Posts Tagged ‘retriever’



A few months ago, I wrote about how Sir Everett Millais created the modern basset hound when the inbred strains of Norman basset that were being bred in England were crossed with a bloodhound.

Sir Everett Millais was a dog show person. He was obsessed with developing the basset hound as we know it today, and as a judge, he was adamant about the newly developing English strains of dachshund take more after the hound component of their heritage than the “terrier” component.

Everett was the son of Sir John Everett Millais, a noted painter from a prominent Jersey family, and most “dog people” generally know only about his eldest son. The story of the cross between the Norman basset and the bloodhound well-documented breed lore, and much of our understanding of the dachshund in English-speaking countries comes from his work in founding that breed in England.

But of this particular Millais family, there was another son who had an interest in dogs. The youngest son of Sir John Everett Millais was John Guille Millais, an author, a painter, and naturalist of some note. I once wrote about his account of sheep-killing “Labrador dogs” in Newfoundland.

I paid almost no attention this author, other than I noted he was the younger brother of Sir Everett.  I searched around for more information about John Guille, but I got bored. I made a mental note of his name and then largely forgot about him.

A few years ago I came across a book written by John Guille.  It was called The Wildfowler in Scotland, which was published in 1901.  The book is ostensibly a how-to manual on shooting water and seabirds in Scotland, but it also includes accounts of his favorite retriever. Her name was Jet, and she was nothing like the celebrated show dogs of his brother:

“In my early days of shore shooting I was fortunate enough to procure a dog which eventually turned out to be (so far as my experience goes) the very best that ever stood on four legs. ‘Jet,’ for that was her name, was but a pup of ten months—a smooth-coated retriever of a most gentle and affectionate disposition, and quite unbroken—when I bought her of an innkeeper in Perth. She was the keenest and best nosed dog I have ever seen—too keen, as I found at first, and constantly running-in; but eventually she settled down and became almost human in her intelligence.

Every man becomes sentimental about something, and if I say too much here about dear old ‘Jet,’ who was my constant companion for sixteen years, the reader must forgive me. Many are the tales I could tell of her prowess; but I will confine myself to a few instances of her indomitable perseverance and pluck as a swimmer. One trick I mention as interesting, for she acquired it through her own cunning. Every shooter knows that while directing his eyes to the front or flank, as he naturally does while walking along the coast, birds often come up from behind, and before he can observe them, sheer off out of shot.  ‘Jet,’ however, was quite up to this.  As she trotted along behind me, she constantly glanced back over her shoulder, and if she saw anything coming, she would at once run in front of me, gazing alternatively at myself and the fowl in an inquiring manner,  thereby giving the chance of obtaining something desirable. There was no sea, however thunderous–even the great winter breakers of the North Atlantic– that she would not face, if I asked her to fetch some fallen treasure.

When the seas were unusually heavy, she betrayed a most remarkable instinct in preserving herself from being dashed from the rocks.  Instead of plunging into the mass of water, as a breaker surged towards her, she would allow herself to be carried out on the wash of the receding rush in time to meet the next huge wave and top it just as about to fall with a force that would have knocked her senseless had it broken upon her. More than once in a heavy sea she was not quick enough in this exploit, and paid smartly for her daring.  An instance occurred one day in the winter when I was lying among rocks near the Black Craig, Orkney Isles,  during one of those big westerly gales when Arctic gulls and Eiders come along the shore.  I had been watching them for some days previously, and whilst this gale was it height, a male eider came by, at which I fired.  The bird was hard hit, and made it out to sea, but had not gone 50 yards when it fell dead among the breakers.  As the sea was wild in the extreme, and I knew the bird would soon be blown ashore, I never thought of sending my dog after it; but ‘Jet’ who was pottering about in the rocks at a short distance, unfortunately had her eye also on the eider, and seeing it fall, at once made for it, in spite of all my efforts to stop her, all my shouting drowned by the roar of the ocean.  I could only stand and admire her pluck as she fought through the first two breakers. Now those who have lived much by the sea have noticed that those heavy breakers always travel over the face of the ocean in threes.  The third did for ‘Jet’ as she was trying to raise herself and look about for the bird. It completely broke over her, and I felt a chill go to my heart as, the next moment, I saw her body floating helplessly admidst the rush of seething waters.” (pg 45-47).

