Many authorities believe that the forebears of the Labrador Retrievers were produced in Newfoundland. They also agree that the breed descended from the St. John’s variety of water dog. Attempts to further trace the history of the Labrador Retriever have failed or have yielded no strong proof.
Some believe they were brought to Newfoundland by the fishermen of Devon, when they first invaded and settled the land. Others believe they originated in North America, and some even say they are of Asiatic descent.
The Labrador Retriever performed many useful services for the fishermen of Newfoundland, for example, he could help gather up fishing nets and carry ropes between boats. There are even stories of Labrador Retrievers saving crew members from drowning.
The first Labrador was brought to England in the 1820s, but the breed’s reputation had spread to England many years before. The story goes, the Earl of Malmesbury saw a Labrador on a fishing boat and immediately made arrangements with certain traders to have some imported.
The Labradors so impressed the Earl with their genius for retrieving that he devoted his entire kennel to developing the breed. It was not long before many others realized their worth and followed his example. In their enthusiasm, they gave little thought to keeping the breed pure. However, the Malmesbury strain retained its purity for many years.
Eventually, a combination of the Newfoundland dog tax and the English quarantine laws brought importing to a standstill. Interbreeding became necessary as a means of acquiring new blood. In most cases this activity was restricted to the use of the curly-coated and flat-coated retrievers and various breeds of water spaniels. Due to the fact that the breed was very old, its characteristics remained predominant throughout.
In 1903, the Labrador was recognized by the English Kennel Club, but at that time no definite standard of the breed was agreed upon. Fortunately for the breed, its followers were primarily interested in the development of working qualities. Unhampered by a standard, they were able to continue their breeding schemes, which included occasional outcrosses, and were responsible for producing the multi-purpose dog that is our present-day Labrador Retriever.
According to some records, the Labrador’s first appearance in the show ring took place as early 1860. Oddly enough, this was long before the breed received its official nod from the Kennel Club. It is said that King George V had a great deal to do with awakening national interest in the breed.
Then as now, the majority of the Labrador’s followers attributed little importance to success in the show ring. They measured value by the ability to deliver in the field. As a means of discerning their Labrador’s respective merits, small groups of enthusiasts started to hold retriever trials in 1880.
Over a period of time, the interest and the entries grew considerably. As a result of this increased competition, breeders redoubled their efforts to refine and strengthen the Labrador’s valuable qualities, each striving to outdo the other. This healthy competition produced the strong foundation that is responsible for the proficient working ability of the breed today.
Americans knew little of the Labrador’s true usefulness until after World War 1. At that time they gradually began to be imported, but it was not until the middle 1930s that they gained any sort of widespread acclaim. Retriever field trials were largely responsible for the rapid spread of the breed’s popularity in the United States. Once the Labrador had the chance to demonstrate his capabilities before the public, his reputation and numbers grew quickly.
The breed has made a highly successful trial record in the United States. For example, during one 20-year period, Labradors placed first in 520 out of 637 trials open to all breeds of retrievers and Irish Water Spaniels. They have gained the coveted title of National Retriever Champion for twelve out of the first sixteen years it was in existence.
Little known before the 1930s, the Labrador has already taken an unchallenged lead in the retriever field and today is steadily climbing to a well-earned place among the country’s leading breeds.