Discover the story of British Labrador Retrievers and how they have found a home in American waterfowl hunting and trials.
This article originally appeared in Issue 1.1 of Hunting Dog Confidential Magazine. Subscribe for more articles about the history and culture of hunting dogs around the world.
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Turkeys don’t come from Turkey, American Indians don’t come from India, and Labs don’t come from Labrador. Sure, the Lab’s roots trace back to the Saint John’s Water dog—a canine amalgam forged in the cultural blast furnace of Newfoundland and Labrador in the 1700s—but most of the ancestors of the Saint John’s Water Dog came from Britain in the first place. Furthermore, it was British sportsmen that eventually refined the Saint John’s Water Dog into the modern Labrador Retriever that we know today.
So, no matter how you slice it, the Labrador Retriever is British. Putting the word “English” or “British” in front of its name is like putting “American” in front of Chesapeake Bay Retriever or “Canadian” in front of Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. Somehow, the terms “English Lab” and “British Lab” have crept into our vocabulary, nevertheless. So, what exactly is a “British” or “English” Lab and how is it different from an “American” Lab?
Well, as they say on Facebook, it’s complicated. But if we take a look at how the breed was developed in Britain and how, when, and why it came to America, we can probably figure it out.
History of British Labs
Two men are generally considered pioneers in the development of the Labrador Retriever. One of them is James Edward Harris (1778-1841), the Second Earl of Malmesbury. His Heron Court estate, located in Dorset, England, covered a large part of the floodplain between the River Stour and River Avon and was renowned for some of the best duck shooting in the nation. After hearing about the incredible abilities of Saint John’s Water Dogs, he imported several from Newfoundland in the early 1830s and began to breed them.
Around the same time, Walter Francis Montagu Douglas Scott (1806-1884), the Fifth Duke of Buccleuch, in Scotland, and his brother, Lord John Scott (1809-1860), began importing dogs from Newfoundland, probably through the Scottish port of Greenock. The brothers were among the early adopters of pheasant raising for continental-style driven or ‘battue’ shoots and used their dogs to retrieve mainly on land.
Over the next 50 years, two separate and independent populations of retrievers were developed in the United Kingdom, both descended from imported Saint John’s Water Dogs: one in the southwest and the other near the Scottish border. Then, in 1882, William Douglas Scott (1831-1914), the Sixth Duke of Buccleuch and his cousin Charles Douglas-Home (1834-1918), the 12th Earl of Home, accepted an invitation from the Third Earl of Malmesbury, James Howard Harris (1807-1889), to join him at his estate for a duck shoot. When the cousins saw the Earl’s dogs, they were amazed by their abilities, especially in the water. The Earl must have been equally impressed by the cousins’ shooting skills and admiration for his dogs, because he ended up giving them several of his dogs to take back to Scotland.
Once back home in the north, the Duke of Buccleuch bred the dogs he’d received from the Earl of Malmesbury to the descendants of dogs originally imported by his father, giving birth to the Buccleuch line of Labs that still exists today. Until the late 1880s, both the Malmesbury and Buccleuch lines were refreshed from time to time by imports of “water dogs” from Newfoundland. However, their access to dogs from North America was greatly restricted when the Newfoundland Sheep Protection Act imposed a duty on all dogs in 1885 and new quarantine laws for animals went into effect in the 1890s.
Despite the restrictions, Labradors continued to gain ground among sportsmen and soon caught the attention of the dog show crowd. In 1903, thanks in large part to the efforts of Arthur Holland-Hibbert (1855-1935), the Third Viscount Knutsford, the Labrador Retriever was recognized as a distinct breed. Before then, the term “Labrador” was more or less generic and could mean just about any type of retriever imported from North America, even Newfoundland dogs. Once official recognition was granted, the name “Labrador Retriever” came to mean a specific breed of dog that would henceforth be honed into the Labrador we know today.
The British did not take to the Lab immediately. Croxton Smith (1865-1952) wrote that the British found Labs to be “common looking dogs…devoid of quality and without much character.” Eventually, more and more Labs began to appear at dog shows and prices for pups increased. Then, in 1916, when King George V (1865-1936) started showing Labs, prices soared.
As Labs were gaining acceptance and winning ribbons in the show ring, they were also making great strides in field trials. In 1908, for example, 106 dogs were entered in retriever field trials. Despite being outnumbered two to one by Flat Coats, Labs won or placed in the majority of the stakes. In 1911 and 1913 the difference was even greater, with Labs outpacing all the retriever breeds.
