Do Labrador Retrievers come from Labrador?

Labradors are such common dogs that we don’t really think about the name anymore. While watching a nature show on TV, I discovered that Labrador is actually a province in Canada. Then I wondered, is this where Labrador Retrievers come from?

Do Labradors come from Labrador? No. They come from Newfoundland. Labrador is on the mainland of Canada while Newfoundland is a neighboring island. Both names together are used for the province of “Newfoundland and Labrador”.

Is that not splitting hairs?

If the two areas are both a part of the same province then does it matter where the Labrador Retriever came from?

Deeper investigation reveals otherwise.

A Word About Lab History


Labrador Retriever history

History tells us that at the end of the 10th century Norsemen, like Leif Ericsson, made several voyages to the west from northern Europe.

These sailors were the Vikings.

They established a temporary settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows on the island now known as Newfoundland. The village was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978. This Newfoundland village ruin is credited as the only confirmed Norse site in North America.

Giovanni Caboto, (John Cabot to you and me), a Venetian navigator, was the first European whose arrival at these shores is documented.

Well, sort of…

There are few actual papers that record his voyage. It is generally accepted that he landed at Cape Bonavista on the island in 1497.

The evidence is a bit flimsy, but nothing better has come to light.


It is said that Labrador probably received its name from the Portuguese designation, “Terra del Lavradors.”

João Fernandes Lavrador was the name of a Portuguese explorer form the Azores. He first sighted the mainland in 1498.

Basque fishermen were the next explorers. They arrived around 1525. They whaled and fished for cod off the Labrador shores.

However, an Icelandic sailor named Bjorn (did he invent tennis?) was driven off course in 1001 and made landfall in a place he named Markland. Most scholars think that the place was probably Labrador.


The dates above show that Newfoundland was the first of the two areas to be inhabited by Europeans.

Of course, they were preceded by others.

They were the Maritime Archaic people, who are classified as Native Indian, and the palaeoeskimo, who originated in Alaska. The palaeoeskimos evolved into the Thule, and they, in turn, became the Inuit.

There is quite a bit of disagreement as to whether the native people on Newfoundland had dogs of their own or not. The last tribe that occupied the island, the Beothuks, did not originally keep dogs. In later years (the 1900’s) the last of the Beothuks did have dogs.

The fishermen mentioned previously had working dogs. The dogs pulled fishing nets and retrieved fish.

But could they be regarded as indigenous?

Surely not, since the fishermen themselves originated from Europe. It looks certain that they brought dogs with them. But there is a lot of speculation if interbreeding with “native” or “local” dogs occurred.

Was Labrador the Original Name of the Dog?

If you accept that there were no indigenous dogs, then the working dogs on Newfoundland island were the ancestors of the modern Labrador.

The original name of the dog considered to be the main root of today’s Labrador Retriever was the St. John’s water dog. They were also called the Lesser Newfoundland.

These dogs do not exist anymore.

There is a photograph that claims to be of the two last St John’s water dogs. Both were males. Lacking a bitch to breed with, extinction of the breed followed their death in the 1980s.

St. John’s dogs were imported to England in the early 19th century.

One of the earliest mentions of the name Labrador is found in this book: “Instructions to Young Sportsmen”, by Lt. Col Peter Hawker, published in 1833.

It was reprinted in later years so it is still available at a reasonable cost. In his book Lt. Col. Hawker names the “Labrador” and “St. John’s dogs” as “proper” breeds on page 282.

Labrador is a British Name

One source ignores Lt. Col Hawker and credits the second Earl of Malmesbury, James Harris,  with coining the name. It cites that the Earl referred in a letter in 1887 to “Labrador dogs”.

However, the same source reports an earlier date. It says that the fifth Duke of Buccleuch, Walter Francis Montagu Douglas Scott, first documented the name Labrador in 1839.

Whoever used the name first, it looks like it was definitely an Englishman.

Buccleuch, Malmesbury, and Home are important names in establishing and continuing the Labrador breed.

The sons of the Duke (Buccleuch) and the Earl (Malmesbury) met on a shoot at the estate of Buccleuch’s uncle, another Earl (Home).

Malmesbury gave Buccleuch two dogs. These are claimed to be the ancestors of all British Labradors. They were named Buccleuch Avon and Buccleuch Ned. The owner’s name is traditionally used as a prefix for the dog’s name.

Labrador is Also a British Breed

We have had a look at the reason why the Labrador Retriever ended up with this name. We have seen that the original dogs came from Newfoundland, not Labrador.

How did this dog develop into one of the most popular modern dog breeds?

Did it happen in either of the two parts of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador?

Sadly, the Canadians missed out on the chance to have produced the Labrador Retriever. This breed is entirely English.

Back to the Duke and the Earl.

In 1836, seamen from the UK first came across labradors in Newfoundland and took them back to Great Britain.

The dogs were bought by the Duke and the Earl.

For the next 50 years, the Duke continued to import dogs from Newfoundland and used them as gundogs.  Meanwhile, the Earl established kennels and bred dogs from the base stock first brought over in the 1830s. His dogs were used for duck shooting on the south coast of Dorset.

The next Duke of Buccleuch (he was the sixth, son of the one who started the imports) also began breeding programs. I have already told the story of the uncle giving his nephew the dogs as a present.

Matings were made between these two dogs and a pair of the Duke’s bitches. These bitches were “pure” dogs, descended from dogs from the original imports. These puppies formed the basis of the renowned line of Buccleuch Labradors which still exists today.

The Labrador Retriever was registered as a breed by The Kennel Club in England in 1903 and by the American Kennel Club in 1917.

Related Questions

Is there a difference between a Labrador and a Labrador Retriever?

No, they are the same. In the UK they are classified as a Gun Dog, while in the USA they are classified as a Sporting dog. However, they are not only good as retrievers. They make excellent family dogs, service dogs, and search and rescue dogs.

Are Labradors easy to train?

Yes. They love having something to do, are eager to please, and respond very well to rewards like food. They are known for their intelligence and lack of aggression. They are also not stubborn or disobedient by nature.

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