Friday, January 21, 2011

Lucy Has a Tuxedo - Labrador Retriever Dog Breed Musings

Nell - A St Johns Dog circa 1856
Photo from Wikipedia
This morning I was researching a couple of dog breeds (to add them to our For Love of a Dog Jewelry and gifts web site) and got distracted.  Curious about the colors of puppies in Rudy's litter, I took a look at what Wikipedia had to say.  Not only did I find a genetic explanation for Labrador Retriever coloration, I found something even more interesting - at least to me.

We've had a number of Labrador Retriever mixed breed dogs in our family.  All but one have had a white mark somewhere on their bodies.  Either on the chests or on their toes.  At our house we refer to them as "God spots."  The folksy theory being that when God was "painting" them, that's where he was holding them; the "paint" didn't hit that spot.  We've preferred to believe that the white markings were lucky.  (Okay, groan if you must.  We have a lot of folksy theories for a lot of things.)  Anyway, now I understand, scientifically, where the white markings come from. 

According to Wikipedia, the modern Labrador Retriever dog's ancestors originated on the island of Newfoundland.  The founding breed of the Labrador was the St. Johns Water Dog, (also a founding breed of the Newfoundland), a breed that emerged through ad-hoc breedings by early settlers of the island in the 16th century. The forebears of the St. Johns Dog are not known, but were likely a random-bred mix of English, Irish, and Portuguese working breeds. The Newfoundland (known then as the Greater Newfoundland) is likely a result of the St. Johns Dog breeding with mastiffs brought to the island by the generations of Portuguese fishermen who had been fishing offshore since the 16th century.

The smaller short-coated St. Johns Dog (also known then as the Lesser Newfoundland) was used for retrieval and pulling in nets from the water. These smaller dogs were the forebears of the Labrador Retriever. The white chest, feet, chin, and muzzle - known as tuxedo markings - characteristic of the St. Johns Dog often appear in modern Lab mixes, and will occasionally manifest in Labradors as a small white spot on the chest (known as a medallion) or stray white hairs on the feet or muzzle.

Wow.  Tuxedo markings.  Lucy has tuxedo markings, as well as a few white toes.  Medallion.  Rudy's sister, the only black puppy in his litter, has a beautiful white medallion on her chest. 

Another surprising thing I learned is that in the early days of this breed, puppies who were yellow or chocolate were often culled.  Black was the standard.  It wasn't until the early 20th century that yellow labs were recognized and not until around 1930 for chocolate labs. These days with the stigma attached to black dogs, who are often the last adopted at animal shelters, and the huge number of black lab mixed breed dogs who are euthanized, this was startling information.

In fact, "yellow" Labrador Retrievers were a dark, almost butterscotch color that was known as "golden" until the UK Kennel club required it to be changed to yellow.  Over time cream to light shades of "yellow" became more popular, so the original yellow, which was also called "fox red" almost disappeared from the breed.  In the 1980's English breeders began re-establishing this color.

I've always called Lucy ginger colored.  And though I've always figured she obtained her golden, fox red color from her Golden Retriever mother, now I wonder if her Labrador Retriever father also contributed color genes.  Does it matter?  Not really.  However, tuxedo sounds a lot classier than white markings.  Now, would her white tippy toes be semi-spats?

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