Labradors are by far the most popular dog in America and with good reason! They are a wonderful, devoted breed, very driven to please, eager to learn, loyal, loving, outgoing, playful, and smart. They are considered to be the all-around perfect family dog. Someone once said, "Labs never seems to have a bad day," and we couldn't agree more!
The Labrador Retriever is a strongly built, relatively large, short-coupled dog, with males typically weighing 65 to 90 pounds and females 55 to 70 pounds. The ideal Lab possesses a sound, athletic, well-balanced conformation that enables it to function as a retrieving gun dog; the substance and soundness to hunt waterfowl or upland game for long hours under difficult conditions; the character and quality to win in the show ring; and the temperament to be a family companion.
The most distinguishing physical characteristics of the Labrador Retriever are its short, dense, weather resistant coat; a clean-cut head with broad back skull and moderate stop; powerful jaws; and its "kind," friendly eyes, expressing character, intelligence and good temperament. Because the Lab is a double-coated breed, which sheds seasonally, regular grooming is required to keep his coat at its water-resistant best. Colors include black, yellow (fox-red to light cream) and chocolate (light to dark). Any other colors, including silver or white, do not qualify for AKC registration, and are often produced by crossing with other breeds. A small white spot on the chest is permissible.
The Labrador offers much that appeals; his gentle ways, intelligence, and adaptability make him an ideal dog. Because of his even temperament and trainability, millions of people all over the world own a Labrador retriever as a pet. They are the most popular dog by official registration on the planet. The typical Lab disposition is one of a kindly, outgoing, tractable nature; eager to please and non-aggressive towards people or animals. Labradors are well known for their ability to bond with people and to work diligently for them, making this breed ideal for search and rescue, detection, and therapy work. Labs are a highly intelligent breed, ranked # 7 in Stanley Coren's The Intelligence of Dogs — this is out of hundreds of available breeds.
While their primary working role in the field continues to be that of a hunting retriever, Labradors hold a reputation as an excellent family dog. This includes being reliable around children of all ages and other animals. Labs thrive as part of an active family, and excel in sporting activities, such as hiking, jogging, agility, rally, and catch/retrieve games (frisbee and flyball), all of which are excellent for burning off excess enthusiasm as well as engaging the mind.
Labrador Retrievers originated in Newfoundland, Canada and are believed to have descended from the now extinct "St. John's Water Dog". At that time, Labrador Retrievers where trained to help retrieve fishing nets from the icy cold waters of the North Atlantic, and to retrieve escaping fish. Their dense, water-repellant coats, swimming skills and hard working nature made them the perfect dog for this task. In the early 19th century, the Duke of Malmesbury was the first to coin the name "Labrador" and set up a breeding program in England. Labs where recognized by The British Kennel Club in 1903 and the American Kennel Club in 1917.
Although up for debate, the most popular theory is that the Labrador Retriever's name likely derives from the Portuguese "lavradores" or Spanish "labradores" — both of which mean "farm worker" rather than the Labrador region of Canada. But then, maybe that is where the Canadian province got its name as well.
Labradors are now considered the most popular dog breed in the world. The Labrador Retriever has been the most registered dog in America and England since 1991; the American Kennel Club had almost three times as many Labrador Retriever registrations in 2006 (124,000) as the second most popular breed, German Shepherds. The American Kennel Club (AKC) announced that the intelligent, family friendly breed holds tight to the number one spot on the most popular list for the 24th consecutive year (2015), continuing the longest reign as the nation's top dog in AKC history. Famous Labrador Retrievers include the title character from the film version of "Old Yeller" (though the book version was a Mountain Cur), Marley from the bestselling memoir 'Marley and Me', and Tawny, the yellow Lab who gave birth to 18 puppies with her first litter in 1999 and named the "Iams Mother of the Year".
The modern Labrador's ancestors originated during the 16th century on the island of Newfoundland, now part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The founding breed was often referred to as St. John's Water Dog, St. John's Dog or the Lesser Newfoundland (photo right).
