Hugh Dalziel in British Dogs discusses another breed of retriever. It is described as heavy dog with thick curly hair that grows on the face like “modern Skye terrier.” The coat is difficult to maintain, and it often becomes “felted” (corded through matting). Dalziel quotes “Idstone” (Reverend Thomas Pearce) who describes one working a battue with some more convential retrievers. The dog gets bogged down in a thicket of dense thorns, and the handlers must cut its coat out of the vegetation in order to free it.
However, I am uncertain as to what breed this dog represents. In Marcia Schlehr’s book on goldens (The New Complete Golden Retriever), the author uses the analysis of Dalziel and that of Idstone to suggest that this Russian retriever was a Komondor.
However, Dalziel’s account is of a dog that is “docile” and has a great future as a companion dog, rather than a hunter. The use of Idstone’s description of the dog retrieving suggests that this breed had some retrieving instinct.
Further, Dalziel claims that the breed called the “Russian setter” is a cross between this dog and an English setter. This finding leaves me to question whether this breed was a Komondor or a related livestock guardian breed.
Livestock guardian dogs, unlike retrievers or herding dogs (like the border collie and puli), have been bred to have almost no predator motor patterns and possess a very high threshold of stimulation before these motor patterns can be exhibited. Wild wolves have a very low threshold, and even captive bred wolves can easily become aroused to attack children and small pets. Retrievers and herding dogs are in between wolves and livestock guardian dogs in that they have a moderate threshold for exhibiting these predatory behaviors, but the way that these predatory motor patterns work has been modified through selective breeding and training. It is possible for a retriever or herding dog to become a full predator, but it is usually within the context the modified predatory behavior. (I had a golden retriever that would kill things like woodchucks and cottontail rabbits, but she would require that they be thrown to retrieve before she would even try to eat them.) It’s because of the retrieving behavior in the Russian retriever that I hestitate to place it as the Komondor.
Further, Komondorok are not docile dogs. They are, in fact, probably the best guard dog that money can buy. They are very suspicious of strangers and dogs they do not know. The breed is rather cute with its shaggy face and “Benji” characteristics. However, this breed is not a nice, sweet dog, like the Old English Sheepdog. It bonds strongly with its family, and if not socialized, it will hate everyone else. This is not the temperament described by Dalziel or Idstone.
Again, I am not claiming that this breed had anything to do with the development of the golden retriever, but it does appear to me that there was a real Russian retriever. It had nothing to do with the dogs bred by Colonel le Poer Trench. Those dogs were derived from obvious Tweedmouth breeding, although they were heavier and coarser than the ones that were being developed elsewhere as part of the flat-coated retriever breed.
What do I think the Russian retriever was? I think it was the Russian equivalent of the poodle. Poodles were developed in the northern part of the German speaking world, including the Baltic coast. Poodles are water dogs and can be used as a retriever. The standard poodles are very retriever-like in their temperament. During the Medieval period, Germanic traders, following the crusades of the Teutonic Knights and other Western Christian orders, began to trade extensively with the people of this region. This trading eventually became part of the Hanseatic League’s trading circle.
As the poodle developed as a water dog, it may have been brought to Russia for the same purpose. There, it evolved in a larger and coarser dog in order to handle the harsh conditions of Russia.
If the dog didn’t arrive then, then it is possible that the dog came to Russia through Russia’s close association with German speaking nobility. In fact, Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, was a native German speaker, born in the German speaking city of Stettin (now Sczeczin, Poland).
Another source for poodles to the Russians was France. The French did fall in the love with the poodle at some point in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the Russian emperor, Peter the Great, was obsessed with French achievements. He made French the academic and intellectual language of Russia and encouraged them to adopt French customs. This French obsession in Russia existed for many decades, and it is likely that they imported poodles and used them as water dogs. Further, Napoleon’s army had kept poodles as mascots. These dogs are reported among the regiments that invaded Russia in 1812. So there are many historical sources for dogs of this type existing in Russia.
The difference between this dog and the poodle probably resulted from selection, both natural and artificial, for a dog that could withstand the rugged conditions of that country. This would explain why Dalziel reports the dog as being larger (26 inches at the shoulder) and having a stocky build.
Further, poodles can be corded. I’ve always sworn that the Puli of Hungary, the Sheep poodles of Germany and the Netherlands, and water dogs (including the poodle) are related. The puli may have some common ancestry with the Komondor, but the two breeds are used very differently and have very different temperaments. The puli has a herding dog’s temperament of biddability and controlled prey drive. If socialized and trimmed, it has been found that the puli can be a sociable and friendly dog. A few have even been trained as water retrievers. It is because of these similarities that I think the Russian retriever was really a Russian poodle-type dog, not a Komondor.
The British had already discarded their poodle-type water dog, the English rough water dog, by the time this breed appeared in that country. This breed was very similar to the Barbet (the real “French poodle”) and the poodle. However, it was absorbed into the water spaniel breeds by the beginning of the nineteenth century, existing as a relict by the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The water spaniels were then absorbed into the retrievers, existing currently as only two or three breeds in the entire world. Their contemporary retrievers were a far “more advanced model” than the dog the Russians were using for that purpose.
So the Russian retriever, the real one, was probably a Russian poodle.