Posts Tagged ‘Cao de Castro Laboreiro’

This portrait by Edmund Havell was painted around the year 1840.

It is called “William Stratton, Head Keeper to Sir John Cope of Bramshill Park, Hampshire.”

The original copy no longer exists.

For some reason, it was displayed at the British Embassy in Tripoli.

Earlier this year, when Libya was in throes of a bitter civil war.  The United States, Britain, France, and Italy were engaged in supporting the rebels against Col. Gaddafi with air strikes. In  a demonstration of their rage against the West, Gaddafi’s supporters stormed and looted the British embassy. They took the fine works of art out of the embassy, and it is believed that they were burned.

The Sir John Cope who employed William Stratton as his keeper was not the famous military commander who lost to the Jacobites at Prestonpans in 1745.  This Sir John Cope assume the title in 1812, but he was part of the same Cope family that had owned Bramshill Park since 1700.

The dog is of great interest to retriever history, for here we have an unequivocal example of a red brindle retriever.

Brindle still pops up in Labrador and Chesapeake Bay retrievers today, and it is masked by the e/e mutation in golden retrievers. The only way one can see it in golden retrievers is if a golden with a e/e masking brindle is bred to another breed. (Like these golden retriever/Malinois crosses.) Most golden retrievers are e/e masking dominant black, but black and tan, brindle, and sable can be masked.

This particular dog strongly resembles a Cão de Castro Laboreiro. It is often suggested that the St. John’s water dog or early Labrador is partially derived from this dog. Stonehenge wrote that brindling on an English retriever would be indicative of its “Labrador” heritage:

An English retriever, whether smooth or curly-coated, should be black or black-and-tan, or black with tabby or brindled legs, the brindled legs being indicative of the Labrador origin. We give the preference, from experience, to the flat-coated or short-coated small St. John’s or Labrador breed. These breeds we believe to be identical. The small St. John’s has marvellous intelligence, a great aptitude for learning to carry, a soft mouth, great strength, and he is a good swimmer. If there is any cross at all in this breed it should be the setter cross (pg. 89).

(Note that there is a definite reference to the St. John’s breed having long hair. “Flat-coated” means long haired in retriever parlance.)

Charles Eley in his The History of Retrievers (1921) wrote  that with wavy/flat-coated retrievers that “[t]he early specimens had frequently shown tan and brindle.”

In those accounts, the retrievers were only brindle at tan points or on the legs.

This dog is entirely red brindle.

This brindle dog could have been called a Newfoundland, a Labrador,  a St. John’s water dog or St. John’s dog, or a wavy-coated retriever, depending upon the context. Because the painting dates to about 1840, it more than likely would have been called Labrador or Newfoundland.

These dogs were developed from stock that belonged to various people living in Newfoundland. One should never discount that the mainstay of English, British, and Irish settlers brought dogs from those countries. However, there were several nations that fished off Newfoundland– most notably, the Portuguese.   Most people know that the Portuguese were among the first Europeans to visit the island, and the place called Labrador was actually land that the Portuguese crown granted to a sailor who explored this part of the world in the fifteenth century.

Fishing off the Grand Banks was a stable of the Portuguese economy well into the twentieth century.

The tendency in many official retriever histories was to ignore the possibility that Iberian breeds could have played a role in the founding of the St. John’s water dog. Richard Wolters dismissed the possibility that the Portuguese water dog could have played some role in developing the St. John’s breed, simply because the official concession on the Grand Banks gave the Portuguese different fishing grounds from the British and Irish fishermen.

The problem with this dismissal is that from at least the eighteenth century, English and Irish settlers were living in Newfoundland– in defiance of a law passed in parliament that forbid permanent settlement on the island. Many of these people were pressed into service with the British navy– freed from jails and workhouses, where they may have been sent for poaching on the great hunting estates.  These sailors– almost all of them men– lived in defiance of the law, and they called themselves “the Masterless Men.”

These Masterless Men likely wouldn’t have paid any attention to any maritime laws, and they likely occasionally relied upon the Portuguese and sailors from other nations to gain access to new goods.

I don’t see why such people would not have been able to procure Portuguese water dogs, which act very much like retrievers and worked on the Portuguese fleets in almost the exact same fashion as the St. John’s water once did.

I also don’t see why the  Cão de Castro Laboreiro or something very similar to it couldn’t have been brought over with the Portuguese.

