The Labrador Retriever (also Labrador, or Lab for short) is one of several kinds of retriever, a type of gun dog. A breed characteristic is webbed paws for swimming, useful for the breed's original purpose of retrieving fishing nets. The Labrador is the most popular breed of dog by registered ownership in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States (since 1991). It is also one of the most popular assistance dog breeds in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States and many other countries, as well as being widely used by police and other official bodies for their detection and working abilities. Typically, Labradors are athletic and love to swim, play catch and retrieve games, are good with young children, and for protection.
The modern Labrador's ancestors originated on the island of Newfoundland, now part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The founding breed of the Labrador was the St. John's Water Dog, a breed that emerged through ad-hoc breedings by early settlers of the island in the 16th century. The forebears of the St. John's Dog are not known, but were likely a random-bred mix of English, Irish, and Portuguese working breeds. The Newfoundland (known then as the Greater Newfoundland) is likely a result of the St. John's Dog breeding with mastiffs brought to the island by the generations of Portuguese fishermen who had been fishing offshore since the 16th century. The smaller short-coated St. John's Dog (also known then as the Lesser Newfoundland) was used for retrieval and pulling in nets from the water. These smaller dogs were the forebears of the Labrador Retriever. The white chest, feet, chin, and muzzle - known as tuxedo markings - characteristic of the St. John's Dog often appear in modern Lab mixes, and will occasionally manifest in Labradors as a small white spot on the chest (known as a medallion) or stray white hairs on the feet or muzzle.
The St. John's area of Newfoundland was settled mainly by the English and Irish. Local fishermen originally used the St. John's dog to assist in carrying ropes between boats, towing dories, and helping to retrieve fishnets in the water. The Labrador's loyalty and hard working behaviour were valuable assets for fishermen.
A number of St. John's Dogs were brought back to the Poole area of England in the early 19th century, then the hub of the Newfoundland fishing trade, by the gentry, and became prized as sporting and waterfowl hunting dogs. A few kennels breeding these grew up in England; at the same time a combination of sheep protection policy (Newfoundland) and rabies quarantine (England) led to their gradual demise in their country of origin.
The first and second Earls of Malmesbury, who bred for duck shooting on his estate, and the 5th and 6th Dukes of Buccleuch, and youngest son Lord George William Montagu-Douglas-Scott, were instrumental in developing and establishing the modern Labrador breed in 19th century England. The dogs Avon ("Buccleuch Avon") and Ned given by Malmesbury to assist the Duke of Buccleuch's breeding program in the 1880s are considered the ancestors of all modern Labradors.
The first St. John's dog was said to be brought to England around 1820; however, the breed's reputation had spread to England long before. There is a story that the Earl of Malmesbury saw a St. John's Dog on a fishing boat and immediately made arrangements with traders to have some of these dogs exported to England. These ancestors of the first labradors so impressed the Earl with their skill and ability for retrieving anything within the water and on shore that he devoted his entire kennel to developing and stabilising the breed.
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