Posts Tagged ‘Retriever history’

(Source for image)

This depiction comes from Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Frédéric Cuvier’s Histoire Naturelle des Mammiferes (Volume I). (The link takes you to the 1824 volume.) The authors call it a “Chien de terre neuve ” (Newfoundland dog).

Note the thick, almost feathered coat and the rather bushy tail.

This dog appears to be lightly feathered, but the artist rendition makes it a bit muddled. It could have had a coat like a German shepherd dog, but it appears to have wavy breeches and a bit more coat on the belly and chest.

However its coat actually was, no one would want to see in a modern Labrador retriever.

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Zelstone was a champion flat-coated retriever that was born in 1880. If one checks out his pedigree, one finds several “Labradors” in it. George Teasdale-Buckell believed he was a Newfoundland dog, but he probably wasn’t. (“Labrador” meant St. John’s water dog.)

He is often celebrated in the flat-coat literature– he probably appears in the extended pedigree of every living flat-coat– and the Guisachan dogs also trace back to him through his son Tracer.

The most famous depiction of Zelstone shows him to be quite different from modern flat-coats:

Now, hypothetically speaking, let’s say that Zelstone had been born today.

And let’s say that instead of being a black dog, he had been born of a color that might be called “Rich, lustrous golden of various shades.”

And let’s say he had been registered as a golden.

How would he do at a conformation show?

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Harding Cox in 1902.

One of my favorite sources for flat-coated and golden retriever lore and history from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century is Harding Cox. Harding Cox was the consummate dog show aficionado– and occasional critic.

In his 1902 text Dog Shows and Doggy People, Charles Henry Lane provides this information about Harding Cox:

Mr. Harding Cox is the younger son of the late Mr. Sergeant Cox, who was well known on the judicial bench three decades back, but who earned deathless fame as the founder of the Field, the Queen, the Law Times, etc. The subject of our illustration was born in the later fifties, and educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. At both seats of learning he distinguished himself in all branches of athletics. From early childhood he was an enthusiastic cynophilist, and exhibited his first dog (a Fox-terrier) at Hanley Show as far back as 1873, but without success. Since then he has exhibited, inter alia, Bull-dogs, Fox-terriers, Harriers, Greyhounds, Bull-terriers, Irish Terriers, Spaniels, and Flat-coated Retrievers. At one time his breed of Wire-haired Fox-terriers carried everything before them, and of late years his wins in Retriever and Spaniel Classes probably outnumber those of any other exhibitor at the ratio of two to one.

Nothing delights Mr. Harding Cox more than to win at a leading show with a youngster of his own breeding. In Black Drake he had a Retriever whose record as a prize winner was handsome enough, but whose success as a stud dog was phenomenal. It is chiefly owing to this grand dog that his owner was able to introduce a long string of winners to the public, such as Champion Black Queen, Black Petrel, Black Cherry, Black Star, Black Pride, Black Amazon, Black Quail, Black Charm, and Black Squirrel. The two latter were the sensational puppies of the year (1900), and both won first in their respective classes at the Crystal Palace Show. Charm is by Boreas of Butsford, but is out of Black Cherry, a daughter of Black Drake, who as progenitor of the above and many other winners, including the practically undefeated Champion Wimpole Peter, occupies a remarkable position in the annals of Retriever breeding.

Harding Cox's Ch. Black Queen.

Harding Cox was in flat-coats during their heyday. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, flat-coats were the retriever in Britain. Cox had seen the dogs go from the large and lumbering “Newfoundland”–type dogs to the more athletically built animals that dominated the retriever trials of that era.

He also lived to see the breed fall from grace just after the First World War and then be replaced by the Labrador as the top working retriever. It at this time period that Harding Cox writes about the breed in 1925. He explains the source for the breed’s fall, which is not what many would have expected, and then he contends that it won’t be long before the flat-coat, as the British staple among retrievers, would soon put the Labrador upstart in its place. (In case you were wondering, he was a little wrong about that one.)

The text in which Cox’s remarks appear is Jocelyn Lucas’s Breeding Pedigree Dogs–For Pleasure or Profit (1925).  The book includes commentary from various top breed experts (Winifred Charlesworth is the expert who writes the feature for golden retrievers).

