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Posts Tagged ‘intelligent outcrosses’

These field bred labs are built like flat-coats.

These field bred labs are built like flat-coats.

The Labrador retriever is the top retriever today, both in terms of registrations and in working tests and trials. However, this breed did not become even remotely common until just before the Second World War, even in field trials.

The most common trial retriever before the Lab’s ascendancy was the old wavy-coat landrace and then the old flat-coat breed (both of which included the golden). In Britain, these trials were almost exclusively land trials, that made use of pheasants or hares.  These land trials were perfect for dogs that have a high degree of setter in their background.

Labradors, as we know them today, were actually quite rare dogs in the UK. They were first bred by the Earl of Malmesbury out of the short-haired St. John’s water dog. These Malmesbury dogs and newly imported short-haired dogs from Newfoundland provided the basis for the Labrador breed that was finally established from the St. John’s water dog at the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate. Today, you can still find the Buccleuch strain of Labradors.

The Labrador was unknown to the fancy. One cannot find them in the works Hugh Dalziel or Idstone, although one must assume that the St. John’s water dog is the breed Idstone mentions as the “Newfoundland” that was used as a retriever outcross. However, we do know that the dogs that eventually evolved into the heavy Newfoundland were also used for retrieving shot birds.

The short-haired dogs were closely held by the Earls of Malmesbury through the nineteenth century. The same conditions applied with the Dukes of Buccleuch’s strain.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Buccleuch strain occasionally wound up into the hands of a few other sporstmen. However, they really weren’t that common.  These were not superior trial dogs, either, and they generally didn’t do as well at land trials as flat-coats did.

But then something happened. The Labradors fanciers began to outcross with lots of dogs to increase speed and soften the mouth. They crossed with foxhounds and pointers to add speed and endurance, and whippets and greyhounds to make them lighter on the ground. They also used lots of good flat-coat trial dogs as an important outcross.  The fact that a lot of field type Labs look like flat-coats is no accident.

It was during the Interwar Period that the Lab began to be perfected as a trial quality working retriever, and at the same time, the flat-coat was undergoing some bad fad breeding. The dogs were being bred way too light in build, and to make matters worse, they were developing a long, “borzoi” muzzle that had no strength or control to grip the birds as a more moderate muzzle. In fact, a lot of trialers began to claim that borzoi had been added to the flat-coat line, which further decreased their popularity.

This very lightly built flat-coat is similar to the "weedy" dogs that were being produced in the interwar period.

This very lightly built flat-coat is similar to the "weedy" dogs that were being produced in the Interwar Period.

By the late 1930’s, the Lab had finally replaced the flat-coat as the top retriever in British trials.

In the US, retriever trials were largely duck dog events. In fact, the earliest American retriever trials consisted of Chesapeake “duck-dogs” and water spaniels (Irish and American). The Labrador was then adapted into the duck dog trials. It proved to be an easier dog to handle than the Chesapeake, simply because the Chesapeake is a market hunter’s dog, designed entirely for efficient retrieving, not fancy trial work. It was also faster in the water than the water spaniels, so it very quickly became the top duck dog on this continent.

The Labrador replaced the top retrievers in both the US and the UK by the late 1930’s. It was able to do so because its breeders were willing to experiment with crossbreeding to make a dog that was as efficient in the water as any Chesapeake, as biddable as any collie, and as birdy as any setter. And to think that this breed was virtually unknown 40 years before it took over.

Today, the Lab is the top retriever, and it will probably never be replaced. I will bet on it as long as stud-books remain strictly closed and no one can do the experimental breeding that Labrador people used to perfect their dog.

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