Remember when I said that brindle sometimes appears in Chesapeake Bay retrievers?
Well, brindle used to be somewhat common in retrievers. “The early specimens had frequently shown tan and brindle,” Charles Eley writes about the first wavy-coats that were bred from the St. John’s water dog in The History of Retrievers (1921, pg. 4). Eley goes on to say that all the old water dogs were called Labrador, and he seems to associate brindle with the early imports to Britain from Newfoundland. Brindle is a disqualifying marking in Labrador retrievers today in the AKC, as are tan markings. (Tan markings are allowed in the KC/FCI standard for black Labradors; it’s not even mentioned as a fault. See this.) There are also faulty brindle Chessies.
Now, where did this brindle color come from?
Well, to answer that question, we have to understand the history of Newfoundland. Newfoundland is well-known for having the first proven European settlements in the New World, the Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows. Contrary to some pseudo-history, it is unlikely that any Norse dogs remained in Newfoundland after the Norse abandoned the settlements. The native Beothuck were unusual among Native Americans from North American in that the they had no dogs, either of North American or European ancestry. (Although there are some people who would argue with me on this).
The most likely source for brindle European dogs is in Iberia. The first Europeans to really begin to exploit the Grand Banks were the Spanish Basques, followed by the French Basques and the Portuguese. The Portuguese are worth paying attention to, because they do have a native livestock guardian dog that is brindle in color.
This dog is the Cão de Castro Laboreiro. It is a landrace farm dog that often roams as a feral animal in northeastern Portugal. It has been around for many, many years in that part of the world.
Well, that’s nice, but how does it connect to the Portuguese fishermen in Newfoundland?
Several retriever authorities, such as Marcia Schlehr, think that this is an anacestor of retrievers, and I was skeptical, until I learned of the brindle coloration that existed in the St. John’s water dogs.
Then I learned that this breed has a descendant from the Azores, the Cao de Fila de Sao Miguel. It is a brindle mastiff that is used as a farm dog, although it is an active herding breed, used for driving cattle.
This tells me that the Portuguese explorers and fishermen were keeping their brindle farm dogs on the ships with them.
They also probably had some of the poodle-type water dogs on their ships with them. It is possible that some of these dogs were left in Newfoundland, just as the British and French were settling there. They then bred the poodle-type water dogs and the brindle farm dogs together and then added setter, water spaniel, and collie to the mix. Hounds may have been used, but I don’t remember reading any records of large numbers of scent hounds being brought to Newfoundland in the early days of settlement. If you mix all of those breeds together for several generations, while selecting those that were the best net haulers, retrievers, and working dogs, you’d get the St. John’s water dog.
I think that a confusion of the word “Laboreiro” in the dog’s name is the reason why these dogs were sometimes called Labradors. Labrador– “the land God gave to Cain,” as Jacques Cartier called it– was part of Newfoundland at this time (It is now the province of Newfoundland and Labrador). It does have a native dog, the Labrador husky, which arrived with the Inuit people around the year 1300. It has no other native dogs. All St. John’s water dogs come from the island of Newfoundland, which is much more heavily settled. However, it would make sense that a British settler would confuse the names.
Now, the region called Labrador is actually named for a Portuguese explorer Joao Fernandes, who was given the title of Lavrador (landholder). It was he who explored this region first (after the Norse). He sailed first for Portugal, but then Henry VII hired him to explore the same region and claim it for England. On that expedition, he disappeared. Because the English settled Newfoundland and eventually claimed that whole region, the region was called Labrador.
Now, what about temperament?
The Castro Laboreiro dog is a protective guardian, and most retrievers are not. However, one of the earliest strains of retriever descended from the St. John’s water dog is the Chesapeake Bay duck dog (Chesapeake Bay retriever). For those of you who don’t already know, Chessies are much more protective than the other retrievers. At one time, they were even considered to be an aggressive breed, although I think that they have been greatly mellowed out in modern times. The dogs were used to guard fishing boats and the boats of market hunters.
Lieutenant-Colonel Hawker (1814) also wrote of the early “Newfoundlands” as a dog good for “running, swimming, or fighting.” This suggests that the early St. John’s water dog could be a bit sharper dog than the modern retrievers. (Hawker flips the usual distinction between the way we view Newfoundlands and Labradors, with the big hairy ones being called “proper Labradors” and the 70 pounders as “Newfoundlands.”)
So I have posited what most experts believe is the source of the brindle color that is so disliked in retrievers. It comes from a livestock guardian dog that lives a very rugged life in Portugal.
If you don’t believe me, have a look at these pictures: