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History of the Labrador

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.

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 discounted.

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 Buccleugh: 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.

Because black is the dominant color in the breed and because of the early “set backs” chocolates and yellows had early on most breeders agree today that the best quality in Labradors is in black. However, regardless of color the Labrador Retriever is no doubt the number one breed in the United States because of their wonderful temperament, which is truly the hallmark of this amazing breed.

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