James Harris the Earl of Malmesbury had been the first person to import the St. John’s water dog to England in the early 1800s. He used them around his home, Heron Court, to help him while hunting by retrieving dead or dying fowl. His son continued the tradition and continued importing St. John’s dogs and kept a fully stocked kennel for his favorite pastime, duck hunting. Some other British aristocrats like Walter Scott the 5th Duke of Buccleuch in Scotland also began to import the dogs and used them for the same activities.
Aristocrats of the time were particular about what they wanted from the dog, particularly the color. Black dogs were considered to be the best, not only because of the natural camouflage that the color of the coat offered but they were believed to be smarter as well. As a result puppies that had any other color coat were culled at birth.
The dogs that were bred in the kennels of these aristocrats became known as Labrador dogs. Since the dogs were excellent hunting dogs a number of kennels began to try to breed them with other good hunting dogs to maximize the traits that the aristocrat wanted. This led to a number of mixed breeds and by the 1880s the St. John’s dog had all but died out in Great Britain and the
Labrador dog was in danger of following. For the Labrador Retriever the problem was that only aristocrats wanted them and only then to be used for hunting creating a limited market.
It was a chance meeting that saved the dog that would come to be known as the Labrador Retriever. The 6th Duke of Buccleuch and the 12th Duke of Home were in the south of England for the winter (or to visit a sick relative). While there they decided to hunt waterfowl with the 4th Earl of Malmesbury. Malmesbury used his Labrador dogs, which he had kept as a pure bloodline by continuously importing new St. John’s dogs from Newfoundland. The Duke of Buccleuch was impressed by what the Earl’s dogs could do and the Earl gave him some of his dogs to begin his own breeding program since his family’s dogs had died. The first dogs born from this program, Ned in 1882 and Avon in 1885, are the ancestors of every British Labrador Retriever.
Since the dogs were used for hunting waterfowl it was also the gun that saved them. The invention of the breech-loading rifle in the late 1800s had changed hunting in Great Britain. The new style of hunting drove game in front of the hunter who was able to get off more shots since the time spent reloading was greatly reduced. With more shots, and potentially more kills, a dog to retrieve the kills was even more essential and the Labrador dog fit the bill. It was this style of hunt that the Earl of Malmesbury and the Duke of Buccleuch took part in.
By the 1890s new St. John’s dogs were becoming almost impossible to get. The government of Newfoundland imposed a tax on the dogs since they were trying to encourage sheep farming which lead to many of the dogs there being sold and many were simply killed to avoid the tax. The British government then banned the importation of foreign animals in 1895, particularly dogs, to try to stamp out rabies. British-born pure Labrador dogs were now in demand but only a few breeders like the Duke of Buccleuch had them.
Things have certainly changed in the past 100+ years as the Labrador Retriever has gone from only a hunting dog for aristocrats to the most popular breed of dog around the world. The Buccleuch Kennels are still active today, having survived the barring of importing dogs from Newfoundland, war in both 1914 and 1939 and a distemper epidemic.
It’s nice to be in demand.