There is a bit of mystery about the ancestors of the Labrador, appropriate perhaps given the amazing versatility of the breed. After all, how could one dog be so capable of working under very harsh conditions and also have one of the friendliest personalities around? From the men who began to use the Newfoundland region for fishing in the mid to late 15th century, to the aristocratic English gentlemen who refined and preserved the breed in the 19th century, the people responsible for the development of the lab were themselves a remarkably diverse group.
The fishermen used dogs to retrieve fish that fell off hooks and to help haul in swimming lines or fishing nets. These dogs needed to be eager to please, strong swimmers and small enough to haul in and out of the boats. They needed to have short, water repellent dense coats that could withstand very cold water and wouldn't ball up with ice or bring excess water onboard. Onshore, as temporary settlements gave way to more permanent ones, a retrieving dog would have been a very useful hunting companion. The St. John's area of Newfoundland was settled predominantly by Englishmen who brought these working dogs to England through Poole Harbor, Dorset, the hub of the Newfoundland fishing trade. These St. John's dogs became the most prized sporting dogs for the gentry who could afford to maintain kennels for controlled breeding.
Without written records from the earliest days to detail which dogs came from where and to whom they were bred, we can only speculate about the ancestors of these St. John's dogs. The black St. Hubert's hound from France, working water dogs from Portugal, old European pointer breeds and dogs belonging to the native Indians have all been suggested as possible predecessors. Certainly some mixture of these or others is logical since tradesmen from around the world frequented Newfoundland for several centuries, plenty of time to develop breeds with the desired working traits. Two distinctly different breeds resulted, the larger longer haired dog used for hauling that became the Newfoundland we know today and the smaller shorter coated retriever that led to our present day labs. See the breed " standards" which detail form and function specifications for Labradors.