Labrador Retrievers Arrive in America
While the Lab developed and eventually gained wide acceptance in Britain, hunters in America were more interested in filling their bellies and game bags than organizing dog shows and field trials or even keeping pedigrees of their dogs. Writing in The Dog, published in 1873, Canadian sportsman Jonathan Peel, a.k.a. “Dinks,” wrote:
A Retriever is a cross-breed dog. There is no true type of them. Every person has a peculiar fancy regarding them. The great object is to have them tolerably small, compatible with endurance. The best I have seen were of a cross between the Labrador and water spaniel, or the pure Labrador dog.
…a dog that is quite as fond of water as of land, and which in almost the severest part of a North American winter will remain on the edge of a rock for hours together, watching intently for anything the passing waves may carry near him. Such a dog is highly prized. Without his aid the farmer would secure but few of the many wild ducks he shoots at certain seasons of the year. The patience with which he waits for a shot on the top of a high cliff—until the numerous flock sail leisurely underneath—would be fruitless, did not his noble dog fearlessly plunge in from the greatest height, and successfully bring the slain to shore.
Eventually, an American breed, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, was developed from the same Saint John’s Water Dog root stock, but until the early 1900s it remained more or less confined to the east coast. Just before the First World War, the first wave of Labradors came to America, imported by well-to-do, well-connected American Anglophiles seeking to mimic the lavish lifestyle of the British elite. Not only did they adopt English shooting styles and fashion, they imported fine English shotguns and hired Scottish gamekeepers to stock their estates with raised pheasants. Along with the gamekeepers came Labs.
But when they arrived on American shores, Labs faced stiff competition from Chesapeake Retrievers, Irish Water Spaniels, and even Pointers and Setters, which American hunters often used as retrievers. Well-known breed authority Richard Wolters (1920-1993) wrote that in the early days, the average American hunter “took little interest in the Labrador. What could the Labrador do for him that his own American dogs could not do?” Nevertheless, as early as 1914, registrations for “retrievers” began to appear in the AKC studbook. Although not listed as Labradors, they were in fact Labs, descendants of a well-known field trial Lab from England named “Flapper.” In 1917, the first dog to be registered as a Labrador Retriever appeared in the studbook.
Field trials for retrievers were first run in the US in the 1930s. The results mirrored those of early English field trials: Labs cleaned up. In 1934, for example, at the first all-breed trial held in the US, Labs took first, second, and third prize. A Chessie took fourth. The breed’s winning ways soon caught the attention of the growing number of hunters in America. One such sportsman was Eddie Bauer (1899-1986), who purchased his first Lab “Blackie” in 1930 for $65 (a fairly hefty sum at the time). For the remainder of his life, Bauer hunted with labs, but Blackie was his favorite. He wrote: “The greatest of all the great dogs I have ever known; one I have loved above all others. I hope, when I go to the Happy Hunting Grounds, Blackie will come to my side, as I will try to go to his.”
By the late 1930s, the Labrador had risen to great heights in Britain and was well on its way to fame and fortune in America as well. Then war came. When it was all over, despite the great losses and hardships, Labs were still around but—according to Croxton Smith—the dogs in Britain had become “of an inferior type, and breeders were much concerned to see that to an extent they had lost their compact build and sturdy frames, and had become too leggy, too straight in the stifle, and lacking in substance.” In the US, men returning from war-ravaged Europe were eager to get back to the lives they’d left behind before the war. For many, that meant heading to the field with a faithful companion; for others it meant participating in field trials and dog shows. For breeders of Labradors, it meant a booming market, one that would eventually lead to the development of vastly different types within the breed in Britain and America alike.
The Difference Between British and American Labs
A split between field lines and show lines that had first emerged before the war grew into a chasm in the post-war years. In England the dogs came to be known as either bench Labs or working Labs. In America, for some reason, dogs from show lines were labelled “English Labs,” even if their roots traced back to generations of American-bred dogs. Dogs from field trial lines came to be known as “American Labs.” Eventually the US-based Labrador Retriever Club felt the need to issue a statement seeking to clarify the confusing terminology:
Labrador Retriever body style is properly described as being either conformation/show style or field/working style. The terms English and American should be used only to describe the dog’s country of birth. All countries in which the Labrador retriever is found, including England, have Labradors of both body styles.
It is important to note here that the statement only refers to different “body styles” which are obvious even to the casual observer. For hunters there is a much more important difference: working styles. After nearly a century of field trials, hunt tests, and hunting, field-oriented breeders have developed dogs that not only look different from show-bred dogs but are vastly different in terms of their athletic abilities and hunting drive. Today, the cream of the crop among field-bred Labs from American lines are extraordinarily fast, high-energy, high-drive, fetching machines capable of incredible feats of athleticism under the harshest conditions. There’s a reason why Labs are the go-to dogs for tens of thousands of hunters across North America: they are fantastic hunting companions that are just as capable of fetching canvasbacks on big water as they are flushing pheasants from a stand of cattails.