Jet eventually washed up on the shore, alive but severely draggled. Millais carried her home two miles, and although modern retriever people would have her much more steady to shot, this tale is a story of her pluck and drive.

In the Tay Estuary,  Millais once shot a brent goose (“brant” goose for North Americans), but left the bird only slightly pinioned. Jet took off after the bird in the water, but the bird was a much faster swimmer than the dog.  The dog pursued the goose a great distance from the shore, and Millais estimated that he ran three miles trying to call her back in:

“I began to lose all hope of ever seeing my dear doggie again. However, by the merest chance, there happened that afternoon to be an old fellow collecting bait in a spot where never before or since have I seen a man so employed. We at once asked his help, but in vain. ‘Na, na,’ he said, ‘A ken fine yon spring tide; a few meenutes to get there and a’ day to get back.’ Bribery and persuasion having alike failed, I told the old chap that as I had no intention of seeing my dog drowned I should take his boat whether he liked it or not. That he did not like it was clear from his reply; but a glance at my beaming friend convinced him that resistance would be useless, so he sullenly assisted us to launch his coble.

It took about ten minutes to run out to ‘Jet’ and her quarry, and when the latter was promptly dispatched the staunch dog fetched it to the boat, obviously proud of her accomplishment. Poor old girl, she little knew how near death she had been! Without the help that only by good luck we were able to render, she would have gone on another mile or two; then, feeling tired, would have tried in vain to make headway back’ to the shore. It took us about four and a half hours to make the coast again in that angry sea.

At all sorts of shooting, whether grouse driving, covert shooting, or wildfowling, ‘Jet’ was equally reliable; and having constant practice throughout the shooting season, she became as good a retriever as the most exacting sportsman could desire. At flight shooting she was simply perfection, and seemed, like her master, to take special delight in sitting at twilight waiting for the black forms and whistling pinions of the approaching duck. On ‘coarse’ nights, when duck flying by are seen almost as soon as they are heard, a dog is seldom quicker than a man in catching sight of them; but on still, fine nights, when the moon rises early, and the birds can be heard approaching from a distance, a good dog will always see them before the shooter, and will indicate by his motions the precise direction from which they are coming. ‘Jet’ was very good at this, almost invariably rising from her sitting posture, stiffening herself in pointer fashion, and whining if she thought I was not paying sufficient attention to her suggestions. Frequently, too, in an evening, when the wind is not too strong, many trips of birds will come down wind, from behind the shooter, and on these occasions ‘Jet’s’ sharp ears have often helped me to a shot that I should otherwise have lost from lack of time to change my position.

And now good-bye, old ‘Jet,’ fondest and faithfullest of companions! Stone deaf, and stiff with rheumatism, she quietly lay down and died, in 1897, and I can hardly hope to ever see her like again (pg. 49-50).

Jet was a poorly trained animal by our standards today, but she had lots of drive and intelligence that could have been crafted into a fine working animal.  Her longevity is something that many retriever people would like to see again. In no breed of retriever do dogs routinely reach those great ages now.

Jet was not purebred by any stretch. She was a “collie-and-smooth-coated-retriever mongrel.” From her photo in Wildfowler, she looked very much like a small flat-coated retriever, so the “smooth coat” in her breed description like refers to her being a cross between some form of collie and what became the flat-coated retriever. She had definite feathering, and if she had been a cross with a collie and the dogs that became the Labrador retriever, she would have been without feathering. The flash of white on her muzzle might point to her collie ancestry, but she would have been very typical of the retrievers that Millais and other sporting young men at the time would have had.

John Guille Millais recommended crosses between “the curly and the waving retrievers. As a general rule a curly coat denotes strength, intelligence, and a relish for the hard and coarse work of the water; whilst the wavy-coated dogs are more amenable to discipline, and gifted. with a softness of mouth and sweetness of disposition not to be found in any other of the canine species” (pg. 44).