Cão de Castro Laboreiro is a rustic farm dog from northern Portugal.  It is from the village of Castro Laborerio, which it was developed to guard cattle and other livestock from wolves. It can handle cold conditions quite well.

There is a very similar brindle dog on the Azores,  Cão de Fila de  São Miguel. It’s normally cropped and docked and looks quite fierce, but when undocked, it is very similar. It has a different mtDNA sequence, but since we’re talking about dogs that may have come from the same generalized landrace– and dog from the Azores represents an insular population– it might be possible that these dogs are more closely related than the mtDNA analysis might suggest.

Cão de Castro Laboreiro. This dog is very similar to the retriever in the painting by Edmund Havell. They also come in yellow, and the yellow ones really look like Labradors.

My guess is the rough cattle dog-type from northern Portugal would have been an asset in Newfoundland, which was full of black and polar bears (which were called “water bears.”) Breed this sort of dog with some working English cur dogs, water spaniels, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and English water dogs (poodle-type dogs), and the odd retrieving Native American dog from the mainland. Then allow a rigorous selection from that melange of canines for function and for ability, and you likely get the formula that gave us the St. John’s water dog.

It is even possible that the name “Labrador” that is used to refer to these dogs comes from a misunderstanding of the Portuguese word “Laboreiro.” The St. John’s breed was developed on the island of Newfoundland and then was taken to Labrador.   It was not actually developed in Labrador at all.

And the actually modern Labrador retriever, which is always said to be the oldest of retrievers, came into its current form somewhat more recently than the strains of retriever that became golden retrievers. They were developed into their current form in Britain–mainly by the Dukes of Buccleuch in Scotland. Labrador retriever as we know it today is no more Canadian than the other large retrievers are. They all descend from the St. John’s water dog, but the modern Labrador is not the same thing as the St. John’s water dog. (The Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever actually is Canadian, but it’s not primarily derived from the St. John’s water dog as the others are. It’s actually primarily collie.)

The real problem that some people have with the  Cão de Castro Laboreiro being an ancestor of retrievers is the temperament of the  Cão is much sharper than any of the retrievers.

But that assumes that all retrievers are as docile as Labrador and golden retrievers and that their ancestors were just as nice. It’s true that the St. John’s water dogs that survived on Newfoundland into the twentieth century were very nice friendly dogs.

But they weren’t always this way. Col. Peter Hawker was British sportsman who was the first person to write about using the St. John’s water dog as a retriever in the United Kingdom.  In his Instructions to Young Sportsmen (1824), he describes the temperament of the dogs very differently from what one might expect:

Newfoundland [St. John’s water] dogs are so expert and savage, when fighting, that they generally contrive to seize some vital part, and often do a serious injury to their antagonist. I should, therefore, mention, that the only way to get them immediately off is to put a rope, or handkerchief, round their necks, and keep tightening it, by which means their breath will be gone, and they will be instantly choked from their hold (pg. 256).

That’s a very different temperament from what is normally expected of a retriever.

Over time, these dogs were bred to be much more docile. However, two dogs of this ancestry retain their more aggressive natures. Shooting estates required dogs that were friendlier and more docile, as did the development of retriever trials.

And these two retrievers are likely the earliest offshoots of the St. John’s water dog– the Chesapeake Bay retriever and the curly. These two dogs are known for having a somewhat sharper edge than the other retrievers, although they are not nearly as extreme as the Cão de Castro Laboreiro.

Now, this brindle color could have come from a variety of places. There are lots of brindle dogs from England that could have been crossed in.

However, the similarities between the Cão de Castro Laboreiro and the retriever standing with William Stratton are quite striking.

Of course, we do need a DNA analysis to find out if this possibility is more than a striking resemblance.


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The Cão de Castro Laboreiro's similarities with the Labrador retriever are not mere coincidences.

The Cão de Castro Laboreiro's similarities with the Labrador retriever are not mere coincidences.

The  Cão de Castro Laboreiro is a livestock guardian breed from far northeastern Portugal. It is typically brindle or rather dark brindle in coloration. It is most likely an ancestor of the St. John’s water dog.

Now, its temperament is very different from retrievers. It is a much fiercer guard dog than any Chesapeake Bay retriever, and I’ve never heard of one with retrieving instinct. However, it lived in very Spartan conditions in northern Portugal, defending its master’s livestock from wolves and bears, until the bears and wolves were exteriminated into relict populations.

