THE RETRIEVING INSTINCT
by The Earl of Malmesbury
Labradors (or the Little Newfoundlers) have played an important part in my life and in the past, the life of my family. My forebear, who became the second Earl of Malmesbury, began his adult life as a politician, and was one of Pitt's bright young men. He left politics after the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.
In 1815, the year of Waterloo, he finished completing the modernisation of our old family home at Hurn, near Christchurch, for his young wife, Francis (nee Dashwood). They had a young family of three sons - the eldest of whom was only 9 when their mother died. She died suddenly of what is thought to have been a burst appendix. Their father became a lonely widower, concentrating much on his skills as an ornithologist - observing and shooting on the marshland around Christchurch Harbour, a small and busy port, and by Hengistbury Head, famous for the migration of birds. It must be remembered that back in those days (1823) when the Labrador was imported by my great great grandfather from the Newfoundland Fishing Fleet unloading in Poole Harbour, Bournemouth and Christchurch were very different towns to what they are today. Bournemouth only consisted of six fishermen's cottages, nestling round the mouth of the very small river, ''The Bourne". It must also be remembered in those days of the 18th/19th Century, shooting birds for identification was regarded as a legitimate pursuit, for the simple reason that today's cameras and binoculars and telescopes carried by ornithologists did not then exist. Hence the old expression - "What is hit is history; what is missed is mystery".
My great great grandfather needed a good retrieving water dog, and a companion in the home. He found both qualities in the Little Newfoundler (later to be re-named the Labrador, which was a less cumbersome name).
How did these dogs develop their retrieving instinct? It was customary for the fishing boats in Newfoundland to carry dogs. These dogs developed their retrieving instinct by retrieving fish in two distinct ways.
Fish hooks were not as well made as they are today. A large fish, when brought to the surface, might free itself from the hook. A dog with a special harness would be lowered from the deck - grab the fish - and be hauled back on board with, hopefully, the fish still in its mouth.
Alternatively, fishing from the shore with nets, men rowed the nets in a half moon from the shore, frequently landing the other end of the nets on an unfriendly and rocky shore. It was usual for a dog to jump from the boat, swim ashore with a light line in its mouth - to be greeted by a fisherman who would pull the light line in; this line was attached to a heavier line, and so to the net. The dog's job was completed - and the fisherman, having pulled the net in, would take the fish out of the net. The dogs, now bored, would watch the removal of the fish from the net, and watching their master would imitate the retrieving of fish from the net.
I know from my own experience that many of these dogs have still inherited this retrieving of fish.
I, too, am now a sad widower - and I can say these dogs are companions second to none, coupling companionship with the skills of a good sporting dog.
In recent years we named our dogs after the maiden names of the girls who married into the family. My last dog was named 'Dashwood' - after Francis, who married my great great grandfather. He was a lovely efficient dog - say it as I shouldn't - trained by me!
Written by The Sixth Earl of Malmesbury and first published in The Labrador Retriever Club 1916 – 1991 ‘A Celebration of 75 years’