This painting is callled “The Shooting Party– Ranton Abbey” by Sir Francis Grant. It dates to about 1840, and it depicts Whig Party elites, including the then prime minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne. Ranton Abbey was a shooting estate in Staffordshire owned by Earl of Lichfield. These preserves were playgrounds for the nobility, where they pretended that they are somehow the great hunting people like their Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman ancestors.
The painting of interest because it shows the division of labor among canines at the shoot.
The spaniels are obvious, and the very closely resemble modern cocker spaniels.
At a shoot, their job is to push out the game to the guns. They might occasionally retrieve, but their main job is to “spring” the birds. (Origin of the term “springer” spaniel.)
The retrievers, though, are very different from what we might expect. The dog on the left is a black and tan and is something like a proto-wavy-coated retriever or a collie cross. Both of these dogs were used as retrievers. The dog on the left, with the Caucasus-type common pheasant in its mouth, is pretty well-known to golden retriever historians because it shows a yellow retriever in the act of retrieving. It looks somewhat golden retriever, though maybe a bit houndish compared to any modern breed of retrievers.
The retriever’s job at a shoot was to stay next to the shooters, and when game is shot, the dog is sent to fetch it.
In America, we largely disregard these two distinctions. We use spaniels as retrievers, and we flush birds with retrievers.
Spaniels were easy to breed as strains., which is why they have existed as breeds for far longer than retrievers.
Retrievers, however, are very hard to breed. To breed a strain that consistently exhibits the behavior is really quite difficult, something that those desiring retrieving strains of West Siberian laikas are currently experiencing.
So it was very common for shooting sportsmen to cross different types of dogs and call them “retrievers.”
Each gentlemen would have his own recipe to create a perfect retriever.
But then things changed. The modern dog fancy rose in England, and the founding president of the Kennel Club, Sewallis E. Shirley, a Conservative MP and sportsman, began to promote the large black retriever derived from the St. John’s water dog as the gentleman’s retriever, and it wasn’t long before everyone had to have a black retriever of this type.
By the 1870′s, every shooting gentleman had a black retriever of this type and many were being actively shown, but this change was not met without protest.
A Scottish sportsman wrote into The Field magazine denouncing both dog shows and the desire for people to keep their retrievers black and “pure.”
Sir–, Your correspondent “Retriever” “seeks information through your columns to enable him some day to be a successful exhibitor” of retrievers at dog shows. I know of only one way to accomplish his object with much chance of success. To succeed at dog shows you must purchase a dog from some dog dealer at an enormous price, and, entering the dog in your name, you may not unlikely get in a measure reimbursed for the extravagant sum you have given for a useless brute, or at least stand a good chance to see your name figure in The Field as the owner of an admired animal. Dog shows are the greatest humbug in the world, and are ruining our breeds of dogs. But if your correspondent wishes to know how to insure a first-class retriever, I can tell him how to set about that; but it takes both time and judgment to accomplish it. It took me about three years. In a retriever you require nose, docility, a disposition to fetch and carry, little disposition to hunt, and great perseverance on a track. How are these requisites to be combined? Only by careful crossing. For nose and perseverance there is no dog better than the foxhound. Begin with him. Select a really good setter bitch of some size, and put her to an approved foxhound. By means of money you may always command the services of one of the leading hounds in any pack for such a purpose if you go properly to work; but take care to select a dog with a good temper as well as nose. The progeny of this cross will of course not be retrievers. Keep one of the most likely-looking of the bitch puppies, and, when old enough, put her to a really good St. John’s Newfoundland. This may probably bring the breed up to the mark; but if there should be anything to correct, another judicious cross (not necessarily Newfoundland) will without fail give you an A-1 retriever. Grede experto. But you must give up all the nonsense about black dogs without a white hair, and, I may add, the ambition of being “a successful exhibitor.”
–W. C. (pg. 93-94).
These debates about dog shows are not that old.
But it was at this moment in history that retrievers ceased to be dogs that were bred in much the same way lurchers are today and became a defined sort of breed.
If we were today declare a lurcher breed, it is very likely that we’d get very similar discussions.
The Scottish sportsman did what all working dog breeders have always done: breed for function and ignore bloodlines.
But the modern dog fancy creates a system in which blood purity or– at the very least– consistency in type are more important than function.
It’s the exact opposite of how people have bred dogs for thousands of years, and it’s also the exact opposite of how retrievers were bred for the past two hundred years.
No concept in the dog world has done the species more harm than this Victorian concept of “breed.”
It’s based upon very dodgy science, most of which was rejected by the 1920′s in most other fields.
But the dog fancy is largely an authoritarian organization, and if we think of it is a high church, it is a high church with only one real commandment: blood purity for blood purity’s sake.
It’s not served the dogs well.
We do not have a handle on genetic diseases at all, and we won’t so long as we adhere to this blood purity commandment.
And is blood purity producing better working dogs?
It’s difficult to say, but in the old days, when they could select for work only, they were producing capable gun dogs.
They didn’t need a system telling them which dogs could be bred together.
Yet we commonly hear that we have to have this concept of breed in order to produce better dogs.
But when you are breeding for working dogs within these confines, it’s very likely that abilities are suffering.
Wouldn’t it be nice to add a bit of border collie biddability into retrievers?
Wouldn’t it be nice to strengthen undercoat in golden retrievers by crossing them with Labradors with very thick undercoats?
These options have all been taken from breeders.
But it was not always the case.
It’s a very, very recent development.
And its validity should be questioned.