From Chambers’s Journal in an article called “Norfolk Broads and Rivers” :
On some of the broads there is still to be seen an industry fast falling into decay—decoys with decoy ducks and dogs. These require to be worked with the utmost silence and caution. One winter-night in 1881 Mr Davies inspected in company with the keeper the decoy at Fritton. Broad. The night was cold and dark, and each, of the men had to carry a piece of smouldering turf in his hand to destroy the human scent, which would otherwise have alarmed the wary ducks. This made their eyes water; and the decoy-dog, a large red retriever, being in high spirits, insisted on tripping them up repeatedly, as they crawled along in the darkness bent almost double. The interest of the sight, however, when at length they reached the decoy, fully made up for these petty discomforts. Peeping through an eyehole, a flock of teal were to be seen paddling about quite close to them; while beyond these were several decoy-ducks, and beyond these again a large flock of mallards. The decoy-ducks are trained to come for food whenever they see the dog or hear a whistle from the decoy-man. The dog now showed himself obedient to a sign from his master, and in an instant every head among the teal was up, and every bright shy eye twinkling with pleased curiosity. Impelled by curiosity, they slowly swim towards the dog, which, slowly retiring, leads them towards the mouth of the decoy-pipe, showing himself at intervals till they were well within it. The keeper then ran silently to the mouth of the pipe, and waving his handkerchief, forced them, frightened and reluctant, to flutter forward into the tunnel. He then detached a hoop from the grooves, gave it a twist, and secured them by cutting off their return. This seemed the last act of the drama, and Mr Davies took the opportunity to straighten his back, which was aching dreadfully. ‘Immediately there was a rush of wings, and the flock of mallards left the decoy. ” There, now, you ha’ done it!” exclaimed the keeper excitedly. “All them mallards were following the dog into the pipe, and we could ha’ got a second lot.” We expressed our sorrow in becoming terms, and watched the very expeditious way in which he extracted the birds from the tunnel net, wrung their necks, and flung them into a heap.’ Few places now are suitable for decoys, for even life in the marshes is not so quiet as it used to be (pg. 274).
In Norfolk and Suffolk, there is a series of deep rivers that open up into something very much like a lake. These areas are called “the broads.” This area was home to a peculiar type of retriever called the “Norfolk retriever,” which has now become extinct. It was more like a liver water spaniel/retriever cross.
I have already written about red decoy dogs, which were not large dogs, and were never called retrievers. They are at the base of the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever breed.
The red color was a necessity for any decoy dog, for it mimicked the fox, which has also been known to toll in ducks near to the shore. For some reason, ducks are easily beguiled by a dog or fox’s playful antics, and if one is also using decoy ducks that have been accustomed to entering a trap, one can use both the dog and the decoy ducks to capture them. (More on the history of this method for trapping ducks can be found at the Poodle History Project’s page on the decoy dogs).
I don’t know exactly what sort of retriever was being used as a decoy here. It could have been anything. Perhaps it was aberrant red wavy-coat that would never be used for a shooting party but was biddable and “sagacious” enough to be trained as a decoy dog.
In an article in Dogs in Canada from this February, Col. David Hancock, MBE, writes about a dark golden retriever doing decoy work in East Anglia (the historic region that includes both Norfolk and Suffolk):
A Golden was quite recently used as a decoy dog in East Anglia, charming many visitors. So the next time you throw a stick for your Golden Retriever, you may be re-enacting the role for which the dog’s ancestors were greatly valued, not merely idling away time and providing exercise. We may not, in these sophisticated times, need all of the wide-ranging skills of our dogs, but each must be exercised and we should honour their innate desire to be active, their instinctive interest in hunting and their inherent talent for serving mankind.
I am not suggesting that the large red decoy retriever was a golden retriever, but if trapping ducks had remained a popular activity, it is possible that the yellow and red retrievers would have been entirely developed for this task.
That color may not have been fashionable for late nineteenth century and early twentieth century shooting parties, but on the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, the dogs of this color did have a function.
Most of the decoy dogs were mid-sized reddish dogs, not big retrievers.
So the exact origins of this large red retriever are quite interesting.