John Guille was ultimately going against his brother’s aesthetic. His favorite dogs are retrievers bred for work:

“In selecting a pup for wildfowling work the shooter cannot be too careful in his inquiries as to the cleverness, mouth, taste for the water, and other characteristics of the mother. Where possible, he should ascertain this for himself, as the mental capacity and proclivities of the mother are generally transmitted to the pups. I think am correct in saying that a dog gets from her most of his abilities—good, bad, or indifferent; while his external form is due rather to his father. Good bench qualities will, of course, add to his value, as affording more pleasure to the eye, but otherwise, they are of no importance (pg 44).

John Guille Millais would eventually become a major force in conservation.  He was a co-founder of what became Fauna & Flora International, and his travels in North America, Europe, and Africa brought him into contact with many wild things. He wrote of his experiences in those regions, but he also wrote tomes of natural history, including books on magnolias and rhododendrons.  He wrote about deer species and deer hunting, and he often returned to the subject of wing-shooting and the natural history of game birds and waterfowl.

Like so many young men of his class, he came to natural history with the gun in his hand and a retriever at his heels. It was around the same time that Jet came into his life that John Guille and his father met the ornithologist John Gould.  That meeting laid the eggs of a passion that would drive the young man out onto the windswept coasts with his little black retriever. (It also became the inspiration for Sir John Everett Millais’s painting The Ruling Passion.)

John Guille Millais, at least when it came to dogs, was a bit of rebel compared to his brother. Everett Millais was a doyen among the dog show set. He was more interested in producing dogs that could be judged and discussed in lavish sitting rooms. John Guille was more interested in the wilder working dogs, the ones with rugged coats and lots of pluck and courage.

I am so glad that John Guille Millais was able to have this connection with Jet. She was a wonderful creature, the very sort of dog that burns your psyche deeply, the kind that visits you in dreams and leaves the memories waxing rheumy.



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Russian gun dogs 1907

These hunters must have been borrowing heavily from the British traditions. Two setters or a setter and pointer in the cart and black retriever in the front. These men may have even been British who brought their dogs in the Russian wild for a some “primitive” rough shooting in the Irkutsk region of Siberia.

I cannot make out the birds they were hunting. Maybe snipe?


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It’s hard to tell what breed of retriever this is, but I have my suspicions.

benson hunter with retriever

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4 million

high point

According my stat counter, this blog will have crossed the 4 million hit mark within the next hour or so.

Thank you for reading, sharing, and subscribing to my work.

It’s been a lot of work. I have put my heart and soul into this project over the years.

I’ve learned a lot.

And I appreciate you for indulging me.

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A black retriever/husky cross. Source for image.

The following description of a hunting and retrieving sled dog comes from “Mooney-ow,” a contributor to Hunter-Trader-Trapper in 1917. His piece is called “Somewhere in France.”  But he doesn’t write about France:

Just got the May Hunter-Trader-Trapper. It got me thinking of the good old days that have passed and that seem so far, far back in a very dark background. The days I used to roam in the Mackenzie basin–free–nothing or no one to think of, just myself.

Last August I wrote you about the 400 miles trip to the end of steel, when I came out to do my bit, that was some trip, 16 days was good time and my dogs (the only team that made it thru without a change) came thru fat, poor brutes, I had to turn them loose to rustle their own grub. Often now, when I sleep outside, I lie awake looking at the stars (especially Polaris), thinking of my little leader, “Shep.” Talk about dogs, boys, he was right there with bells when there was work to do. For an all-round dog, he could not be licked. He was a cross between a rough-coated retriever [probably wavy-coated] and a Hershel Island husky. He would retrieve anything from a duck to a beaver from water, hunt anything from mink to bear and tree anything from a partridge to a lynx or bear (pg. 86).

It’s always been a common practice for sled dog drivers to let their dogs forage on their own at certain times of the year.

And for European sled dog drivers, it was a common occurrence for them to breed Western dogs with the huskies.

In this particular cross, he got a working retriever and a good varmint dog. Most husky-type dogs will hunt just about anything, but they aren’t typically natural retrievers.

