The Labrador dog, let me remark, is a bold fellow, and, when well taught, understands, almost as well as any Christian biped, what you say to him.
Lambert De Boilieu, Recollections of Labrador Life (1861), pg. 172-173.
This first quote is known to virtually every Labrador retriever historian and fancier. I’ve seen it quoted in countless books, but it seems me that, after reading the accounts of these dogs in their native land, that most Labrador retriever people have not read the whole thing.
Boilieu was a mercantile agent in Labrador (not Newfoundland) in the early 1850’s. He became intimately familiar with the hard-working water curs and their many uses. Within his account, one finds some interesting tidbits:
During winter, for want of horses, dogs are used for the purpose of conveying all sorts of produce to and from the bays, as well as for pleasure. Some are trained as retrievers, watch, house, and water dogs. Still they are all of the same breed. The retriever is well known in England, but I fancy the duty of the Labrador watch-dog is little if at all understood. In the summer and fall, then, many stray ducks may be seen frequenting the small bays round the islands; the watch-dog lands with you, and, with much caution, examines the shore, and directly he observes ducks, he will instantly lie down and crawl out of their sight, then immediately rise and run towards you, when by his actions you may be sure he has sighted a company. He leads the way, and when in the vicinity of the birds, down he crouches, and you must do the same. Should you be over-eager, and fire at too great a distance, and miss your birds, the dog looks towards them for a moment, as if reflecting!—” It’s no use going into the water, he has not killed any,”—and stands still. If, on the other hand, you have a good shot— killing, say, half-a-dozen, and crippling three or four—in he bounds, leaving the dead birds and giving chase to the cripples. If they are wounded in the wings they swim with difficulty, and cannot dive, and so become an easy spoil. The dog has the instinct to know this, for he wastes but little time in the pursuit. It constantly arises that the spot from whence the ducks are shot is, at least, ten feet perpendicular from the water; sportsmen provide themselves in such instances with what is termed a “gunning gaff,” some twelve feet long, with an iron crook at the end, made in the shape of a shepherd’s crook. The dog brings a duck at a time under the rock; you place the crook round its neck, and draw it up or land it. The last bird the dog retains in his mouth, and allows himself to be drawn up in a somewhat scientific manner; that is to say, having seized the. bird firmly across the wings he swims under the rock, and allows his master to place the hook through his collar at the back of the neck; then placing his paws against the rock, and throwing his weight on the gaff, he gracefully walks up and lands his game; did be not retain it in the operation in all probability he would be choked. Of a fine day I have seen these dogs near the landwash amusing themselves fishing, diving six or seven feet, and bringing up a fish every time. Their mode of diving is not direct, but spiral.
It has been said a goose is a foolish bird, and certainly the geese of Labrador are very foolish indeed. They are found some miles up the bays, and when discovered the dog uses a simple artifice to decoy them. Near the shore (the neighbourhood of a small wood, with goose-grass in the foreground, is their favourite resort) he rushes out of the wood into the water and swims some eight or ten yards, with head low and-tail out—looking something like a water-fowl—then comes back to the shore, and so continues until he fancies they are within shot, when he quietly waits by your side watching your gun, and, by his looks, showing his anxiety to see the flash. Then off he goes and secures his birds, and lands them at your feet.
The house-dog has a peculiar sagacity. I trained one to keep house in a noiseless manner. If myself or steward was not at home, and a visitor called, the dog would allow him to walk in, sit down, light and smoke his pipe, as if unconscious of his presence; but if the visitor attempted to leave the house the dog was up in an instant, and, placing himself in the doorway, showed a set of teeth of dazzling but appalling whiteness. The frightened fellow again returns and takes his seat, the dog once more lies down, and thus the pair are seen on the return of one of the household. A visitor once served that way takes care to look through the window on his next call, to see if any one is at home. The dogs sent to England, with rough shaggy coats, are useless on the coast; the true-bred and serviceable dog having smooth, short hair, very close and compact to the body. I sent to England a fine specimen of these, but unfortunately the vessel which bore it had the misfortune to be wrecked on the north coast of Ireland, and all hands were lost (pg. 239-244).
The first account of the retrievers being “gaffed” up as the returned from retrieves is a testament to how tough these ancestral retrievers were. It also would have been a selection pressure for hard mouth, for a dog that would hold onto anything while going through that procedure would have to have a good grip on what it was retrieving.
However, it is very interesting to note that Boilieu observed first hand what I have inferred had to have happened with long-haired puppies that were born on Newfoundland. My inference came from the paucity of accounts smooth-coated retrievers in England in the nineteenth century. Because the smooth coat is dominant to the feathered coat, one would have thought that the majority of retrievers in Britain would have been short-haired. That is not what we see. The feathered wavy-coated retriever was the most common retriever in Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is sometimes suggested that the feathering came from setters that were crossed with these dogs, but the simple rules of population genetics say that this is unlikely. If the smooth-coated dogs were bred to setters, the majority of the dogs that resulted from those crosses would have been short-haired. But that is not what the historical record shows.
But Boilieu actually saw these long-haired dogs being exported to England. As a mercantile agent in Labrador, he was in the business of exports and imports, so he knew what the people of Newfoundland and Labrador valued.
Boilieu clearly understood that these working dogs in Newfoundland were the same breed that was being widely used as a retriever in England, so to the average British person, the word “Labrador” very often referred to a long-haired dog, but in Labrador and Newfoundland, it referred to the dog with the otter’s coat. That explains why the later dogs on Newfoundland were mostly of this short-haired type.
The ancestral retriever, the St. John’s water dog or “Labrador,” was the ultimate working and hunting dog. It had evolved to work in the wild frontier that included wild, game-filled forests and one of the most productive marine ecoystems in the world. These tough and intelligent dogs– dogs of common settlers and fisherman– are the ancestors of all of our retrievers, which worked the shooting estates of the landed gentry in Britain.
They were forged in the wild country and then refined in the genteel motherland.
Born paupers, they became princes. And then became the beloved family pets we know today.