Posts Tagged ‘retriever’

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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This text comes from Indian New England Before the Mayflower (1980) by Howard S. Russell:

I would not be surprised if we found that some of these dogs– most likely the ones belonging to the Mi’kmaq who settled in Newfoundland in the 1760’s–were found to have contributed some genetic material to the St. John’s water dogs, and through them to the modern Newfoundlands, Landseers, Leonbergers, and the retrievers.

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Painting by George Horlor (1851).

The dog at his feet is a bloodhound, a dog that any Highland ghillie would need to track wounded deer.

The identities of the other two are less clear.

I think they are setters. Solid white and gold-colored setters were not unknown in the nineteenth century.

But then again, cream-colored and gold-colored retrievers were not unknown in the nineteenth century either.

Gordon setters were very similar to wavy-coated retrievers in conformation, and they were also known to come in the reddish gold color.

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Lough Neagh is a lake or “loch” in the middle of Northern Ireland.

Wildfowling is English for “duck hunting.”


The pochard is a close relative of the North American redhead duck, and it looks very much a redhead.

And the “good retriever” on the lough is “just a mongrel.”

However, the dog looks very much like I imagine a Tweed water spaniel looked like– a yellow retriever with a thick, slightly wavy coat, and brown skin pigment.

Of course, the dog is likely a Labrador cross, and the other dog is almost like a retriever-derived lurcher.

But its similarities to my understanding of what a Tweed water spaniel or Tweed water dog was are awfully beguiling to my imagination.

The water spaniel or water dog of Northern Ireland was also very similar to the Tweed– and they were likely close relatives. It was also very much like a retriever, but it was always either solid liver or liver with some white markings on the chest and feet.  Yellows didn’t exist in that breed.

Yes. It also resembles a deadgrass Chesapeake Bay retriever.

I guess in this part of Northern Ireland, retrievers are still bred in the old way. If it retrieves, it gets bred to another dog that retrieves. Pedigree doesn’t matter.

There is no pretense in this hunting expedition. It is just a couple of guys getting together with the dogs to shoot some wild ducks for supper.

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This dog is described in a letter in Country Life Illustrated (19 December 1908):


While out ferreting the other day at Parford, on Dartmoor, I took the photograph I enclose of a greyhound retrieving a rabbit, which I thought might be of interest to some of your readers. When this dog was out with us it was quite the exception for a wounded rabbit to get down a burrow; consequently, we were able to ferret the whole length of the hedges without leaving gaps, as is generally the case when one wants to avoid the chance of the ferrets laying up. The dog belongs to a keeper in Chagford, who told me he had great difficulty in training him in the first instance. If a rabbit was missed and bolted away from the hedge it was often caught and retrieved after an exciting course, which greatly added to the day’s sport and relieved monotony. As to the dog’s parents, I was unable to obtain any information, but he had the appearance of being a fairly well-bred dog (pg. 892).

That last line is used make certain that this dog is a greyhound and not a cross between a greyhound and a retriever.

The dog is mostly black, and that might suggest that someone bred a greyhound to a retriever at some point to get both the color and the behavior.

Grantley Berkeley did cross one of his deer greyhounds with a retrieving “Newfoundland.”  The resulting puppy– Wolf– was a very sagacious retrieving lurcher.

There are certain greyhounds that will retrieve within the population, and these do not necessarily have retriever blood in them. The only characteristics that this particular dog has that might suggest retriever ancestry are its black color and the retrieving behavior.

But neither of these is necessarily indicative of being a greyhound/retriever cross of any sort.

The retrieving behavior is widely distributed among domestic dog breeds. My grandmother’s miniature dachshund, who ruled me with an iron fist (as would any Prussian autocrat worthy of the name) was an 8-pound retrieving fool.

And there are plenty of actual retrievers that would rather eat than retrieve anything.

Because retrieving is widespread in dogs, it makes sense that virtually all retrievers living in Britain had some level of crossbreeding. They were the performance-bred mongrels of the sporting gentry.


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