So he got the best of both world– a kind of arctic retriever that could also hunt other quarry.

Herschel Island is the northernmost point in the Yukon. It’s likely that a husky from that area would be very well-adapted to living in very harsh conditions.

And retriever would add a certain amount of biddablity to the cross as well as natural retrieving instinct.

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Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii).

The following account of two “strange deerhounds” comes from Large game shooting in Thibet, the Himalayas, Northern and Central India (1892) by Alexander Angus Airlie Kinloch. The author is out hunting a Tibetan antelope in very rough country, but he is unable to do so without the assistance of his two gun dogs, creatures that most British sportsmen would have relegated to small game hunting:

On the second evening I found a herd on some terraced ground, and placing myself in a favorable position, waited for them to feed up to me. A fine buck at length came within one hundred and fifty yards, and when he was broadside on, I fired steadily at him; he fell to the shot, but was up again directly and made after the others. Having reloaded, I followed him and fired both barrels within easy distance, but I was so blown with running that only one of my bullets hit him, and it only grazed his foreleg. The first bullet had struck him high up in the hip and passed through the intestines, part of which were hanging out, but in spite of this he seemed to recover strength and went off at a great pace, luckily in the direction of camp. I followed as fast as I could, but was soon left far behind. I sent to camp for my two dogs (a retriever and a spaniel), and contented myself with watching the buck, who soon lay down in the middle of an open plain. On the arrival of the dogs I approached him, on which he got up and went off at a very fair pace. I hallooed on the dogs, who quickly entered into the spirit of the thing and gave chase. Antelope and dogs soon disappeared in a ravine, and on running up to the bank I had the satisfaction of seeing the buck on the ground, and the two dogs barking at him; strange deerhounds! but they did their work well. The kill took place not three-quarters of a mile from camp (pg. 151).


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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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George Cartwright with his greyhound in Labrador. They have bagged a melanistic red fox.

One probably doesn’t think of the ancestors of retrievers hunting things like polar bears and wolves, but in their native land, the ancestral retrievers were used to hunt these animals. One wonders exactly how common it was for these dogs hunt such dangerous animals, but we do know that the people who lived on Newfoundland and in Labrador during these days would have to deal with large predators on a regular basis.

These two accounts come from Captain George Cartwright’s journal.   These accounts come from the early 1770’s, and one should not assume that the Newfoundlands mentioned here are the big, shaggy Newfoundlands we know now.  Richard Wolters was the first person to figure out that the original Newfoundland dog was more like retriever– a dog that is usually referred to as the St. John’s water dog. This dog is the primary ancestor of all the retrievers–with the exception of the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever– and the large Newfoundland dog.

Cartwright was an explorer and fur trader who operated in Newfoundland and then in Labrador. These accounts of his tenure in Labrador, where hunted and trapped with a Newfoundland dog and a greyhound. Yes.  A greyhound– the perfect breed to take into a subarctic climate!

Here is Cartwright’s account of some “Newfoundland” dogs being used to pursue a wolf that was caught in a trap and managed to escape with the trap still attached to its foot:

Monday, April 8, 1771. At ten o’clock Milmouth came from the Lodge to remain with me. Soon afterwards two of the sealers called to inform me that they had killed a wolf at the East end of this island, which had got into one of their traps upon White-Fox Island [Tilcey Island, Labrador] this morning. He travelled at such a rate with the trap upon one of his fore feet, that they had much difficulty to overtake him, though assisted by a couple of stout Newfoundland dogs; for the wolf so intimidated the dogs, by frequently snapping at them as he ran, that they were afraid to attack him. I went with them to take a view of the beast, and a large old dog he was, but very poor; for he had been impelled by hunger to haunt about the sealers’ house for some time past, to eat the seals’ bones which had been left half picked by their dogs. Milmouth and I were employed all the rest of the day in cutting boughs to sewel the harbour, in order to cause the deer to come close to a point of Eyre Island, where I intend to watch for them (pg.74).