Cox traces the breed’s history to dogs that arrived at Poole and North Wales, but he incorrectly believes that they are derived from some aboriginal British dog from the “far Northwest” of England.  That area may have been a source for black water dogs and curs that were exported to Newfoundland, where they became St. John’s water dogs. The fact that they were common at Poole definitely suggests a Newfoundland ancestry, for Poole was a major port for the British codfishery. Men of Devon and Dorset sailed to the wild shores of Newfoundland to fish for cod, and Newfoundland dialect is heavily influenced by peculiar English accent of this region, which we Americans, for whatever reason, associate with pirates.

Cox also believes the Labrador-type, with its smooth coat, was the result crossing this aboriginal British dog with the pointer, and the flat-coat is the result of crossing that breed with the setter. It suggests that the majority of the dogs of this type that were found among the cod fisherman in Britain were long-haired, for it is likely that the settlers on Newfoundland itself had little use for long-haired dogs. Anyone who has seen what happens to a golden retriever when it is run in the heavy snow knows fully well what the disadvantages are. The feathering collects snow and ice, which wind up slowing the dog down, especially when the dog stops occasionally to tear out the snow and ice balls that have formed in its coat.

But leaving Cox’s misunderstanding of the breed’s history aside, he does have some interesting information on the breed’s history from the time it became a Kennel Club breed in the 1870’s through its meteoric rise as a working and show dog to its collapse in the years after the First World War.

Cox blames the fall of the flat-coat on something rather unusual, something I had heard as a rumor but now seems at least plausible. Cox would have known what was going on in his breed, and in Herbert Compton’s The Twentieth Century Dog (1904), he argues that flat-coat fanciers should be more accepting of yellow and red individuals in the breed, simply because he felt they were of high quality. There were not very common at any rate, and for him to know about the dogs of this color really shows his knowledge of everything that was going on in the breed. He may have misunderstood the breed’s history a bit, but he knew what was going on around him very well.

On page 174, Cox writes about the addition of borzoi blood to the flat-coated breed. He extols the virtues of dog named Black Charm, but he contends that this dog wasn’t fully appreciated in his time because his head was not fashionable. At the time, narrow-headed dogs were all the rage in the breed– which Cox calls derides as “coffin heads.” The narrow skull and Roman nose that were so featured in these dogs “undoubtedly had been arrived at by surreptitious crossings with the Borzoi!”

I find Cox’s analysis here to be quite plausible. Harriet Ritvo discussed various unusual cross-breedings in show collies during the Victorian Era, and the breed experienced great shifts in conformation as different fads came and went.  I don’t see how this same phenomenon wouldn’t have happened in other breeds, especially when the registry wasn’t closed as we know it today.

Whether borzoi crosses were common or not, the very rumor that the breed had this blood in them could be very bad for working flat-coats. Borzoi are many things, but they are not retrievers. I’m sure that someone will post a comment on this blog about a retrieving borzoi, but they generally lack the behavioral traits that are associated with working retrievers. Borzoi do come in solid black, (dominant black) and one could imagine how a single cross with one of these black borzoi could easily melt into a  black, long-haired retriever strain.

Of course, these breeders could produce that head through selective breeding.  The heads of various dog breeds have changed dramatically over a very short period of time– the bull terrier is the best known example.

Cox and the flat-coat fanciers of the time recognized the problem, but they were probably too late. Cox writes about how they did all they could to breed out the narrow head and sighthound features. However, while they were doing this, the Labrador had a chance to improve its standing among the British retriever fancier class. “‘The stronger ‘The Lab’ grew, and the more level its type, the more did the Flatcoat recede in the favour of shooting men, until it looked like the latter breed would be practically wiped out” (174).

Now that they have breed out the “sinister” sighthound features, Cox contends the flat-coat will stage a comeback: “[N]ow there are signs that the beautiful, affectionate, easily trained, and generally efficient ‘Flatcoat’ is coming into its own again, and the days of the less beautiful and more obstinate Labrador are numbered” (174).

