Posts Tagged ‘English rough water dog’

water spaniels ben marshall


These “spaniels” were owned by Mrs. Orby Hunter and were painted by Ben Marshall.

Their names were “Diver” and “Shuckleback.”

Diver is a barbet/English rough water dog/poodle type of water dog, but Shuckleback looks like a proto-curly coated retriever.

Maybe a bit of St. John’s water dog had been crossed in, or maybe he was of a sort of water dog that is part of the St. John’s water dog’s ancestry.

I imagine the Tweed water dogs being very similar to Shuckleback, just of the yellow or reddish coloration.

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This is the ancestor of the water spaniels and retrievers, which came later.

It is also a likely ancestor of the St. John’s water dog.

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Last St. John's water dogs

There are two often postulated theories about the origin of the St. John’s water dog, and I just don’t think it’s probable.

1. Richard Wolters believed they were derived from the black St. Hubert hound. He claims that the St. Hubert hounds were used to retrieve from a from Turberville that says the St. Hubert hounds were commonly “blacke” and used for finding “farre straggled” game. I’m surprised Wolters latched onto that theory, because he apparently didn’t know that St. Hubert’s hound is what was called a “lymer.” Lymers were used to track wounded game, which is actually one theory about how the bloodhound got its name. It actually trailed blood spoor.  Wolters thought that this was retrieving. It’s not.

2. Another theory goes that these dogs are derived from the French matin dog. A matin is an extinct dog that had features of the greyhound and mastiff– something like a Great Dane. It also was probably derived from the alaunt veantre. It is not and never has been a water dog. As far as I know it didn’t retrieve. Not a very good candidate. When I first read about this theory, I had just read a description of the French matin.  I don’t remember who came up with this theory, but the water dogs are no more likely to have been derived from this dog than they are from pekes or Afghan hounds.

The best and most logical theory is that these dogs are very closely related to the poodle type. Yes, even the big Newfoundland dogs most likely originally derived from something like a poodle. The most likely candidates are the Portuguese water dogs, Spanish water dogs, and the English rough water dog. These may have been interbred with the collie-types, setter and pointer types, water spaniels, and the Cao de Castro Laboreiro or something very similar to it. It is also possible that the large Arctic spitz from Labrador called the Labrador husky played a role. And it is very likely that some form of mastiff, probably the English mastiff, played a role in developing the larger strain of Newfoundland that was used mostly for hauling loads.

I am skeptical that the Great Pyrenees or its closer relatives played much of role, simply because the dogs lived deep in the mountains, far away from the coastal Basques who were visiting Newfoundland. And while a smaller guard dog, like a Cao de Castro Laboreiro, might be of some utility, a big one would be too costly in terms of the amount of food it would need to survive. Bringing a livestock guardian dog of that size across the Atlantic just to use as a watch dog simply wouldn’t have been economical, and these dogs were more valuable in the Pyrenees as flock guardians.

The best theory as to why these dogs lost their poodle type coat can be found here. And evidence of poodle-type water dogs in Newfoundland in the early days can be found here.

Farley Mowat traced his St. John’s water dog’s ancestry to the poodle-type dogs. In fact, he had reason to believe that they were related to the Portuguese water dog, which is often black with white markings– often exactly the same sort of white markings than were found on the St. John’s water dogs. It also occasionally has puppies that have coats a bit like a flat-coated retriever, which then would be very easily developed into a smooth-coated water dog. The Portuguese water dog’s temperament is very similar to that of a retriever. They are very friendly and eager to please. And many have very strong retrieving instincts.

Now, Mowat also traced the poodle-type dog’s origins all the way back to Russia. Now, here I disagree but only slightly. I think Central Asia is where they actually came from. The puli is a relative of this type and is a good example of what these dogs originally were. They are were herding dogs.  I can forgive Mowat, though, for at this time, most of Central Asia was under the control of Soviet Union.

I don’t know where people get these theories. I think it may be disconcerting for poodle-haters to accept that these all of their hunting dogs related to dogs of this type. They have be derived from hounds or mastiffs. In the case of these St. John’s water dogs and the Newfoundland, it is very common for people to hold onto the tired old story that Leif Ericsson brought them over. How these dogs managed to survive on their own for the nearly 500 years before the modern period of European colonization is a good question. They would have had to have survived on their own, because the Beothuks didn’t keep dogs.

Whatever, the reason, the fact that Portuguese water dogs are marked so similarly to the St. John’s water dog and posses the playfulness, retrieving instincts, and strong swimming ability associated with these ancestors of the retrievers means that we should look at them more closely. The Portuguese used the Grand Banks extensively until the end of the sixteenth century. The Portuguese, Spanish and French basques, and the English used Newfoundland as a base for fishing, and it is very likely that the water dogs from Portugal became common on the island, even after their original owners gave up on the fishery. Thus, the Portuguese water dog really should be carefully considered as a forebear of the St. John’s water dog, the Newfoundland, and the retrievers.