This wolf had been scavenging the seal carcasses that were cast off to feed the many working dogs on the Labrador coast.  This wolf was quite in poor condition, but it still gave the dogs quite a bit of trouble.

Wolf hunting probably would have always been an incidental activity for the water dogs. Their main utility was in hunting ducks, sea birds, and ptarmigan.

However, it was on a duck hunt that Cartwright saw some Newfoundland dogs take on even more formidable prey than a wolf.  It was while duck hunting with two Newfoundlands and his greyhound that Cartwright and his party came across a “white-bear.”

Wednes., May 8, 1776. At three o’clock this morning I took John Hayes, his crew, Jack, the greyhound, and two Newfoundland dogs with me, intending to launch the skiff into the water, and go a duck shooting. As they were hauling her along, I went forward to Pumbly Point, from whence I discovered a white-bear [polar bear] lying on the ice near Huntingdon Island; we left the skiff, and all hands went towards him, but finding the ice extremely weak in the middle of the channel we stopped. I then sent one man round to drive him towards us: in the mean time the bear went into a pool of water which was open near the island, and the man got on the other side and fired at him; but as he did not come out so soon as I expected, I sent the rest of the people back for the skiff, intending to launch it into the water to him. He soon after got upon the ice, and came close up to me. I could have sent a ball through him; but as I wished to have some sport first, I slipped the greyhound at him, but he would not close with him till the Newfoundland dogs came up; we then had a fine battle, and they stopped him until I got close up. As I was laying down one gun, that I might fire at him with the other, I observed the ice which I was upon, to be so very weak that it bent under me; and I was at the same time surrounded with small holes, through which the water boiled up, by the motion of the ice, caused by my weight. As I knew the water there was twenty-five fathoms deep, with a strong tide, my attention was diverted, from attempting to take away the life of a bear, to the safety of my own; and while I was extricating myself from the danger which threatened me, the bear bit all the dogs most severely, and made good his retreat into the open water, which was at some distance lower down (pg. 199-200).

Hunting such dangerous quarry as polar bears and wolves would have meant that the St. John’s water dogs were very tough animals.

The water dogs of Newfoundland were truly multipurpose animals.

They had to be.  The people needed dogs that were capable of working in the cold water as setters and haulers of nets and as retrievers of hooked fish.  They also needed dogs that were capable of hunting birds and other game in the interior, and dogs that could retrieve sea birds and ducks from the water.  They also needed dogs that could haul sleds and carts that were loaded down with fish, furs, lumber, and other raw materials.

This ancestral Newfoundland or St. John’s water dog was a local adaptation of the rough cur dog that was so common among the English working class.   This same cur was also adapted to fit different regions of the United States, and the actual dog upon which Old Yeller was based was actually some regional variant of the American cur– most likely what we have come to call a black-mouthed cur.

It is a little strange to think of the ancestors of golden and Labrador retrievers baying up polar bears and chasing down wolves.

But they are descendants of a much rougher dog.

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I came across a story of a wolf that learned to retrieve ducks from a water spaniel. This story appears in Durward Allen’s The Wolves of Minong (1979):

This particular story clearly suggests that wolves are capable of learning to do thing that dogs do.

However, they do them at their own pace and do not respond well to being forced.

I seriously doubt that anyone could force-fetch this wolf– and still have all of his fingers!

The truth is this animal learned through the example of Junie and the trust he had in the Smitses.

Very few wolves in captivity are kept in this fashion. Most people who keep wolves try to either keep in a way that they behave as naturally as possible.

Those studies that have tried to keep wolves exactly like dogs in urban environments have also discovered that they can’t be forced to obey in the same way.  They are also less interested in learning from people than Western dog breeds.

But I don’t think they have tested wolves that have been raised with Western dogs on their ability to learn from the dogs.

In this case, you have a dog from an easily trained Western breed. Because the Smitses were operating in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I am assuming that Junie was an American water spaniel, which is the regional retriever.   This breed has been bred for many generations to work closely with human handlers, and because it is a retriever, the tendency to bring back objects to its handler is a trait for which it has been selectively bred for many generations.  Although it the trait must be refined through training, it is very easy — in relative terms– to teach a water spaniel to bring back a duck without plucking it or trying to consume it.