Even so, no breed can be all things to all hunters. While field-bred Labs were reaching the summit of their development in America, the feeling that they’d become a bit “too much dog” began to take hold among some trainers and breeders. They felt that the fiercely competitive field trial scene, with its increasingly stringent, technical requirements, was leading to the development of dogs that had become too driven, too obstinate, and too difficult to train and handle. Some switched to other breeds and some got out of retrievers completely, but a few stuck with Labs after discovering other sources of field-bred dogs. One such man was Robert Milner, who just happened to come across Labs that were much more to his liking on the other side of the Atlantic, in their homeland, England. I recently asked Mr. Milner about his experiences with American field-bred Labs and how he ended up introducing the “British Lab” to America.
My uncle had Labs and was a field trialer, and through him I met some of the top trainers in the country. In 1972 I opened Wildrose Kennels in Grand Junction, Tennessee, and started training gundogs and field trial dogs. In 1982, I got out of training field trial dogs. I was just about ready to hang it up. I wasn’t happy with the field trial system and the way it was driving breeding selection. Trials had become so popular and there were no limits on the number of dogs that could run in them. So, they had to make the competition stiffer, and the way to do that was to make trials technical, more difficult, and easier to fail. They required super-high-energy, driven dogs that, after generations of selection along those lines, resulted in dogs with low impulse control. They’d become a pain in the ass to train. They were overdriven, uncooperative, and hyper.
Around the same time, I went to England for business and I just happened to meet Major Morty Turner-Cooke, who was a well-known British field trialer and gundog trainer. The two of us really hit it off and became good friends. When I saw his dogs work, I thought, “This is the way it’s supposed to be.” The dogs were calm and friendly and they enjoy your company. They liked to learn; they were smart, cooperative, and much easier to train. So, I got rid of my American dogs and got English ones.
Morty introduced me to the British style of shooting and to their field trials. He became my agent, buying dogs for me because he knew what I wanted. I would bring them over, train them, keep some for breeding stock and sell the rest to hunters. Eventually, mainly through word of mouth and a bit of advertising, the British Lab caught on with Americans. Today there are lots of breeders of British Labs out there and a growing market for their dogs.
What are the main differences between American field-bred Labs and British field-bred Labs?
Over the years, I have probably trained around a thousand American-bred Labradors for field trial and gundog work and have trained a similar number of British-bred Labradors for gundog work. What I can say is that both kinds are a product of the field trial system in which they were developed.
The British retriever field trial is characterized by a culture of gentle, positive training methods. Force fetch training is almost unheard of over there. A typical puppy of British field trial breeding has a natural tendency to deliver to hand because it is the descendant of generations of dogs selected for a natural tendency to deliver to hand. All the owner needs to do is reinforce that tendency by rewarding it at the appropriate times.
Field trial Labradors in England are almost always trained and handled by their owners. If they get a dog that is too “hot” to train to field trial standards by traditional, gentle training, they will probably find it a new home and look for a dog that is easier to train. So, their breeding selection tends to favor fairly sensitive and tractable dogs.
British retriever field trials are based on a style of hunting that is very different from what we do in America, but the abilities they select for are perfect for American hunters. Typically, the trials will have two types of scenarios: driven birds and walked-up birds. Driven birds are when pheasants are driven from cover and towards shooters standing at pre-arranged positions. The shooting can be fast and furious, but the dog must sit quietly at heel during the whole drive, which can be 20 minutes or even longer.
With walked-up birds, a line of beaters walks across a field. Interspersed across the line are four to six shooters, and probably four dogs under judgment. As the line progresses, the dogs must walk quietly at heel while the birds are flushed and shot. After several birds are down, the line halts and the birds are retrieved. The dogs must walk quietly at heel with no badgering from the handler. They must remain quietly at heel during the flushing and shooting of birds. Wounded birds or “runners” are retrieved first. Whether it is a marked (seen fall) or blind (unseen fall) depends upon whether the next dog up to run happened to see it or not. The dog’s performance is judged the same in either case.
The walked-up bird gets interesting when it is a big cock pheasant that is only slightly hit and sails off to go down 75 yards in front of the line. When a dog is sent for this bird, he is expected to go to the area of the fall, find the blood trail, and track down the wounded pheasant. Furthermore, he is expected to ignore any birds that may flush as he makes his way along the wounded bird’s trail. The dog must stick to the wounded bird’s trail and collect him, or else the dog will be dropped from competition.