In this state, we can simply say he was wrong. Not even close. He was dead wrong. The flat-coat populations is but a tiny fraction of the Labrador retriever population worldwide. Of course, in this book, part of the purpose of each featured breed expert is to sell their breed–part of the book is, after all, about breeding dogs for profit– and if one has to make the situation look better than it is, one will.

Cox laments that even after all of this selective breeding away from the Borzoi-type, “atatvism asserts itself” and a dog with these features appears.

Of course, if Cox’s theory is true, these “atavisms” do tend to pop up every once in a while. Although the best flat-coats don’t have sight hound features, I have seen photos of dogs that have very long legs and a much more gracile physique than one typically sees in any retriever. Occasionally, the heads will be more like a sighthound’s than a retriever’s.

No genetic evidence has been found to corroborate Cox’s theory, but I don’t think anyone has performed a genetic study that looks for borzoi genes in the flat-coat.

It is possible that there are traces of borzoi in these dogs. I do not know how extensive it was, but for it to have caused that much trouble, it had to have been very commonplace. I wonder if someone at the time had a black borzoi stud dog that spent most of his time “covering” flat-coat bitches.

It would be very interesting if we could find proof of these crossings beyond what Harding Cox knew.  It could be that this is nothing more than another variant of the now debunked theory that Queen Victoria’s collies had borzoi ancestry.

But it seems possible that these crosses did take place. We just need more proof.


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This is one of the earliest depictions of a yellow retriever working. It is called “The Shooting Party–Ranton Abbey.” Francis Grant painted it in 1840.

Ranton Abbey was the shooting estate of Thomas William Anson, 1st Earl of Lichfield.  William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, is in attendance. He was the prime minister at the time of this painting. There are several other British aristocrats in the this painting– the Henry Paget, the 2nd Earl of Uxbridge and 1st Marquess of Anglesey; Charles William Molyneux, 3rd Earl of Sefton; and the boy seated on the ground is Thomas George Anson, 2nd Earl of Lichfield. These men were all Whig elite.

There are two retrievers in attendance. One is a black and tan dog that clearly resembles a dog of the collie type. The other is an obvious yellow dog retrieving a pheasant cock. He is somewhat like a yellow Labrador, but the coat is more profuse and perhaps even lightly feathered. (Here is a larger copy of the work that will allow you a better look at the dogs).

I would count these two dogs are early examples of the wavy-coated retriever type– although it is unlikely that these dogs contributed to the wavy and flat-coated retriever breed that had eventually developed by the 1850’s.

Whig nobles were into shooting estates. The 1st Earl of Lichfield purchased Ranton Abbey solely for shooting purposes. He spent great sums of money improving the land to improve habitat for pheasants and other game.

This penchant for shooting estates among the Whig elite would extend through the successor Liberal Party. When Dudley Marjoribanks, 1st Baron Tweedmouth, purchased Guisachan in the Scottish Highlands, he was following in this tradition.  Although Guisachan is now famous for being home to the yellow retrievers whose descendants would become goldens, it is unlikely that this animal had any connection to those dogs. But here was a yellow retriever, not quite a golden or a wavy coat, working as a gun dog for the Whig gentry.  The goldens would find themselves working for the Liberals– Whigs of a different permutation– just a few decades earlier.  But other than that, no connection can be made.

It is still an interesting painting , for it gives us an idea of the diversity that once was the retriever dog. If it could retrieve, it was a retriever, and it was bred to other dogs that retrieved. That’s why so many different dogs were used to found the retriever breeds. And why they varied so much in appearance.

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I find these every once in a while.  Here is a pedigree of a golden named Lady Betty. I know nothing of her golden retriever ancestors, and they aren’t mentioned in her pedigree either. However her black ancestors are known to every flat-coat historian.  Ch’s Black Drake, Darenth, and Black Queen all appear in the pedigree. When I go back through Black Drake, I find that he had Ch. Moonstone as a great grandsire. Moonstone carried the gene for yellow or red, because when he was bred to his dam, that breeding produced one red puppy named Foxcote. This might explain why a breeding between a descendant of Moonstone might be bred to a golden to produce a golden puppy. Moonstone’s litter brother, Tracer, was bred into the line kept at Guisachan– for obvious reasons!