This wolf just happens to like the water spaniel, which is likely an elder. In wolf society, pups learn from their elders. They learn which prey they are supposed to hunt, and they learn how to use their predatory motor patterns to catch prey within a cooperative pack. This wolf learned from the water spaniel that the way one uses its motor patterns is to run out, pick up a wounded or dead duck, and come running back to the humans.

I bet that one could train certain wolves to do this behavior, even without the water spaniel as the mentor. I bet that some wolves could even learn to ignore gun shots near them. However, training a wolf doesn’t mean that you just force yourself onto them, which unfortunately seems to be the paradigm in which most people operate regarding wolves.  It is unlikely that anyone was able to domesticate a wolf by dominating it, for if you actually read the wild wolf literature, extremely aggressive dominance displays between individuals ultimately lead to the dispersal of one of the wolves. In captive situations, there is no dispersal, and those that don’t get along wind up doing a lot of fighting and displaying– which is assumed to be natural behavior. If paleolithic hunter-gatherers tried this on their camp wolves, they wouldn’t stay around for very long, and a certain percentage of them tend to wander off at mating season anyway.

One of the real problems in comparing wolf and dog behavior is that researchers often use the popular Western dog breeds, which are often gun dogs and herding breeds, and northern wolves, which are actually quite specialized wolves. These two animals are going to have extreme differences in behavior.  This type of wolf is going to be naturally quite cued into other canines, while the dogs are going to be very, very cued into people.  There is a huge debate about whether wolves are smarter than dogs, which has been re-ignited when Eotvos Lorand University’s Department of Ethology began doing these comparative cognition studies with wolves and dogs.

It is often said that wolves are capable of observational learning and that dogs can learn only by association, but dogs are actually capable of learning from both people and other dogs.

I am of the view that no wolf, no matter how well-socialized, will ever be able to perform at the level of a gun dog or a herding breed when it comes to word and body language associations from humans. There will never be a wolf like Rico the border collie. Dogs are also able to get a lot more information because they are willing to learn from us– and they basically have to. There is probably a genetic basis to this difference, but we haven’t actually found it.

But there aren’t enough wolves living as intimately with people as dogs do, so we really have problem making generalizations about wolf behavior. And because we have such a relatively low n in these studies, we probably aren’t going to be able to answer the question about which animal is more intelligent– if that is even a proper scientific question to work with in the first place.

Wolves are just very hard to keep in domestic situations. They are too emotionally reactive– likely the result of  the selecton pressures on their populations that came from centuries of persecution– and they are too energetic. The Russians say that “A wolf is kept fed by its feet,” which means that wolves are meant to travel vast distances every day in search of prey. In a home, this animal will be like a  field-bred pointer, a foxhound, or Dalmatian.  It will be so full of pent up energy that it might have a hard time focusing when the person arrives home to do some training with it.

But the story of Big Jim shows that at least some wolves are capable of learning to do dog behaviors. I don’t think we’ve figured out what the big differences between dogs and wolves actually are. I certainly don’t think we’ve figured out which species is more intelligent. However, I do think the dogs from Western breeds that have been bred to work closely with handlers that live very closely with people have some traits that are very unique, and most household dogs are going to receive a wealth of information from humans that even a very socialized wolf might not be open to learning. It may be the result of nothing more than the much higher emotional reactivity and energy levels on behalf of the wolf, but it may be something fundamentally cognitive.

I don’t think we have the answers yet.


Minong is the Ojibwe word for Isle Royale, an island in Lake Superior off  the coast of Michigan’s UP.  The Smitses were operating in Rock Habor, Michigan, which is the harbor that provides access to Isle Royale. The Smitses were raising captive wolves to introduce to Isle Royale, but this proved to be a major problem.

These imprinted wolves often approached people when they came to the island to camp, and all the wolves but Big Jim wound up being shot.

Big Jim wandered the island for several years after that, but it is unlikely that he contributed any genes to the current wolf population on the island.


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