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What introduction does the world's most popular dog require? Everyone has seen a Labrador romping happily with his family. Regarded as the ideal family dog for generations, the Labrador is by definition biddable and adaptable to practically any lifestyle.

It's common today to hear the breed simply referred to as the Labrador, however, this is by and large incorrect. The Labrador is a retriever. The Labrador Retriever, a prominent member of the Gundog Group, is a hunting dog by trade. The pet Labrador Retriever comes from a genealogy of hard-working hunters who could spend tireless hours on upland game birds on rigorous terrain.

While your pet Labrador Retriever may only fetch your slippers and the Sunday paper, it is helpful to understand that his grandfathers pursued pheasant, duck and other wild fowl.

So what's the meaning of the 'Labrador' part? To truly understand the breed's origins, we must look not to Labrador, but to the island off its shores called Newfoundland. The rich history of this island, originally inhabited by the Dorset Eskimos, dates back to the 1400s; however it wasn't until the 1600s that the island became the home of wayward fishermen. These fishermen, it is believed, swam to the island after abandoning ships that were passing by the island. The first dogs on the island of Newfoundland are traced to these fishermen, as there is no evidence of the Eskimos' having dogs on the islands, and no dogs existed on Newfoundland when the fishermen landed there.

As the Labrador Retriever was once called the Lesser Newfoundland Dog, it has often been presumed that the breed is related to the Newfoundland breed. This breed, well known to dog lovers today, is much larger, more abundantly coated, heavy-boned dog, showing much influence of its mastiff origins. Still, both the Newfoundland and the Labrador Retriever share the unique physical characteristic of webbed feet. The size of the Labrador Retriever mattered tremendously, and a small dog was necessary to fit into the fishermen's dory. The dogs' webbed feet speak well for the Labrador's ability to swim, even in the icy, rough waters of the North Atlantic. Among the other characteristics of our modern Labradors that 'make sense' for a dog surviving on Newfoundland's brutal shores is the thick and waterproof coat required. Another important feature of the breed is its broad chest, necessary for 'surfing' against the strong waves and current of the unrelenting North Atlantic.

Since the island was bountiful in game, the fishermen were able to use their dogs to supplement their food supply from the land as well as the sea. The Newfoundlanders were importing quality stock from England, though there was considerable variation in type. The division of the retriever breeds came much later (circa 1780-1810) and at this time, any retriever, longhaired, curlycoated, shortcoated, waxycoated, was bred to produce other retrievers of excellent working ability.

A fustrating fact to breed enthusiasts today is that the residents of Newfoundland kept no records of the dogs on which they relied upon so heavily. Survival on this barren island was such an all-encompassing pursuit that there was little time for such record keeping.

Author Dr.Bernard Duke
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