That Portuguese water dogs don’t often appear in duck blinds is immaterial.

Their conformation, temperament, and working instincts very strongly suggest that they are most likely the main ancestor of the St. John’s water dog, although I won’t rule out the Spanish water dog (which is actually used more often as a herding dog), the English rough water dog, or the barbet.

But it is clear to me that the St. John’s water dogs, the big Newfoundland, and the retrievers belong in this family. That they lack the non-shedding coats and the beards is immaterial. There aren’t that many genes that control the type of coat that a dog has, and it wouldn’t take very long for a poodle-type water dog to develop a smooth coat through selective breeding, natural selection, or both.

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The barbet is really similar to the English rough water dog or water rug that Shakespeare or Markham knew.

The barbet is really similar to the English rough water dog or water rug that Shakespeare and Markham knew.

The text can be found  at the Poodle History Project.

The text in question comes from Gervase Markham’s Hunger’s Prevention or the Art of Fowling from Water and Land (1621).

He was a prolific non-fiction writer of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. He was well-acquainted with the early techniques of forestry and game keeping. This book is actually a treatise on how to shoot every kind of game bird that exists in Britain.

The dog in question is not a poodle– at least as we would understand it.

It is the dog more often referred to as the English rough water dog. It was something like a poodle or a barbet, but it was a distinctly English dog.

Contrary to this piece on spaniel history, Shakespeare was not referring to any breed of spaniel when he was talking about the English water spaniel when he mentioned the term “water rug.”  Both rough water dogs and English water spaniels existed, and Shakespeare used both terms.

The water rug quote is from a piece of dialogue spoken by Macbeth:

Macbeth: Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men,
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clipt
All by the name of dogs.”
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 1

Shakespeare mentions water spaniels, which also existed. The character Launce says:

She hath more qualities than a waterspaniel, which is much in a bare Christian.

William Shakespeare Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 3, Scene 1.

One wonders why the spaniel researchers didn’t look into this a little closer. It is clear here that the Bard deliberately is using two different terms for two different dogs. The water rug is the same thing as the English rough water dog. It was a dog of the poodle-type, and some texts refer to it as a poodle. The other dog is also a water dog. However, it is a cross between the rough water dog and a spaniel or setter. In Shakespeare’s time, setters were classed as spaniels. This tradition still exists in France, where index spaniels, which we would call setters, are still referred to as épagneuls. So it is quite possible that some water spaniels had setter them, rather than spaniel.

The old water dogs were almost entirely replaced by the water spaniels by the mid-eighteenth century. Stubbs painted a water spaniel that is more of the rough water dog type, but as far as I can tell, those dogs either disappeared entirely or were absorbed into the poodle.

water spaniel by stubbs

The water spaniels probably would’ve wound up the working water dogs of Europe had shooting pheasants, partridges, rabbits, and hares with shotguns not become a popular activity among the European gentry. They needed a dog that could retrieve from heavier cover and from the water. They started using water spaniels, collies, and setters to pick up shot game. Different nobles cross-bred them to create their own breeds of retriever. Retriever in those early days was a job description. Any dog that could pick up game was a retriever.

In the British colony of Newfoundland, the settlers had developed a dog for hauling nets and lines from the sea. Unlike any European dogs of this type, this dog often came with a short, thick coat that was quite waterproof. The dog could handle the frigid waters of the Grand Banks, and it lacked the coat that required clipping to be useful in the water. This dog was, of course, the St. John’s water dog.  This dog was also used for fowling in the Newfoundland back country as Newfoundland explorer and entrepreneur William Epps Cormack described them in 1822:

The dogs are admirably trained as retrievers in fowling, and are otherwise useful…The smooth or short haired dog is preferred because in frosty weather the long haired kind become encumbered with ice on coming out of the water.

When these dogs arrived in England with imports of cod, they were instantly chosen as working retrievers. In fact, they were so good at this sort of work, that every modern breed of retriever descends from some version of this dog. They were crossed with water spaniels along the River Tweed, which is why the Tweed water spaniel or Tweed water dog looked so much like a retriever.

The specially bred retrievers proved really useful for the work at hand, and then water spaniels began to disappear. Today, only one breed of water spaniel from the islands of Great Britain and Ireland still exists. Just as the water spaniel replaced the rough water dog, the retrievers replaced the water spaniels. However, the water spaniels were more clearly absorbed into the retrievers than the rough water dogs were absorbed into the poodles and water spaniels.

Shakespeare and Markham both knew the ancestors of the modern water dogs. In fact, both were around to see the gradual shift away from the dogs of the poodle type to dogs of the water spaniel type. That change was rather gradual. When the St. John’s water dog arrived on the scene, the change was rather drastic.

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