.” Richard Wolters describes their need for a dog on the island as natural, and the type of dog they needed coincided well with the St. John Water Dog.

It was bleak living for the Devon winter crews. Besides the work of repairing and constructing facilities for the spring return of the fishermen, they had to provide shelter and food for themselves. For the Devon man, a dog became as much of a tool as a boat. Game was abundant in Avalon and a good hunting dog was necessary for survival. The dog they brought from their home hunting stock had to be a good hunter. He also had to have a good disposition because he would be a companion as well as a worker during the long, lonely winters. The dog would have to be a good strong swimmer and small enough for the fisherman to take in his dory.

Richard Wolters, “The Labrador Retriever. The History…The People…Revisited.”
Credit: Frontispiece of “Instructions to a Young Sportsman” by Colonel Hawker.

While early books researching the origin of the St. John’s water dog have attributed it as a descendant of the modern Newfoundland dog, it is likely the opposite. It is now thought that both the Labrador Retriever and the modern Newfoundland dog descended separately from the original St. John’s water dogs. Where the St. John’s water dogs come from is a bit of a mystery. Te men of Devon had several hunting breeds to choose from at the time. Richard Wolters makes a strong case for the St. Hubert’s dog being the original ancestor.

A book written in 1576, Booke of Hunting, by George Turbervile, discusses various hunting dogs used by the West Country hunters. One of the available dogs was a black dog called a “Saint Hubert’s hound” in honor of the patron saint of the hunter…the drawing of the dog has such a striking resemblance to the Labrador that we can leave it to the reader to make his own determination…the dog – at least during the latter part of the sixteenth century – was prevalent in England…

Could this be the ancestor of today’s Labrador?…Because no other definitive documentation exists, we can only suggest, on the basis of this evidence, that the black St. Huberts dog was the ancestor of the Lab.

Richard Wolters, “The Labrador Retriever. The History…The People…Revisited.”
St. Hubert's Dog - Precursor to Labrador Retriever
16th Century Drawing of a St. Hubert’s Dog

Although no definitive evidence exists, the available data makes it likely that the St. John’s water dog descended from the St. Hubert’s dog. Other breeds have been posited as potential precursors, the the theories have been disproven. What is know is that sometime during the 16th and 17th centuries, it is very likely that the English, including outdoorsman from Devon, imported hunting dogs to Newfoundland. Subsequently, selective breedings of these dogs based on both the environment and the work needed from them led to the St. John’s water dog.

On the island of Newfoundland, the St. John’s water dog developed a great reputation as a sagacious and utilitarian dog as well as a companion. Fishing with barbed hooks was not common in these days sy, and St. John’s water dogs were often used to retrieve fish that fell off the hook. Many comment on their strong swimming ability and their hardiness in extreme conditions, and even describe lowering the dogs down into the sea with a rope or hauling them back in with a lasso after retrieving fish in rough waters.

After several hundred years of selective breeding on the island of Newfoundland, the St. John’s water dog was ready to return to England, and to develop into the steadfast, intelligent, and hard working dog we know as the modern Lab. Stay tuned for Part 2 to learn about the lab’s development in 19th century England.