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Posts Tagged ‘harbour seal’

The boxer was playing fetch with a tennis ball on a beach in Scotland, when a seal came swimming  by.

The boxer decided to investigate the seal:

The seal decided to play.  Boxer was severely vexed:

"What a strange looking Labrador!"

(Source for images)

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From an article  in Chambers’s Journal (9  August 1884) about seal hunting in the Shetland Isles, called “Seals and Seal Hunting in Shetland”:

A good dog is a useful auxiliary to a sealhunter ; but he requires a good deal of training to learn his work. Very soon he acquires the art of stalking; but most dogs at first are apparently afraid to lay hold of a dead seal floating in the water, and very commonly, when sent off to fetch him ashore, simply attempt to mount on him, and in consequence do harm rather than good by helping to sink him. But generally—not always, for some dogs we never could train to do the right thing—we succeeded in teaching them to retrieve. When we had brought a seal home, we used to throw it over the jetty or out of a boat with a stout cord attached, and encourage the dog to fetch him. Great praise was bestowed when he learned to lay hold of a flipper and tow the selkie shoreward ; in this way, with a little patience and perseverance, the dog soon came to learn what was required ; and many a seal was secured by his help, which without it might inevitably have been lost, for a seal shot in the water from the shore, which they often were, was very generally on the opposite side of an island or long promontory, where a landing had been effected ; and it took many minutes before the boat could be got round ; and by that time, but for the dog, the seal might have sunk.

We tried many breeds of dogs—Newfoundland, Retriever, St Bernard, Rough water-dog, and Collie; but after all, the best seal retriever of the lot was a Collie. When he comprehended what was wanted and how to do it, he did it neatly and thoroughly. I well remember the first seal I shot I had landed on the weather-side of a small island. A cautious reconnoitring discovered a good-sized seal ‘lying up’ on a detached rock. Then I commenced the stalking, closely followed by my dog. But ere I could approach within range, one of those seal-sentinels and provoking tormentors of the seal-hunter, a herring gull, set up his wild warning scream.

The seal perfectly understood what it meant, at once took the alarm, plunged into the water, and disappeared. I sprang to my feet, rushed down along a little promontory, and then crouched behind a big boulder, in hopes that selkie would show his head above water and give me a chance at him. And he did. Raising his head and neck, he took a good look shoreward ; but seeing nothing to account for the gull’s persistent screaming, he turned round, and raised his head preparatory to a dive. I had him well and steadily covered ; now was my chance. I pulled the trigger; no splash followed, which would have meant a miss; but the lioom—that is, the smoothing of the water by the flow of the oil—told that my bullet had taken effect ‘ Fetch him, old dog ! fetch him !’ I cried. In an instant he plunged into the sea and swam to the seal, which I could see was floating. Neatly he dipped his head under water, seized a hind flipper, turned it over his neck, and towed him towards the shore. Passing the rock on which I stood in his way I to the beach, he turned his eyes upwards for the praise and encouragement I was not, it may well be believed, backward to lavish on him. Such a look it was! I shall never forget it, instinct with the brightest intelligence, joy, pride, triumph. Indeed, I don’t know whether he or his master was proudest and happiest that day. Alas, that our noble ‘humble friends’ should be so short-lived! (pg. 508).

American retrievers will never be sent after seals for a very simple reason:   The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Canadians might still have their commercial seal hunt, but such thing doesn’t exist in US waters. Exceptions exist for aboriginal harvest, such as the aboriginal whaling that is permitted near Barrow, Alaska.

But the typical American can’t take a gun out and go shooting seals just for the hell of it.

I think it would be very hard to teach a dog to retrieve a shot seal. Not only is a seal much larger than any dog, it has teeth. My guess is that many dogs would be injured rather severely if they tried to grabble with a wounded seal in its element. No water dog is the equal of the seal in the water.

Further, because both seals and dogs are Caniformia, they do share diseases, so I would be worried about dogs catching diseases from seals. However, all of the accounts I’ve read of dogs and seals transmitting disease has been from dog to pinniped, not the other way around.

It is of interest that the collie proved to be the better seal retriever than the Newfoundland, “the retriever,” or the rough water dog.  Collies and their kin have often been celebrated as retrievers and were relatively common outcross to retriever bloodlines.

But this is the first I’ve heard of a collie fetching seals.

It is little wonder why so many dogs were trepidatious about diving into the swells after a seal.

To a dog, a seal could have been like the worst sea monster imaginable. (Let’s not tell them about great white sharks!) A seal isn’t a duck. It isn’t pheasant or a partridge. It certainly is not a hare or rabbit.

It’s more like a nearly fully aquatic bear.

However, not all dogs were afraid of the seal.

