In the days when retrievers were not purebred dogs, everyone who had anything to do with them had some idea about what the ideal “recipe” of which breeds to cross.
Most early retriever people used the “Newfoundland” dog at some point in the cross. This term could refer to the large Newfoundland that was a common pet dog in the nineteenth century, or it could refer to the rough working water cur of Newfoundland, the St. John’s water dog or “Labrador.” The water cur was a landrace, and tracing its exact origins and appearance is quite difficult. However, it does appear that the large Newfoundland was derived from this dog, probably through crossing with mastiffs. Many of these St. John’s water dogs that were imported to Britain were long-haired. The Newfoundlanders preferred smooth coated dogs to work in the water and to haul loads and hunt in the snow. The long-haired ones were sent to Britain, where they became the foundation for the giant Newfoundland. Those that were used as retrievers were called “wavy-coated retrievers,” and these dogs were often crossed with setters or collies.
But lots of different crosses were used. Not all retriever people used dogs from Newfoundland. Some used collies, pointers, and greyhounds. A few even tried bull terriers, beagles, and even small terriers.
So there was actually a lot of debate on how to create a retriever.
One of the real reasons why there was such a debate is that retrieving as a behavior was difficult to breed for. Even with retriever breeds closed registries, it is very hard to maintain strong retrieving behavior without rigorously selecting for it. Dave has sent me some of the discussions about breeding West Siberian laiki to retrieve birds, and it is very much hit or miss with these dogs, which are actually spitz-type dogs and have no relation to specialist retrieving breeds at all.
Retrieving behavior can be found in a wide variety of breeds, but it was just so difficult to get the behavior to breed true.
So in the early days of retrievers, one had to crossbreed.
One of the editions of Stonehenge’s Dogs of the British Islands is called Dogs of the British Islands: Being a Series of articles and letters by various contributors, reprinted from the “Field” newspaper (1872). This book is intentionally written to include treatises and debates from experts with a more specialized knowledge than Stonehenge (John Henry Walsh).
These perspectives are often in disagreement with each other, and in the nascent retriever breeding programs, there was plenty of disagreement to be found. At the end of the section on retrievers, there is an exchange in which three sportsmen disagree on which breeds to cross to make a good retriever. It also includes a discussion on the merits of dog shows and whether one should actually be breeding for solid black retrievers just to win prizes. This discussion is a pretty nice window into the nineteenth century dog fancy, including the role of dog dealers and what magical beliefs about the inheritance of working dog behavior are actually inherited.
The exchange is between a correspondent named “Retriever,” a Scottish sportsman named “W.C.,” and another retriever fancier named “W.X.”
Retriever begins with a discussion on how to select and buy a nice black retriever that one can shoot over and exhibit:
Sir,—Can any of your readers settle the question as to what the retriever really should be? If I am in error in supposing him to be bred from judicious crossing of the Irish water spaniel, setter, and Newfoundland, I should be most happy to be corrected by yourself or some experienced breeder.
Admitting the retriever to be bred as described, how are we reasonably to expect dogs with bull and terrier heads, small smooth ears, &c., such as are now being shown? Surely there is nothing sporting-like in this class of dog.
My own idea of the retriever is (grounding my opinion upon the above facts), first of all. a dark brown eye; the head setter-like in shape, length, and lip; the ear well feathered; legs ditto; tail carried on a level with the back: with the same character and quality of hair that you have on the whole body, from the occiput of the head to the extreme end of the tail.
These views may be somewhat in opposition to the leading characteristic sof the prize-winning dogs of the present day. Take, for instance, the Birmingham winner True. I was surprised on visiting the Manchester Show (not having seen this dog before, and going with the impression that I should see the true dog), that he was only placed fourth on the prize sheet, where he must have been more at home and better judged than when he won all before him at Birmingham. His head had decidedly something of the greyhound about it, being tight in the lip, pointed nose, small ear, without a particle of feather; and, could his pedigree be traced back, I dare venture to say it would prove him to have an infusion of that blood in his veins. I also noticed a peculiarity about the colour of his coat, which is well curled, and black enough at the top; but, upon close inspection, the roots of his hair will be found to be quite brown, intimating that he has been bred from a brown sire or dam—no disgrace in itself, but when a dog is shown for black he should be intensely black. He is at present changing his coat; but I fear, if he lives to have a hundred, they will all be a bad colour.
I simply quote this dog as a sample of a great many of a like stamp of head (which is my chief point of objection), and because he is the winner of the Birmingham prizes; and, of course, one does expect something more than ordinary when a dog has been so successful.
