The Birth of the Labrador Retriever
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. At the end of the 15th
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. The single hand line
carried 2 hooks at its end, allowing the fisherman to haul up 2 cod at a time. 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
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.