Ch. Black Drake



Ch. Black Queen

Ch. Moonstone, an influential black flat-coat champion who produced at least one red puppy named Foxcote, when bred to his mother.


All of these dogs were black, but they did play a role in founding the golden retriever. They didn’t have closed registries back then, and even though there was a lot of line-breeding and inbreeding, they didn’t have the two breeds separate as they are today.

Goldens have black dogs in their pedigrees. These were some of the elite in flat-coated retriever history.

And some of their descendants were blonds and red-heads– and became a separate breed.

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This dog comes from the 1915 edition of W.E. Mason’s Dogs of All Nations.

Curlies haven’t changed that much.

One reason is they aren’t very common.

They were fairly common in the early days of retriever standardization, but for reasons of class and the type of trial that developed in Britain, they soon played second fiddle to the flat-coat (including the strains that gave us the golden and helped develop the  modern Labrador).

Flat-coats were very popular working estate battue shoots. They were the dogs of gentlemen.

Although curlies were owned by members of the upper class, part of their history was as a poacher’s dog. That’s why Gun Dog Magazine’s most recent article on them calls them “The Blue Collar Retriever.”

The flat-coats, goldens, and Labs always had some peer promoting their breeding. Look at their history and count the number of titled people who were breeding them.

One does not find that same situation with the curly-coat.

However, their very unique coats made them something sensation in the early days of the fancy.

It is often said that this is the oldest breed of retriever, but it is more likely that its age has to do with preserving its unique coat. Crossbreeding this dog with other retrievers means losing that coat, and it very hard to bring it back. So the emphasis would have been to standardize early to preserve the coat.

I don’t think this breed was included in the study on dog coat genes.

They may be an anomaly, just as Afghan hounds are.

The black dog in this video is a Lab/curly cross (the livers are Murray River curlies):


You can see that the curly-coat didn’t  survive the cross-breeding.

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My assessment of this piece by George Horlor is the red dog and black and tan dog represent are most likely Gordon setters. The other dog is a prototype of what became the English setter.

These dogs are more heavily-built setters than we typically imagine them today, even when we consider that Gordon setters are bigger and more heavily built than the other breeds.

These dogs definitely had a role in the development of the retrievers. The red dog has some features we ‘d associate with  modern golden retrievers . The skull is broader, and the build has some bone to it.

Also note the lighter, almost golden shadings on the red dog. These features are very strongly associated with very dark golden retrievers.

So when we think of setters from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we should not automatically assume that all of them were like the dogs of today.

Some of the dogs were indeed much more retriever-like than we might have previously assume.

And the connections between setters and the “setter-retrievers” (goldens and flat-coats) become more obvious.

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There is a better “Just So” story.

This one is about the creation of Labrador, golden, and flat-coated retrievers.

Hat tip to Patti S. for sending this one along!

Of course, if the goldens in this fable were actually American obedience and performance line dogs, I believe they would all be something like Thomas Jefferson– bright, ethereal, red-headed, and multi-talented.

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(Source for photo)

This dog is a Portuguese water dog.



It’s a Portuguese water dog.

But I thought they had poodle-type coats.

Well, some do. This one is an “improperly coated” Portuguese water dog.

What’s improper about them?

Portuguese water dogs have two correct coats. One is wavy, and one is curled (like a poodle). Both are constantly growing coats, just as you’d find on poodles and other water dogs.

This particular dog has a coat that is more like a flat-coated retriever– more like a “normal” long-haired dog.

I know this particular query got people guessing in all different direction. Most people thought it was some kind of gun dog, but Christopher and Sam eventually figured it out.

The famous person who owns one is President Obama. However, his dog is of a “proper” coat, but Bo is the same color as this dog.


A dog with an improper coat cannot be shown. However, the correct coat appears to be in some way dominant to the improper coat, which means that correctly-coated Portuguese water dogs can occasionally produce puppies with these faulty pelts.

Where this coat comes from is open to conjecture. Portuguese water dogs almost went extinct. They were revived through outcrossing with the Spanish water dog (which is actually a herding breed that moonlights as a water dog). It is likely that other breeds were mixed in– some of which may have been long-haired dogs.