I am sure it must have been very perplexing to any person who takes an interest in this breed of dogs to have seen the eccentricity in judging at Manchester, as there were as many different sorts of dogs as prizes awarded, the predominant feature being size.
However, I will not trespass further upon your space, but conclude by saying I am not a disappointed exhibitor, but one who seeks information through your columns to enable me some day to be a successful exhibitor.
–Retriever (pg. 92- 93).
Retriever is much more concerned about what a dog should look like. Bull-and-terrier type heads might have been common in St. John’s water dog, which often had smaller ears than modern retrievers. He takes exception to a winning dog at Manchester show because it has some greyhound-type characteristics. These dogs might even had some greyhound ancestry, or the St. John’s water dogs at the time may have had these characteristics. The dog he is discussing sounds like a curly-coated retriever, a breed that many early retriever exhibitors didn’t really like, except for its unusual coat. Curlies tended to be kept by poachers and gamekeepers. Poachers used the dogs to collect poached game, but keepers often used the dogs to collect game that had been overlooked from a day’s shooting. Wavies tended to be owned by the shooting gentry, and thus, their looks were much more important. Shoots were social events, and the dogs had to look a certain way. And when one starts breeding for appearance for that reason, it is not a major leap to start breeding them for show.
Retriever wants a dog that looks something like a black golden retriever, which could have been produced through crossing with setters. He wants a dog that has no brown tinge, which is something my black golden retriever/boxer cross exhibited when shedding out. This tinge could have meant that this dog was carrying liver or red/yellow, but it could also be indicative of the seal coloration. It doesn’t occur in modern retrievers, but seal is thought to be an incomplete dominant black. When retrievers were often derived from crosses, they could have had a lot more potential colors than they currently posses.
But the most important thing for Retriever is how the dog looks and how the dog might be exhibited.
W.C. responds to Retriever. W.C. is writing from Scotland, and he has very little use for dog shows. He also has a unique recipe for producing a fine retriever:
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)
W.C. commentary about dog shows sounds very modern. Dog shows had only been in existence since 1859, but already by 1872, there were people offering very harsh criticism about the shows and what they are doing to working breeds.
W.C.’s recipe involves using a different permutation on the St. John’s water dog and setter cross. Instead of using a pure setter, he uses the progeny of a setter bitch and a foxhound dog and then breeds it to the St. John’s water dog to make the retriever. The foxhound gives the dog more docility, nose, and stamina. Stamina would have been very useful for a Scottish retriever, which might have to run very long and hard around the grousing moors just to track the wounded game. Some of the early imports of St. John’s water dogs were a bit surly in temperament and could be nasty fighters.
Foxhounds are not particularly biddable, but the setter and St. John’s water dogs certainly were. W.C. also states that if the initially cross between the St. John’s water dog and setter/foxhound then one should cross it with another dog, either a St. John’s or another breed.
W.C. also offers a criticism of something not often discussed in breed histories or the history of kennel clubs. The nineteenth century dog fancy was largely reliant upon dog dealers. Very wealthy individuals could have big kennels to produce their stock, but middle class dog fanciers had to go to dealers to get their dogs. Esoteric standards created a sort of monopoly for certain dealers. The only dogs who could win in a show were those that came from those that a certain dealer either bred or was able to procure.
W.C.’s denunciation of dog shows doesn’t go unanswered, and his claim that a foxhound cross could be a good retriever is attacked under the assumption that a foxhound’s desire to chase foxes is somehow genetic. This attack comes from a letter from a person with the improbable initials of W.X. It includes a defense of show retrievers that points to top winning show dogs that still readily do their work:
Sir,—W. C, in his letter of advice on the breeding of retrievers, hits, as his wont is, our show pets very hard. I know the magnitude of my adversary, but still wish to take the slightest possible objection to his remarks, and to give him the gentlest possible hint that his dictum must not be accepted absolutely. A few facts will, I think, show him that there are some exceptions to his rule. Mr. Hull’s black wavy-coated bitch Old Bounce is now eleven years old; she has been shot over nine seasons; she will trail a wounded hare as well as any foxhound will a fox; but, instead of eating her game when she catches it, brings it tenderly back to her master. Amongst other prizes, she won first Birmingham, 1869; first and cup at Crystal Palace, 1870.
