Posts Tagged ‘English water spaniel’

This painting is entitled “Quaille, an English Water Spaniel.”

I include it because this English water spaniel because, except for color and the docked tail, this animal reminds me of a heavily-built golden retriever. It doesn’t remind me of a more-lightly built golden, but something about Quaille that says he could make it as  a show golden.


At a distance he also could remind one of a Welsh springer spaniel. In fact, it is well-known that the water spaniels were absorbed into several spaniel breeds, including both breeds of springer. One of the founding dogs in the field spaniel studbook was a cross between a cocker (English) and English water spaniel. He was listed as a Sussex spaniel only because he was liver in color.


That should tell you that the term Sussex spaniel was a much broader term than it is today. After all, one of the leading characteristics of English water spaniels is they had MORE leg length than most land spaniels. The modern Sussex spaniel has very short legs, and for a while, virtually all field spaniels were short-legged. They looked a lot like long-haired dachshunds with docked tails.


I’m preparing a post on the history of field spaniels. It will be posted early to the middle of next week.

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This depiction of an English water spaniel comes from Stonehenge's The Dog in Health and Disease. It is one of the ancestors of the Norfolk retriever, and it may be the ancestor of some of the proto-retrievers.

A fellow named “Saxon “describes this breed in Hugh Dalziel’s British Dogs:

The colour is more often brown than black, and the shade of brown rather light than dark – a sort of sandy brown, in fact. Coat curly, of course, and the curls hardly so close and crisp as in the show retriever of the present day, but inclined to be open and woolly. The coat is not long, however, and across the back there is often a saddle of straight short hair. In texture the coat is inclined to be coarse, and it almost invariably looks rusty and feels harsh to the touch. This, however, may in some measure be due to neglect. The head is heavy and wise-looking, the muzzle square and broad; ears large, and somewhat thickly covered with long curly hair. The limbs stout and strong, with large and well-webbed feet. The tail is usually docked like a spaniel’s, but not so short. This seems to be quite a keeper’s custom, and probably originated from the fact that, to an inexperienced eye, the tail of a puppy generally appears too long for the dog. However, although docking the tail improves the appearance of a spaniel, in my opinion it completely spoils the symmetry of a retriever. I remember once asking a Norfolk keeper’s opinion of a very handsome flat-coated retriever I had.

After examining the dog carefully, the man said, ‘ Well, sir, he would be a rare nice-looking dog if you only cut half-a-yard off his tail.’ I need hardly add that I did not act on the suggestion.

When white appears on the chest it is more frequently in the form of a spot or patch than a narrow streak. They are usually rather above than below the medium size and are strong compact dogs. As a rule, they are exceedingly intelligent and tractable, capaple of being trained to almost anything, both in the way of tricks and with the gun. In temperament they are lively and cheerful, making excellent companions; and it is very rarely that they are found sulky or vicious. When only half-trained they are apt to be headstrong and impetuous, and, though naturally with a strong retrieving instinct, are often a little inclined to be hard-mouthed. This defect can be traced to two causes. It may be the rusult of injudicious breeding from hard-mouthed parents, or it may arise from careless or slovenly handling in their young days. However, when they are wanted almost exclusively for wildfowl shooting, this failing is not of so much moment, for they will be principally used for retrieving birds that fall in the water, and, as fowl are for the most part very tough birds, the rough grip as a dog seizes a duck will not cause much mischief, and while swimming the most inveterate “biter ” will seldom give his birds a second nip. For wildfowl shooting they are admirable.

These dogs remind of a breed in Australia called the Murray River Curly-coated retriever. This dog was developed along the Murray River to retrieve shot waterfowl. Its ancestors are believed to be the more curly-coated retriever that developed in Britain, the Irish water spaniel, and the wavy or flat-coated retriever. I’ve suggested that maybe the Norfolk retriever had some role in developing the Murray River curly, simply because the descriptions are so similar, except that Murray River curlies are not docked.

Saxon believed the Norfolk dog was derived from taking the English water spaniel and breeding it to the Labrador (St. John’s water dog). This cross was more common in British retrievers than one would think. After all, the so-called Tweed water spaniel, was mostly a cross between an indigenous strain of water spaniel and the “Newfoundland” dog (St. John’s water dog). The modern breed called curly-coated retriever is believed to have developed through cross-breeding water spaniels and St. John’s water dogs. 

Indeed, this cross-breeding had to have been commonplace. If one reads any literature on water spaniels, the dogs are very common throughout Great Britain and Ireland until about the middle of the nineteenth century. Then, the dogs begin to disappear. The word retriever starts to replace them in the literature, and it is very likely that the dogs themselves were being replaced.

The curly-coated retriever was promoted as a show dog in the early fancy. Although it did not have the patronage of the flat-coated retriever, it was not well-publicized as a working dog. The curly was often denounced in sportsmen’s literature as being inferior to the flat-coat.

Perhaps the patrons of the Norfolk retriever were trying to keep alive a strain of working curly that was no longer associated with the bad reputation of the curly-coated retriever.  (Of course, the dogs may have not  deserved that reputation at all. The flat-coated retriever had many powerful friends in the early British dog fancy, and it is possible that the early trial system was designed to make the flat-coat look good.)

In the end, it really didn’t matter. The Norfolk retriever is no more. I cannot find any references of the breed later the First World War. 

And there are still questions about what it exactly was. Maybe it didn’t go extinct after all. Maybe it is an ancestor of the Murray River curly. Maybe it was absorbed into the modern curly.

We just don’t know.

In fact, it might be that the Norfolk retriever was the last of a surviving line of British water dogs– some of them called water dogs and some called water spaniels– that were actually ancestral to the modern retrievers and the St. John’s water dog.  I find this possibility a bit more interesting, but it is also one that Dalziel and his “experts” didn’t explore.

And it’s a shame that they didn’t.

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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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