However, it is possible that dogs of the typical long-haired type always existed in the Iberian water dog population. I will get to some reasons for why this might be possible later on.

For years Portuguese water dog breeders have been trying to breed away from this coat. Now, no one breeds the improperly coated dogs. That is a given.  But this coat remains persistent in the Portuguese water dog gene pool.

A few months ago I was alerted to the discovery of the genes that determine what kind of coat a dog has. It turns out that it is just variation on three genes that determines the coat type.

Once that was figured out, it wasn’t long before a test was developed to determine whether a Portuguese water dog with a normal coat is carrying the genes for an improper coat. In fact, the test is based upon the same research that found the genes responsible from the coat type. (I have not looked it closely, but it seems to me that they are using an SNP chip.)

What is this going to mean for Portuguese water dogs?

Well, it means that the breeders have a tool  that will allow them to cull away from this faulty coat.

The problem is Portuguese water dogs have genetic diversity issues.

In the 1980’s, it was listed as the rarest breed on earth. They had to be saved, as I wrote earlier, through outcrossing with Spanish water dogs. The dogs do have some real issues with genetic diversity and genetic disorders. The breed club, to its credit, has a very nicely funded and pro-active health foundation to really understand these disorders.

The problem is that now that the breeders can cull dogs carrying this coat, it means that the genetic diversity of this breed is probably going to get even more truncated. Potentially, it would could eliminate the improper coat in just a few generations.

But because they have eliminated carriers of that coat from the gene pool,  they will have lost a part of the gene pool. It means fewer unrelated dogs from which a breeder can choose to outcross. It means a greater chance in bad recessive genes coming together.

Of course, it doesn’t have to happen this way. It is possible that some breeders will tolerated the odd improper coat in their lines just to hold onto some good genes. My guess is that this is very likely. The club is very clear on keeping carriers in breeding programs.

After all, white boxers are a byproduct of breeding for the much sought-after flashy markings for the show wrong. Predominantly white boxers are often pilloried in Boxer circles, but if they would stop breeding for flashy markings, they would eliminate the white coloration entirely.

My other hunch is that Portuguese water dog fanciers tend to be better informed about genetic issues. Maybe the breeders will tolerate the occasional appearance of a retrieverish Portuguese water dog in their litters just to hold onto some genetic diversity.


We’ll have to wait and see. It’s up to the Portuguese water dog fancy right now.

Right now the club is very clear in telling its members not to cut out carriers of improper coat from the breeding programs, but I wonder if people will listen. Just knowing that you have the ability to produce this coat is a powerful piece of information. I don’t know if people are going to be thinking of the big picture enough to not cull carriers. I’d like to think they are, but my own niggling suspicions are that the breeders will cull carriers.

Maybe President Obama needs to weigh in on this issue (LOL).


Now, as I noted earlier, there is a possibility that the long-haired genes were always in the Iberian water dogs.

My evidence comes from a somewhat unusual inference.

The Portuguese water dog is probably an ancestor of the St. John’s water dog. Canadian author and St. John’s water dog lover Farley Mowat believed he had traced the origins of his beloved Albert to the dogs of Iberia.

If you look at these last two St. John’s water dogs, you can see some similarities with the improperly-coated Portuguese water dog in the photo at the top of this post:

The dogs are both black and white, and historically, the St. John’s breed came in liver, as do some Portuguese water dogs.

The Portuguese fishing fleet was among the first to fish the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Indeed, the name for Labrador (the place) actually comes from a Portuguese explorer named João Fernandes.  The Portuguese king gave him the title of “Lavrador” over the lands he discovered, which included Newfoundland and that place that became known as Labrador.

Portuguese water dogs were used to retrieve nets and lines from the sea, exactly as the St. John’s breed did. Indeed, the Potuguese water dogs were used as far north as Iceland, which means that they were very good cold water dogs.

Some of these dogs likely were left behind in Newfoundland, where they lost their poodle-type coats. Perhaps this happened due to cross-breeding. Perhaps it was due to natural selection.

But we do know that St. John’s water dogs that were being used on Newfoundland were mostly smooth-haired dogs– something like modern Labradors.