I don’t know how to take that description of the dogs mounting the seal. “Mounting” could mean that the dogs just climbed on top of the seal, perhaps looking for a good place to grab the creature to haul it in. Or it could mean that the dogs tried to copulate with the seal corpses in the water, which sounds very strange, at least to me. I’ve never heard of dogs engaging in this behavior in the water, so one must assume that it is the former description.

I imagine that many dogs were lost sealing, but I could be wrong. It just sounds like an infinitely more hazardous shooting scenario for the dog than when a retriever is sent for waterfowl.

Shooting seals was never  major sporting past-time of the sporting gentry. Records of these sorts of seal hunts are difficult to find. Seals were very marketable animals for hundreds of years. The blubber from seals can be boiled down to train oil, and those species that had thicker hides were often used to produce very thick leather. The Inuit and other arctic peoples in North America used seal hides to make their kayaks, and the people of Scotland’s Northern Isles and Ireland also made hide boats. We don’t often think of seal hides as being all that useful, but at one time, they were a vital part of the North Atlantic economy.

Because these seals were killed for reasons of economic expediency, one does not often encounter tales of some sportsman shooting seal for fun.  The same goes for whaling; there are very few accounts of gentlemen whalers doing it for sport.

So the record of seal retrieving dogs can only be compiled from little oblique stories such as this one or the account of a St. John’s water dog diving for seals in Newfoundland that I posted earlier.

I can’t imagine that many dog owners would like to risk their dogs to retrieve such game, even if it were legal to hunt them. I doubt that any Canadians who hunt “horseheads” use dogs for their quarry.  I don’t think a dog would be able to haul out a grey seal anyway, but even if they were of some use, I just don’t think anyone would want to risk a losing a dog in this manner.

But I could be wrong.

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From New England Magazine (January 1834):

On the 11th of August, we departed for Newfoundland, not unwillingly leaving this country of stones, though it had given us gratification and instruction. We were often confined to the cabin, by rain, and we had few books. But, luckily for us, Mr. Audubon himself was a volume not to be exhausted. He is full of anecdote and originality.

We anchored next at the head of St. George’s Bay, in Newfoundland, where there is quite a settlement of fishermen,—for such seems the occupation of all the islanders. There was on the bay, also, an Indian camp. They were of the Mickmac tribe, and filthy and indolent to an extreme. They are averse to all exercise. They hunt only on the pressure of hunger, and they had their little provision in camp, the head of a caribou,—or American rein-deer. This part of Newfoundland had much of the character of Labrador. The soil, however, was more productive, and we found wild roses and tall pines, though there were many dwarf trees. We found here the fruit called, from similarity of taste, the baked apple. In form, it is like a thimbleberry, and the taste is exactly what its name denotes. The most beautiful plant we saw, was a species or two of kalmia.

The inhabitants retire in winter into the country, where, in the woods and sheltered places, they have comfortable log-houses. Many of them are quite intelligent, though the most of them thought their climate preferable to any other; but I am too experienced in the ways of the world, ever to speak ill of a man’s dog or climate. Of the two, I would sooner venture to speak disrespectfully of the climate in this region. Of the dogs, we obtained seven; one of which, while with us, dived five fathoms, and brought up a seal that had been shot, larger than herself (pg 381).

This account is from a person who accompanied John James Audubon on his second trip to Labrador. The dogs in the account are likely St. John’s water dogs, for the St. George’s Bay (“Bay St. George”) is on the western side of Newfoundland, which is where the dogs were relatively common well into the twentieth century.

This seal was likely a harbor seal. I somehow doubt that a dog of any size could haul out a massive gray seal, which also could be found in great numbers on Newfoundland’s west coast.

These seals were hunted for their meat and for the oil that could be made from their blubber. In a time when whale blubber was quite valuable, fatty marine mammals of all sorts were rendered down to train. Even polar bears could be a source of this oil, and they certainly weren’t going to let a fat seal get away.

The seal likely was wounded and dived to escape its hunters.

I do not know if the dog actually followed the seal down that far. It may be a bit of an exaggeration, but many modern retrievers do dive— just not that far down.

Maybe this particular dog had a penchant for seal retrieving, and she learned how to dive very far down in search of her quarry.

However, this seal was likely only wounded, and even the best water dog can’t swim as well as seal. The fact that this seal was wounded also would have made it fairly dangerous activity. She wouldn’t be retrieving an angry Canada goose; she’d be retrieving something with teeth.

This account is further testament to the toughness of these old water curs. This dog probably enjoyed the challenge of catching that old wounded seal every bit as much as her modern retriever cousins enjoy fetching tennis balls and birds.

Tough old water cur.

These creatures of legend:

This water cur was sent down to fetch back a sea monster.

And she happily did so.

The canine version of Beowulf grappling with Grendel’s mother.

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