The British have one custom in their retriever field trial which helps ensure that the best dogs tend to win at field trials. That custom is the “eye-wipe.” When one dog fails to find a bird for which he has been sent, then the next dog up is sent for the bird. If the second dog succeeds, he is said to have wiped the eye of the first dog. If both dogs fail, then typically both are dropped, under the premise that they had the opportunity of picking up the scent trail while it was still fresh and they failed to do so.
In my view, British Labs are ideal gundogs for American hunters because they have a lot of game-finding initiative and hunting perseverance but are also very easy to live with because they come from a system that selects for calm, cooperative, and easily trained dogs.
Only a few years after Milner first introduced the working British Lab to American hunters, other US-based breeders used dogs from his lines to establish their own kennels of British Labs. Some even followed his example by traveling to England to see the dogs first-hand and to select dogs to import into the States. One such breeder was Josh Miller, whose Wisconsin-based River Stone Kennel is founded on dogs he imported from England, Scotland, and Ireland. When I contacted Josh to learn more about his dogs, he told me that, like Robert Milner decades before, he’d started with American field-bred Labs, but eventually switched to British field-bred dogs.
I was sort of the black sheep in a family of deer hunters. I prefer hunting ducks. In fact, when the family went to my grandpa’s cabin, everyone would go hunt deer and I’d go out after ducks. I didn’t have a dog but I wanted a companion to hunt with. Since Labs were just about the only breed I’d heard of and everyone around there had one, that’s what I got. And I got a good one. He turned out really good, despite being owned by a newbie trainer. Soon after, I met folks in the local retriever club and started to train, compete, and succeed. Eventually folks started asking me to train their dogs, so I decided to turn pro.
At the time, I’d never heard of British Labs. When I finally did see dogs that folks called British or English labs, I was not impressed. They reminded me of the Eeyore character in Winnie the Pooh. They were slow, plodding dogs with zero drive.[Editor’s note: The “English Labs” Josh first saw were more than likely dogs from American show lines that people called “English.” See above re: the Labrador Retriever club’s statement on different body styles.]
Then one day I saw the real deal, a true working British Lab, and it was awesome. I booked a trip over to the UK to watch some trials and to learn about their training methods. What I saw there was a completely different level of dog than I had ever seen before.
The first trial I attended was in the north of Scotland. The dogs showed incredible drive, running down crippled birds, jumping over fences, and fetching to hand with minimal commands. At the end of the trial, we all went back to the hotel. I went to my room to get cleaned up, came back downstairs to the pub, and was shocked to see that all the dogs I’d seen in the trial that day—dogs that were amazing workers—were in the pub, completely calm, laying at the feet of their owners! It was a sort of “Ah ha!” moment for me. I suddenly realized that the ideal dog is one that can show a ton of drive in the field but can shut it off in a pub. And who wouldn’t want a dog like that? Since then, I’ve gone back almost every year to find dogs to bring back to the states. That is one of the differences in my line. Not many American breeders of British Labs ever go over there. But for me it’s very important to keep that connection. If I do something, I want to do it to the best of my abilities. If you want to breed great dogs, you have to know as much as possible about the breed. Sure, I put titles on my dogs, but to truly understand them you need to go beyond titles and paperwork. So, when I go there, I’m looking to bring back younger dogs —from six months to one year old. I want to see them before they are fully trained so I can see what is in them from the get-go, not what’s there from training. Over the years, I’ve developed so many great relationships with folks there, but it was the first trip that ended up being a turning pointing in my life.
What advice would you give to a hunter seeking a British Lab?
Everything comes down to a question of breeding. Personally, I don’t want to sit in a blind for hours with a noisy dog. Since the British system selects for quiet, calm dogs, that’s what you get. But calm and quiet doesn’t mean lazy or low drive. The dogs I produce have big motors for the field, but big off-switches for the home. I tell hunters to look for a breeder that produces the kinds of dogs that fit their needs and lifestyle. I sell dogs to all kinds of folks, from hunters, to field trialers, to folks that just want a family dog that only hunts a few times a year. What they all have in common is that they want lots of drive in the field and a good off-switch at home.
Today, there is no sign that the world’s most popular dog is losing any ground among hunters. If anything, it is gaining ground across the world thanks to a wide selection of types within the breed. From high-drive, super-athlete American field-bred dogs to hard-working, easy-handling working dogs from across the pond, hunters today are spoiled for choice when it comes to finding a descendant of the Saint John’s Water Dog with which to share a duck blind.
Last modified: October 22, 2020