Mention chocolate Labradors to most gundog people and you will receive some pretty strong opinions, most often criticising them for being overweight and lazy. Well, let’s take a logical look at this. The Labrador retriever has been with us in the UK since the early 1800s and was recognised by the Kennel Club in 1903.

As we all know, Labs come in three main colours, black, yellow and, of course, chocolate; over the years, black became the dominant colour and in the early breeding programmes yellow and chocolate coloured puppies were often culled.

Jack Vanderwyk claims in his article, The Origin of Chocolate Labrador Retrievers, that after studying over 34,000 pedigrees there are roughly eight routes to the origin of these dogs and they can be traced back to around 1878. Before that time, no record of this colour exists, quite simply because they were not “fashionable” and therefore were not registered.

Origins of the chocolate Labrador
In the 1830s, the Fifth Duke of Buccleuch, Walter Francis Montagu Douglas Scott, was one of the first to import dogs from Newfoundland on to his estates in the Scottish Borders for use as gundogs because of their excellent retrieving capabilities. Another advocate of these marvellous Newfoundland dogs, or Labrador retrievers as they later became known, was the Second Earl of Malmesbury, who bred them for use in duck shooting on his estate at Heron Court, Dorset, particularly because of their acknowledged expertise in wild fowling.

In the early 1880s, the Sixth Duke of Buccleuch and the Third Earl of Malmesbury met while shooting and in the first two entries in the studbook of the Duke of Buccleuch, Labrador retrievers are named as gifts made by Lord Malmesbury to the Sixth Duke. When these dogs were mated with bitches carrying blood from those originally imported by the Fifth Duke, a strong bloodline was developed, beginning with Buccleuch Ned in 1882 and Buccleuch Avon in 1885.

According to the Buccleuch Kennels studbook, the chocolate colour in the kennel came through FTW Peter of Faskally (1908), but this dog was a descendant of Buccleuch Avon, which was a black dog. However, Avon was known to have produced some chocolate offspring, so therefore either his sire Malmesbury Tramp (1878) or his dam Malmesbury June (1880), or both, carried the chocolate gene.

Incidentally to produce chocolate offspring the gene must be present in both parents. In later years, chocolate Labradors became popular in the show ring and today are particularly fashionable as pets and, in fairness, in my day-to-day work photographing all types of dogs, I do see a lot of overweight chocolate-coloured Labradors. However, I learned a long time ago that where working gundogs are concerned you should never make generalisations.

Dorothy Walls-Duffin and her team of chocolate Grangemead Labradors prove that the colour of a dog has little bearing on its working abilities. Dorothy’s first chocolate Lab was Emma and within 20 months she had gained a third in a 14-dog novice stake. Dorothy is a very keen field trialler and has been involved with dogs for over 30 years. Anyone looking at her success with chocolate Labs will not only see that she is a good trainer of gundogs but also that her breeding programme has had a huge influence on the working capabilities of the colour. The first thing that one notices about the dogs is that they really do not conform to the stereotypical view of chocolate Labs. These dogs are fit, athletic and go about their job with purpose. Ironically, someone mentioned that they were really black Labs in brown coats!

I spent the day with Dorothy and her team of dogs as she picked-up during a shoot at the Arbury Hall Estate in Warwickshire. The hall was originally built on the ruins of a 12th-century Augustinian Priory, and now stands in the midst of beautiful 18th-century landscaped gardens, which have been the home of the Newdegate family for over 400 years. The day was hosted by the land agent Adam Weaver and although it was towards the end of the season there were some very challenging birds and plenty of work for the picking-up team.

One dog in particular caught my eye; Flint is a cracking-looking dog and is one of only two chocolate Labs to have qualified for the Retriever Championships. I first saw him at a field trial a few years ago and since then he has won a novice field trial, a two-day open stake and numerous awards.

As well as being a successful field trial dog he is certainly no slouch and worked as well as any other Lab that I have ever seen in the shooting field. Drake is another smart-looking dog, and at just over three years old he has already won his first novice trial.

I was particularly impressed at his athleticism, especially when negotiating the wide ditches that criss-crossed the water-logged fields. During a lull in the shooting, Dorothy explained to me that over the years she has noticed that her chocolate Labs do work slightly differently to either her black or yellow dogs – the brown dogs tend to airscent far more than the other colours, which she puts down to their genetic makeup.

As the day progressed, I soon forgot I was watching what many people view as a sub-standard gundog, but then what is in a colour anyway? I personally don’t like spaniels that have a lot of white on them, but this doesn’t affect their work, it is simply a matter of choice and what is pleasing to the eye. At the end of the day I came to the conclusion that I for one like these “brown Labs.”