If you ever see a Labrador Retriever catch a fish, you should not be surprised. Fishing is in their genes. Back in the 1500's and 1600's the ancestors of today's Labrador were bred to work for the fleets fishing the seas off the coast of Newfoundland. The origins of the Labrador breed are closely tied to the fishing industry of that era.
Fishing, particularly for Cod was the human activity that was a major driver in early migration and colonization patterns of the Western world. One of the most productive fishing grounds were the waters of the New World, particularly around Newfoundland. The early British fishing fleets in the 1500's, 1600's and 1700's would embark for the fishing grounds in the Spring, fish all summer and dry the catch on the beaches, and then sail loaded back to England in the fall. They left behind some work crews to maintain the drying racks and cut wood. Settlements came and went.
Working dogs became an integral part of the fishing activities in summer, serving to catch fist that wiggled off the barbless hooks, and to retrieve floats attached to lines. These same dogs probably served in winter as hunting dogs to help the settlers gather in the game that served to supplement the humans' diet. One would expect that the major economic role plaid by these dogs would fairly ruthlessly drive a breeding selection process for a hardworking efficient retriever with great talent in cold water. Over the course of several hundred years these dogs would become the ancestors of the St. John's Water Dog of the Island of Newfoundland.
In the 1700's and 1800's the advent of the flintlock, followed by percussion fowling pieces in Europe ushered in the age of sporting guns and the shooting of birds for sport, an activity that was enthusiastically embraced by the gentry of England. As the sport of shooting fowl became popular so did the endeavor of using dogs to find and fetch the harvest. In the late 1700's and early 1800's the English sportsmen began developing several breeds of dogs to find, point and/or fetch the quarry.
The main two early breeders of the Labrador were the 5th Duke of Buccleuch in Scotland and the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury in southern England. The Duke of Buccleuch bred them for their excellence as gundogs for his estates in Scotland. The Earl of Malmesbury bred them for use in duck shooting on his estate at Heron Court on the South Coast of Dorset, because of the Labrador's acknowledged expertise in waterfowling.
The two breeding programs flourished independently until the early 1880's when the the 6th Duke of Buccleuch and the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury met by chance while shooting. The Earl of Malmsbury subsequently gave to Buccleuch some of his impressive waterfowling Labradors, and the rest is history.
The 6th Duke of Buccleuch mated bitches of the original strain imported by his father to the Malmesbury waterfowling strain and produced the impressive Labradors that were the foundation to today's talented Labrador breed.
Beginning with Buccleuch Ned in 1882 and Buccleuch Avon in 1885 a strong bloodline was developed; a bloodline which figured prominently in winners of early British Field Trials.
Shortly after the death of the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury in 1889, the Malmesbury kennel died out, leaving his strain to be preserved by the Dukes of Buccleuch. The Buccleuch Kennels are unique in that the original strain of Labrador imported in the 1830's has been strictly maintained to the present day.