The Labrador Retriever originated in the English fishing fleets of the 16th and 17th centuries. During that era, cod was a highly sought commodity. Cod fish dried well and were also were easily preserved by treatment with salt. Cod was thus a valued food to sustain armies and navies. Because of the large number of “meatless” religious holidays cod was also in great demand by the civilian populace. At the beginning of the 16th century more Europeans were engaged in fishing than in any other occupation except farming.
The English began fishing the banks off Newfoundland in the 15th century and by 1615 the English fishing vessels working the Banks off Newfoundland numbered around 250. The English fishing vessels carried with them a number of small dories from which the fishermen caught cod on hand lines. At the depths he fished, it might take a half hour to bring in two cod. As the fish were brought from water into the boat, there was a great opportunity for a fish to flop off of the primitive fishhook. That freed fish would be in a comatose state for a few seconds and an alert dog would have chance to hop in the water and fetch him into the boat. Such a dog would have had a significant economic value. That dog was the ancestor of the Labrador Retriever.
The early fishing fleets also left behind over the winter some work crews to maintain the drying racks and cut wood. Settlements came and went. Working dogs became an integral part of the fishing activities in summer. These same dogs served in winter as hunting dogs to help the settlers gather in the game that served to supplement the humans’ diet. One would expect that the major economic role played by these dogs would fairly ruthlessly drive a breeding selection process for a hardworking efficient retriever with great talent in cold water. Over the course of several hundred years, these dogs would become the ancestors of the St. John’s Water Dog of the island of Newfoundland.
In the 1700s and 1800s the advent of the flintlock, followed by percussion fowling pieces in Europe ushered in the age of sporting guns and the shooting of birds for sport, an activity that was enthusiastically embraced by the gentry of England. As the sport of shooting fowl became popular, so did the endeavor of using dogs to find and fetch the harvest. In the late 1700s and early 1800s the English sportsmen began developing several breeds of dogs to find, point and/or fetch the quarry. One of these breeds was the Labrador which was bred originally from the St. Johns Water Dog.
The main two early breeders of the Labrador were the 5th Duke of Buccleuch in Scotland and the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury in southern England. The Duke of Buccleuch bred them for their excellence as gundogs for his estates in Scotland. The Earl of Malmesbury bred them for use in duck shooting on his estate at Heron Court on the South Coast of Dorset, because of the Labrador’s acknowledged expertise in waterfowling.
The two breeding programs flourished independently until the early 1880’s when the 6th Duke of Buccleuch and the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury met by chance while shooting. The Earl of Malmsbury subsequently gave to Buccleuch some of his impressive waterfowling Labradors, and the rest is history.
The 6th Duke of Buccleuch mated bitches of the original strain to the Malmesbury waterfowling strain and produced the impressive Labradors that were the foundation to today’s talented Labrador breed. Beginning with Buccleuch Ned in 1882 and Buccleuch Avon in 1885 a strong bloodline was developed; a bloodline which figured prominently in winners of early British Field Trials.
Shortly after the death of the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury in 1889, the Malmesbury kennel ceased operating, leaving the Labrador to be preserved by the Dukes of Buccleuch. The Buccleuch Kennels are unique in that the original strain of Labrador imported in the 1830s has been strictly maintained to the present day.
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