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Posts Tagged ‘retriever’

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.

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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.”

Source.

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):

Sir,

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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(Source for image)

From A Cotswold Village (1899) by Joseph Arthur Gibbs:

There is no dog more knowing and sagacious in his own particular way than a well-trained retriever. What an immense addition to the pleasure of a day’s partridge-shooting in September is the working of one of these delightful dogs! Only the other day, when I was sitting on the lawn, a retriever puppy came running up with something in his mouth, with which he seemed very pleased. He laid it at my feet with great care and tenderness, and I saw that it was a young pheasant about a fortnight old. It ran into the house, and was rescued unharmed a few hours afterwards by the keeper, who restored it to the hencoop from whence it came. One could not be angry with a dog that was unable to resist the temptation to retrieve, but yet would not harm the bird in the smallest degree (pg. 320-321).

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