When these dogs were brought to England, they were named after the geographic Labrador area of their origin to distinguish them from the larger Newfoundland breed. St. John's dogs are also the ancestor of the Flat Coated Retriever, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and Golden Retriever.
St. John's dogs were medium-sized, strong, and stocky – more closely resembling modern English Labradors than American Labs. They were typically black in color with characteristic white patches on the chest, chin, feet, and muzzle. This classic 'tuxedo' marking of the St. John's dog commonly manifests in modern day Lab mixes. In full-blooded Labs, there occasionally appears a small white chest patch – known as a "medallion" – or as a few stray white hairs on the feet (although not desireable, both are acceptable for AKC registration).
No records were kept of the development of the St. John's Dog, as they were likely a random-bred, working breed mix, developed by the English, Irish, and especially the Portuguese fishermen that settled in the area (in the Portuguese language, the word Labrador means 'laborer' ). The breed we know today as the Newfoundland was known then as the "Greater Newfoundland", and is likely a result of the St. John's Dog having been crossed with Portuguese mastiffs.
St. John's dogs were used by the local fishermen to assist in carrying ropes between boats, towing dories, pulling fishnets out of the water, and retrieving escaping fish. The Labrador's loyalty and hard working behavior were the most valuable assets for fishermen, so naturally those dogs most eager to please were retained for breeding.
The first St. John's Dogs were brought to England around 1820 and the breed became somewhat popular. However, in 1895, the Rabies Quarantine Act put a halt to the import of all dogs, and the remaining pure St. Johns Dogs eventually died out.
During the late 19th century, the breed's reputation in Canada created a revived interest in England. Evidently, the Earl of Malmesbury saw a St. John's Dog working on a fishing boat in Canada and immediately made arrangements to have some exported to England. These ancestors of the first Labradors so impressed the Earl with their skill and ability for retrieving anything within the water and on shore that he devoted his life to developing and stabilizing the breed.
This English breeding program was undertaken by the first and second Earls of Malmesbury, the 5th and 6th Dukes of Buccleuch, and Lord George William Montagu-Douglas-Scott, all of whom bred primarily for duck shooting. Were is not for these dedicated sport hunters, we would not have the Labradors of today.
The dogs, Avon (photo right) and Ned — given by Malmesbury to assist the Duke of Buccleuch's breeding program — are considered the ancestors of true modern Labradors.
Towards the end of the 18th century in Newfoundland, sheep protection laws were passed limiting each family to only one dog, with a severe licensing tax imposed on all dogs, significantly higher on females than on males. Because of this, the St John's Dog pretty much disappeared, perhaps only leaving a few today of mixed ancestry.
Several early descriptions of the St. John's Water Dog exist. In 1822, explorer W.E. Cormack crossed the island of Newfoundland by foot. In his journal he wrote, "The dogs are admirably trained as retrievers in fowling, and are otherwise useful. The smooth or short-haired dog is preferred because in frosty weather the long haired kind become encumbered with ice on coming out of the water."
Another early report by a Colonel Hawker described the dog as, "By far the best for any kind of shooting. He is generally black and no bigger than a Pointer, very fine in legs, with short, smooth hair and does not carry his tail so much curled as the other; is extremely quick, running, swimming and fighting... and their sense of smell is hardly to be credited.
In his book, Excursions In and About Newfoundland During the Years 1839 and 1840, the geologist Joseph Beete Jukes describes the St. John's Water Dog: "A thin, short-haired, black dog came off-shore to us today. The animal was of a breed very different from what we understand by the term Newfoundland dog in England. He had a thin, tapering snout, a long thin tail, and rather thin, but powerful legs, with a lank body - the hair short and smooth... These are the most abundant dogs in the country... but are generally more intelligent and useful than the others... I observed he once or twice put his foot in the water and paddled it about. This foot was white, and Harvey said he did it to "toil" or entice the fish. The whole proceeding struck me as remarkable, more especially as they said he had never been taught anything of the kind."