However, it is also likely that there were long-haired dogs of this type. I have a depiction of one:

This dog is listed in a mid-nineteenth century text as a “St. John’s Labrador.” It is long-haired.  I don’t think  it is a setter cross. The same text depicts as setter-retriever cross that has far less shaggy hair than this dogs does.

It seems to me that the “St. John’s Labrador” is the long-haired variant of the St.John’s water dog.  The long-haired dogs probably were more likely to be sold to English fishermen and traders. Short-haired animals were much more preferred in hunting game and working on fishing boats. They were more streamlined in the water, and they didn’t get bogged down with ice and frost when working in frigid conditions.

As someone who knows what happens to golden retrievers in the snow, I can say that this is not an idle concern. These dogs collect snowballs.

Take a look at the “St. John’s Labrador.”

Doesn’t it look a lot like the improperly-coated Portuguese water dog?

Perhaps these improperly-coated dogs were always part of the Portuguese water dog gene pool.

Perhaps they are the link between the St. John’s water dogs and the retrievers and the Iberian water dogs?

Portuguese fishermen may not have liked these dogs with improper coats, so they left them at Newfoundland or traded them to fishermen from other nations. And is from these dogs that the mostly smooth-haired St. John’s breed developed.


See Earlier Posts and Links:


I am intrigued that Mowat has an unpublished manuscript about these water dogs and his beloved Albert. I wish he would publish it, but I don’t think it is very likely.


Hat tip to Pai for alerting me to the test for improper coat. The historical part of this post has been in me for a while, but I have had a hard time finding good photos of Portuguese water dogs with improper coat.

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One the latest fads in the mass production of pet retrievers is the so-called silver Labrador.

There are two theories about what it is.

1. The dogs are the result of adding a little Weimaraner blood to a Labrador line. (This is the most popular theory).

2. When outcrossing was allowed in the Labrador retriever, some Norwegian elkhounds were crossed in to make the coat denser and to ensure good bone.

3. The coloration has always been in chocolate Labradors. It is like the ash coloration in the Chesapeake Bay retriever.

The dogs are all livers (bb), but they are diluted (dd). A dog that is bbdd will look silver.

If a Bb or BB dog is also dd, then the dog looks blue.

In Weimaraners, the standard coloration is bbdd, but a dog with rare (and faulty) blue coloration is a dog that has the Bbdd or BBdd genotype. (Check out this website on blue Weimaraners.)

The first and third theories are the most plausible. If there were no ash Chessies, I’d totally accept the Weimaraner theory.

The second theory makes very little sense. Norwegian elkhounds are gray, but their coloration comes from the so-called agouti series. You will never find a Norwegian elkhound with the silvery gray coloration on its nose, lips, nails, and the skin around its eyes.

It is interesting that the AKC has decided to register silvers as chocolates. However, the fact that the dilution gene even exists in this breed means that the “charcoal” coloration will pop up.


One of the common things I hear is that many silver Labs look houndy, and that alone is evidence of their miscegenation with the dogs of Weimar.

However, many Labs look houndy.

Yellow Labradors may have received some augmentation from in the influx of lemon foxhound blood. When I look at many yellow Labs, I see the foxhound influence coming through.


I should note here that most silver Labs don’t come from the English show, American show, or field lines. They seem to be very heavily concentrated in what I call the “American giant Lab.” Most Labs in America are of this type, and some of which are significantly larger than the standard requires. In fact, I’ve read of dogs that were almost double the size they should be. These dogs are approaching something like a smooth-haired Newfoundland.

I’ve never understood why it is so fashionable to breed huge Labs.  A big dog can withstand cold water longer than a smaller one, and a big one can break ice better.

One must remember that the big Newfoundlands were once used as retievers, but they just got so big and cumbersome that they are now relegated to their own water rescue tests.

The Newfoundland was the Labrador retriever of the late eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century. Everybody wanted one. They were great with kids. They had a remarkable history as working water dogs in Newfoundland, and more than a few worked on Western and Arctic explorations. They were useful. They were smart. They were the dog everyone had to have.

By the end of the Second World War, the Newfoundland dog was almost extinct. The dog that exists now is a survivor from that dwindled population.

Could the same thing happen to the Labrador?

Well, history suggests that it is indeed possible.

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