The Labrador Retriever, despite its huge popularity in both the United States and the United Kingdom is actually one of the many breeds of dogs that originated in Canada. The fishermen of the time used dogs to help haul the incredibly heavy fishing nets back into boats. The icy water the northern Atlantic Ocean was a challenge for many breeds, but through crossing with many different water dog breeds a highly distinguishable breed, known as the St. John's Dog, eventually evolved in the 1600s.
The St. John's Dog, named after a city in Newfoundland, was similar in appearance to the modern day Labs and Newfoundlands. The exact breed combination used to create the St. John's Dog isn't known, but it was believed to include the St. Hubert Hound. This French breed, which resembles a heavy Bloodhound, was probably crossed with the forerunners of the Portuguese Water Dog, various pointers and other local dogs which may have had wolf ancestry. The St. John's Dog, from the few surviving pictures and descriptions, had an all black coat with some white markings on the muzzle, chest and feet, often considered a tuxedo style of marking.
The St. John's Dogs were very popular, with several being exported to England and even Portugal with the fishermen that came to the area in the 1800s. In the early 1800s a massive dog tax was enacted by the English government, resulting in a dramatic decrease in the number of dogs within the Maritime regions. The few St. John's Dogs that ended up in other countries were used in developing both water dogs as well as bird dogs, causing the full extinction of the breed by the early to mid 1900s.
However, during this time the St. John's Dog was also being crossed, somewhat randomly, with the larger mastiffs that were also popular as fishing and protection dogs. Two different types of dog evolved, one which eventually was bred for shorter coats and slighter bodies, perfect for retrieving and pulling in the bobbing corks of fishing lines. These smaller, shorter coated dogs were the early foundation of the Labrador Retrievers. The second breed was heavier with a long, wavy coat, and this breed became know as the Newfoundland. Both the Labs and the Newfoundlands still occasionally have a smaller white patch on their chest, with Newfoundlands having a coat color called the Landseer, the is sometimes considered a separate breed from the all black Newfoundlands or the ones with just slight white on the chest. The Labrador was, for a short time, called the Lesser Newfoundland, but this name proved to be too confusing and was also somewhat inferior in description of these dogs.
The actual name Labrador is also a somewhat confusing. While it may directly refer to a part of Canada known as Labrador, which is very close to Newfoundland, it may also have other significance. The Portuguese fishermen and agricultural workers in the area were known as "lavradores" or labradores, which may have influenced the name of the breed as well.
Over time the shorter coated Labrador Retrievers proved to be the most efficient in swimming in the icy water as their thick, somewhat naturally oily coats simply repelled the water. The strength of the dogs when swimming was legendary, plus their innate ability to retrieve and their naturally "soft" mouths made them a perfect match.
Since the Labrador was valued as a hunting and sporting dog, they too were exported to England with individuals returning from Canada. Several kennels in England are considered to be the foundation of the modern Lab breed. These include the well known Buccleuch Avon, from the 1880 breeding program by the Duke of Buccleuch. In addition the Earls of Malmesbury also helped to establish and develop what are now some of the premiere championship field lines within the breed.
Although the majority of Labs and St. John's Dogs were black in color, there were some noticeable differences. In the early 1800s there were several dogs, still within the original St. John's Dog breed, that had a liver color, which is brownish to red in color. There is also written descriptions of a butterscotch colored line, which is likely to be the early yellow coloration. The liver coloration is most likely the modern chocolate color. The first true yellow Lab was a dog named Ben of Hyde and was born at the turn of the century. All brindles or other colors were culled from breeding lines, allowing the three colors to become the standard. The chocolate color for the Lab was not formally recognized until 1930.
Some breeders now claim a fourth color, called a silver Lab; however these dogs are not recognized by any of the major Kennel Clubs and cannot be shown in the ring. Many breeders believe that the color is a result of a cross with the Weimaraner breed, which does have a marked similar physical appearance to a Lab, although smaller.
The modern Lab is very similar to these original working dogs that were so admired in both North America and the United Kingdom. As hunters demanded these dogs, their popularity continued to grow and expand. The calm, gentle and very non-aggressive personality and temperament of the breed ensured that they made the transition from working to hunting dog, then from hunting to companion dog with amazing ease.
The Labrador Retriever is the most popular breed of dog in the United States, and has been in the top 5 breeds for many, many years. Despite their larger size, they are so adaptable they just make terrific all round great dogs. Labs are also currently the most used breed or cross as guide dogs and assistance dogs, plus they are also used in police work and search and rescue. They have a great scent ability and can be trained to track, plus they are highly intelligent and learn very quickly.
Although in the United States there are separate field and show lines the general appearance of the Lab from either type is relatively similar. In the United Kingdom it is interesting to note that a dog that is primarily used in show still has to prove itself in field competitions, but the same requirements don't apply in the AKC.