When considering the history of the Labrador Retriever, many people have heard it said that the breed originated in Canada, specifically Newfoundland. In the early 19thcentury there were two breeds of dogs common to the area, a larger, heavy-coated dog (now known as the Newfoundland) and a smaller version. Before it became formally known as the Labrador Retriever, it was more accurately referred to as the St. John’s Water Dog and even the Lesser Newfoundland.
But where did this St. John’s Water Dog or Newfoundland dog come from? How did it get to the island of Newfoundland in the first place?
Chew on this excerpt from The Ultimate Labrador Retriever Edited by Heather Wiles-Fone, copyright 1997, p. 19-20:
“Clearly, the Labrador dog was manufactured, a practice that continues to the present time. The very selection process that results from the breeding of dogs in domestic conditions involves a shaping by man of both the physical and mental attributes of the dog. It is in this sense that dogs are manufactured. However with the Labrador, unlike many other breeds, there does seem to be a strength of type that some authors have seen as evidence of ancient lineage, something that probably has little scientific basis.
Mary Roslin-Williams in her influential book The Dual-Purpose Labrador (1969), includes a photograph of a Cane di Castro Laboreiro, a breed found in Northern Portugal. She wonders whether this clearly Labrador-like dog was the solid foundation upon which the breed developed in Newfoundland. The Portuguese were a major seafaring nation. There is no reason to doubt that they took dogs to the New World. The name Laboreiro may be a coincidence, but it is a very interesting coincidence. The same picture had been used many years before in The Working Dogs of the World (1947) by Hubbard, who described the dog as a Portuguese Cattle Dog, of which the Cane de Castro Laboreiro was one variety.
Hubbard goes so far as to provide a detailed description of the dogs: “The head is broad… a well defined stop… the eyes are medium in size set rather obliquely and almond shape, dark in colour; the ears are set rather wide apart, wide at the base, triangular and carried pendant though not Hound fashion; the muzzle is of fair depth with strong level teeth. The body is typical length (rectangular rather than square) and is well muscled yet lithe, with deep chest and well coupled loins; the legs moderately boned, straight and sinewy, with round compact feet, the tail is of natural length, set low and carried low in repose or horizontal when in action. The coat is short and harsh generally, though smooth on the muzzle, ears and fronts of the legs. Colours are all greys and all brindles. The height is 24 inches for dogs and 22 inches for bitches… Weights are relatively heavy (especially for the male dogs) as 77 pounds is the ideal average for dogs, and 55 pounds that for bitches.”
The evidence of the photograph is compelling. The dog is very like a modern Labrador, not as heavy, nor as finished, nor as refined as a modern show Labrador, but that is another story. Hubbard’s description of the dog could be part of a Labrador Standard. There is a strong case for the Caone de Castro Laboreiro to be regarded as at least the foundation of the Labrador, maybe a foundation built upon by the addition of mastiff blood for substance, plus perhaps the black St Hubert’s hound for colour, and possibly a dash of water dog for the retrieving instinct.
Mary Roslin-Williams later wrote All About the Labrador (1975), and returned to the idea with the comment: “I am told by someone who travels regularly through the northern border between Portugal, Spain and France that the local dogs working the cattle still look like poor specimens of Labradors, and that at first he believed them to be bad Labradors, until he found them to be the working dog of the district and of ancient descent.”
Throughout the available literature there have been allusions to an Iberian connection for the Labrador. Eley in The History of Retrievers (1920) was full of praise for the Labrador, insisting: “that I have today no dog of any other breed in my kennel, that I have no intention of changing allegiance. Labrador is a Spanish word meaning a workman. Evviva Labradores.”
Vessey-Fitzgerald in The Domestic Dog (1957) reviews the dog in art, and asks the reader to consider the work of Velazquez (1599-1660) suggesting that he was a realist who could only paint from a model. Velazquez painted the Infante Dom Fernando as a sportsman. Alongside the Prince is his dog: “… who has powerful jaws and a marked stop and the suggestion of width between the ears and the kindly eye giving the impression of great intelligence… I am convinced that we have the first portrait of the breed we know today as the Labrador. We are too apt to think of Labrador as a cold and inhospitable coastal province of Canada. It is as well to remember that in Spanish it simply means a workman.”
Lord George Scott in Scott and Middleton: The Labrador Dog is clearly aware of the Iberian connection, yet he makes only a short point of this, before moving on: “The Portuguese word Lavrador means Labourer.”
We may be fairly sure that the dogs of the Iberian peninsula played a major role in the development of today’s Labrador.”