Her daughter, Young Bounce, is by Mr. Chattock’s Cato, A 1 in the field. She has been shot to six seasons, and is good enough to find runners for perhaps the best kennel of pointers in England. Her prizes include first Birmingham, 1871; first and cup, Hanley; second to her mother at Birmingham and Crystal Palace. Copson, her son, was shot before he had time to work much, but not before he won six first prizes right off the reel. His father, Mr. Meyrick’s Wyndham, is worked regularly, and has thrice been a winner at Birmingham. A later litter by Wyndham included Monarch, Midnight, and Mr. Armstrong’s Belle; Midnight won twice at Birmingham, and is quite as good in the field as a bitch of her age can be expected to be. Monarch, broken by Bishop, won second prize at Vaynol in the field when only eighteen months old.
Mr. T. Smith’s Jet has been shown three times, winning on each occasion. She is by Copson, and belongs to a gentleman who would not keep a bad worker in his kennels. At Birmingham last year all the wavy bitches, prize winners, were Hull’s breed—mother, daughter, granddaughter, niece, all good workers, all show dogs. Mr. Shirley’s Paris, shown three times, twice first, is an excellent worker. The first prize wavy dog at Birmingham last year, claimed for his looks at 50£., is a grand field dog, as are all Mr. Curry’s strain. Well, I could go on <ul infinitum; but enough has been said, I think, to prove to W. C. that all show retrievers are not as useless as he would make out.
The foxhound cross may be good—it certainly gives a disposition to hunt; but is that what we require? Why should we run the risk of suddenly losing our foxhound retrieved for the day when, by following the instinct he has inherited from his parent, he takes up the trail of a fox? I admit he will ” go a great pace in his quest,” and quest too with a vengeance; he may “road” his game, but will he retrieve it? May I give W. C. the gentlest possible hint, that he will only retrieve such portion of it as he can comfortably digest? He may lie by it all night.
Why should we commence to breed a tender-mouthed race of dogs from one for generations accustomed to kill their game, and, as a reward for their perseverance, allowed to eat it too? If W. C. wants a really good retriever, irrespective of looks, let him begin early with a smooth-coated colley pup—we cannot get them here; there are plenty in his district—and let us Southerners alone. If we prefer to shoot to good-looking dogs, it is our business; if they are good-looking enough to pay for their cake and milk out of season, that is our business also. I cannot see why it should detract from their field value to sit a few days now and then to be looked at.
–W.X. (pg. 94-95).
W.X. mentions two very important wavy-coated retrievers, Young and Old Bounce. These two dogs were very influential in producing the early standard wavy-coat. They appear at the foundation of modern flat-coated retriever (and golden retriever) pedigrees.
However, W.X. is letting his nineteenth century Britishness peek out when he claims that a foxhound cross would automatically produce a dog that would chase a fox and that even the addition of the St. John’s water dog blood would produce a dog with no retrieving behavior.
Anyone who has trained scent hounds knows that they don’t have an instinct to hunt any particular game. Beagles don’t automatically chase rabbits over deer. Most will run deer if given the opportunity, and many will choose deer over rabbits. Foxhounds are very similar. My grandpa used to trial foxhounds in rural West Virginia. The foxhound club would release 60 hounds, and the dogs would get points for baying first and for running the fox more closely than other hounds. A huge percentage of these hounds would get off on a deer and they would be gone for days at a time. Even trained foxhounds could be led astray if just one hound near them took off after a deer.
If a dog of this particularly three-way cross had the aptitude for retrieving and had been trained as a retriever, the chances of it going off after a fox or eating the game would have been next to nothing.
But in the nineteenth century Britain, it was believed that all of these behaviors were inherited– and many dog people think this way today.
It is amazing how modern these arguments sound, even if the topic is quite different. Most retrievers bred today are not intentional crossbreeds. Most retriever people wouldn’t know what to do with a cross, even if the cross was between a golden retriever and a Labrador.
However, it is very clear that with the exception of people like W.X., the nineteenth century retriever culture was very much concerned with producing a dog that looked a certain way– which would have been hard to do with dogs that derived from a diverse ancestry. The retriever was the gentleman’s lurcher, a purpose-bred mongrel that could have lots of the blood of different breeds coursing through its veins.
But because it was bred by status seeking gentlemen, there was a desire to standardize these “mongrels.” W.C. is much more concerned with function and utility. There is a strong anti-establishment tone to his letter, a desire that a dog be good for its purpose regardless of what it looks like. That attitude wouldn’t have won him many plaudits among the status seekers, but in his letter, he exposes what this whole thing was actually about.
The retriever may have had to have been derived from a crossbred dogs, but it was inevitable that they would become standardized breeds.
The sociology of the retriever and its people almost ordained it.
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