Once called the “Lesser Newfoundland” and later the “St. John’s Water Dog,” the early Labrador retriever was a short-coated sporting dog considered primarily to be black in color. However, that black coat hid a chocolate surprise underneath. Today’s Labrador comes in three colors, all of which originated with the breed.
The First Labradors
While the exact origins of the early Newfoundland dogs are masked, they almost undoubtedly are descended from European dogs brought to the island by fishermen who abandoned their posts. In addition, the larger, long-haired mastiff-type Newfoundland and the smaller short-haired retriever-type Lesser Newfoundland had to be introduced by the settlers from their homelands. By 1830, the “Lesser Newfoundland” or St. John’s dog was described as "by far the best for any kind of shooting ... he generally is black and no bigger than a pointer, very fine in legs with short smooth hair [and] is extremely quick retrieving, swimming and fighting."
Black to Chocolate
If all the early St. John’s dogs generally were black, then where does the chocolate come in? Chocolate also exists in other breeds related closely to the Labrador retriever, such as the Chesapeake Bay retriever and the Newfoundland, so the liver/chocolate color probably was part of the early genetic package deal. If quiet interbreeding went on, then the chocolate genes no doubt were passed between the breeds.
When a dominant black coat, like that possessed by the Labrador, is affected by a gene that dilutes (fades) its color, that coat becomes brown. A dog always has a pair of genes that controls its color. A Labrador that possess a pair of dominant genes -- two for black -- means that the dog is “pure” for black and appears to be black. A Labrador that possesses one dominant gene and one recessive gene is said to “carry” the dilute brown color, but it too will appear to be black. The only way that a Labrador can be chocolate is if she possesses a pair of recessive genes -- two for brown. Recessive genes can hide under dominant coats for generations, just as the genes for the chocolate Labradors hid inside the many black Labradors bred by early fanciers.
Early Chocolate Kennels
In 1892, two “liver colored” puppies were produced by the Earl of Buccleuch’s dogs, at one of the earliest British Labrador kennels. These puppies probably were sired by Buccleuch Avon, a prolific sire behind many Labradors that are chocolate or that carry chocolate gene. In the 1930s, the Banchory kennel also propagated the chocolate gene through their prominent sire, Field Champion Banchory Night Light, a black dog descended from Avon. Two additional British kennels, Tibshelfs and Cookridge, both were producing chocolate Labradors as far back as the 1930s. The dogs from these kennels connect through two prominent sires: Buccleuch Avon -- a familiar name! -- and Banchory Bolo.
Chocolate Labradors Come to America
The Chiltonfoliat kennel, property of the Hon. Lady Ward of Chiltonfoliat, was the source of several British chocolate Labradors. In 1932, Diver of Chiltonfoliat became the first chocolate Labrador registered by the American Kennel Club (AKC). Diver was descended from Boris de Main, a yellow female Labrador born in 1922. It was not until 1940 that the first “American bred” chocolate Labrador was registered with the AKC. Kennoway’s Fudge was a descendent of Banchory Night Light, who was descended from (who else?) Buccleuch Avon. In 1996, 5-year-old Storm’s Riptide Star became the first American National Field Champion.