I think it is very likely that Portuguese fishermen brought these dogs on their fishing boats.  The poodle-type water dogs were probably not much protection from pirates and other dangers on the high seas. The fleet most likely needed a guard dog, and no better dog could found than those of northern Portugal. It is also possible that Spanish Basques may have brought the dog to Newfoundland, for the northern part of Portugal is not far from the Basque lands of the Pyrenees and the Bay of Biscay. (It is possible that the Basques could have brought the Pyrenean shepherd, the Spanish version of the poodle-type water dog, and the livestock guardian mastiffs, which we call the Pyrenean Mastiff and the Great Pyrenees, to the island. All of these could have played a role in developing in developing the St. John’s water dog.)

This breed is technically a mastiff, although centuries of living nearly wild in the Portuguese countryside has resulted in less exaggeration than any other breed of molosser. It is mesocephalic, like any retriever, and it possesses an insulating coat of dense hair that protects it from the elements.

Now, these dogs are invariably brindle, and if anyone has read a retriever breed standard, brindle is not an acceptable color. However, just because brindle isn’t an acceptable color to a standard dosn’t mean that it doesn’t mean they don’t occur. Brindle Chesapeakes and brindle Labradors still exist.

It is very likely that the appellation “Labrador” for the  St. John’s water dog-derived retrievers kept by the Earls of Malmebury and later by the Dukes of Buccleuch actually comes from a misunderstanding or mishearing of the “Laboreiro” in the Portuguese dog’s name. After all, these dogs came from the northeasternmost parts of North America, where there is a place called Labrador.

Further, in Chales Eely’s The History of Retrievers, the author mentions that many early wavy-coats were brindle or had tan markings. Now, the tan markings most likely came from the old-strain of farm collie, not dissimilar to the English shepherd. (See how the dog in the top photo looks a lot like a black and tan golden retriever?)

It’s likely that early European dogs that arrived in Newfoundland were a motley crew. After all the French and Spanish Basques used the island as a whaling and fishing ground, as did the Portuguese and, later,  the French, Dutch, and English. Any dog that could survive in this wilderness on the edge of the known world would have to be tough, and the dogs of Castro Laboreiro would have already been adapted to such austere places. They were probably crossed with the poodle-type water dogs and maybe some other Iberian breeds. Then the British and French came with spaniels, water spaniels, and herding dogs of all sorts.  Other types of mastiff could have been brought and added ot the mix. It is possible that someone imported the Labrador Husky (an Inuit nordic dog) to the island, and these dogs also mixed in with crowd.

Out of this canine soup came the St. John’s water dog. It was a landrace that varied greatly in appearance. The fishermen preferred the 60 or 70 pound dogs that had shorter coats. Longer-haired pups were often not kept and sent as export. A few strains may have been developed for hauling loads, and these dogs were selected to be a bit a larger, maybe through crossing in white, long-haired mastiffs. This strain became popular as a family pet in the late eighteenth century through to the end of the nineteenth century. It was invariably a black and white dog that was mass produced as the middle class family dog. It is from this strain that we get the larger dog we now call the Newfoundland and Landseer breeds.

However, the brindle coloration in early retrievers was said to reflect “Labrador” blood. One can only assume that this brindle idea was a misinterpretation of the name Cão de Castro Laboreiro. ( The name for the region called Labrador is similarly a misinterpretation of the Portuguese title lavrador, which means “landholder.”  A Portugues navigatior named João Fernandes came to explore the region just south of Greenland in 1498. This was right after Portugal realized that its maritime monolopy was about to be very much challenged by Spain’s discovery of the New World, and it sent people west to challenge Spain. When Fernandes saw this part of North America, he claimed it for Portugal. Portugal responed by giving Fernandes the land and the title João Fernandes Lavrador. For some reason, the English thought “lavrador” was his last name and named the land after him. If they had been more intelligent they would have called the land Fernandes.)

While we can look at the Portuguese water dogs and poodle-types as an important ancestor of the St. John’s water dog, one should not leave out thise working livestock guardian breed. It is probably from this breed that the Chesapeake Bay retriever inherited its protective instincts, and why some early accounts of the St. John’s water dog say that they are good at fighting.

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This breed of Portuguese livestock and farm guardian is a probable ancestor of the St. John's water dog and the retrievers.

This breed of Portuguese livestock and farm guardian is a probable ancestor of the St. John's water dog and the retrievers.

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:



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