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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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Her name was Princess Christina of Kansas (b. 1989), and she was an obvious working type dog from the United States. (Kansas, in case you didn’t know, doesn’t actually have royalty– except for queens at country fairs.)

(Source for image)

Now, you can tell what lines of golden were eventually prominent in Russia following Christina’s import.

They went for the European and UK show lines, which you can tell by the color of these puppies, which were her grandchildren. They likely went for these lines because they would fit in more nicely with the FCI system, but the Russians themselves have always valued good hunting dogs. So it’s possible that there might be a future for other working-type dogs in Russia.

Christina died in 2001, which just shows you how recent the history of this breed in Russia actually is.

I guess she’s the first golden retriever that ever could accurately be called a “Russian retriever.”

***

Her pedigree shows that she was just a regular old working-type golden, but one of her great grandmothers was a Topbrass dog.

Her COI over 3 generations was 0.00%.

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The following is an entry in Hugh Dalziel’s British Dogs:

A few years ago the Russian retriever was often met with at our shows, and Mr. E. B. Southwell’s Czar scored a good number of first prizes in the variety classes, but for two seasons past I do not recollect to have seen a specimen at any show.

I believe “Idstone’s ” is the only book on the dog in our language that has deigned to notice this breed. And “Idstone” very summarily dismisses him thus: “I recollect seeing one of them at a battue, which attempted to fetch a hare from a thick brake, and became so entangled amongst the thorns and ‘ burs,’ that the beaters had to cut away a quantity of his coat to liberate him, and in the confusion the hare was lost. Further comments on the Russian retriever for this country is needless.”

A single glance at the dog would show anyone that he is of no use in a thick brake of thorns, briars, or whins, but it does not follow that he is of no use in this country; and the anecdote related by “Idstone” seems to me rather to reflect on the man who put the dog to work for which he was so evidently unsuited than on the dog. We have unquestionably dogs far better fitted for retrieving under any conditions in wood or wild, on land or from water, than the Russian retriever, but as a distinct variety we have room for him if only as a companion and guard, using him as a retriever under suitable conditions when required.

I have said that in dog books, in that of “Idstone” alone is he referred to, but “Stonehenge” gives a woodcut of a Russian setter crossed with English setter, which appears to me a modification of the Russian retriever.

The Russian retriever is a large leggy dog, very squarely built, with an excess of hair all over him, long, thick, and inclining to curl, a large short head, round and wide in the skull, rather short and square in the jaw, not unlike a poodle. The ears are medium sized, pendulous, heavily covered with hair; the legs are’ straight, covered with long hair front and back, like an Irish water spaniel. The eyes and whole face are covered with long hair, like a modern Skye terrier, but more abundantly. The coat throughout is long and dense, and requires great care to keep it in anything like order, as it readily gets felted.

They are generally extremely docile, very intelligent, and show great power of scent, and for “tricks” of retrieving from land or water excellent, and they make good watch dogs, and it is only as companion dogs they are likely to take a place in this country. I have known three that I consider good specimens, namely, Mr. E. B. Southwell’s Czar; one the property of Mr. Pople, of the British Hotel, Perth; and one that met with a tragic end, having been burnt to death in a fire which destroyed the house of his owner in Villiers-street, Strand. I should say the height of each referred to would be about 26in. at shoulder, and the colour throughout a grey.

Marcia Schlehr in The New Golden Retiever thinks these dogs might be komondorok or possibly the South Russian ovtcharka. That is certainly a possibility, but the temperament is a bit off. The temperament is more like a retriever or a poodle than a livestock guardian dog.

Rawdon Lee agrees with me:

There used to be an impression abroad that there were two varieties of poodle, the Russian poodle and the French poodle; but the error, however it arose, is now corrected, and we know that the black and the white poodle are common to both nations, as they are to other countries in Europe. A huge black or brown dog occasionally seen in England, where it went by the name of the Russian retriever, was originally imported to cross with our own retrievers to increase the size of the latter. At any rate this was said at the time, but our retrievers were already quite big enough, and the so-called Russian dog was nothing more than a huge poodle.

As a fact, there are more than two varieties of the poodle, and I cannot bring myself to believe that this great big dog from Russia, 8olb. weight or more, is of the same variety as the little mite of a creature 61b. in weight, or even less, which is well known and can be trained to perform sundry tricks, which it does pretty nearly as well as the bigger dogs. Indeed, that of standing on its head on the palm of its owner’s hand could not be well done by a dog thirty or forty pounds in weight.

Lee calls this breed the “Russian monster,” and he thinks that every attempt to breed them to retrievers is going to be mess.

Now, I wonder if there actually were some of these dogs behind the retrievers a Guisachan. There are some Russian-sounding names, like Alma, in some of the kennel records.

Now, I hate to muddy the waters here, but poodles have always been a staple in European circuses. Maybe there actually were poodles of this type that were in a traveling circus were in some way behind the Guisachan retrievers. However, these dogs arrived earlier than than Trench believed they arrived.

And that may be the source for the Russian circus dog rumor.

Of course, there are no historical  records to back me up, and what I am suggesting is little more than speculation. In fact, these dogs with Russian names may have never had a role in the yellow retriever line.

And I will reaffirm that the story that the line that led to golden retrievers were wavy-coats derived from the Nous and Belle breeding.

But a poodle-type dog does make more sense as an outcross for a retriever than a livestock guardian dog.

Nothing more than interesting but idle speculation.

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This image comes from W.E. Mason’s Dogs of All Nations (1915)

The entry goes as follows:

Color: Yellow or rich red sable. Height: 28 in. Weight: 90 lbs.

This dog is similar in all essentials to the English [flat-coated] Retriever, except that he is a size bigger and heavier in coat, and of course different in color, as his name implies. He is used principally for tracking wounded deer.

The same book has an entry on the flat-coated retriever that mentions the golden retriever with that breed, and it implies that they are separate breeds.

Below this image of a flat-coat, Mason describes the color:

Color : Rich black, free from rustiness and from white. There is also a Golden Retriever so named because of the golden or yellow color of his coat.

So what is going on here?

Well, the dog in the top photo isn’t from Russia at all.

It is a yellow retriever with long hair, and except for size, it is very similar to the dogs that became golden retrievers.

I can tell you with almost certainty that the Russian yellow retriever is derived from the same stock as the dogs that became golden retrievers.

Why?

Well, there was a fellow named Col. William Le Poer Trench. Trench was an interesting fellow in golden retriever history.

If you’ve ever heard that they come from Russian circus dogs, Col. Trench is who you can blame.

At some point in the 1880’s, he got some yellow retrievers from the Tweedmouth line. His dogs came from the Earl of Ilchester’s dogs, which were all line from Tweedmouth’s breeding. From those dogs, Trench founded his own line, calling them St. Hubert’s.

Some of these dogs were very similar to working flat-coats and golden-type dogs, like St. Hubert’s Peter (note the brown skin):

This particular dog was presented to George V.

“St. Hubert’s Peter” was his name. I don’t know whether Col. Trench bred him, but it seems that he comes from his line. However, the dog looks very different from the dogs I associate with St. Hubert’s dogs.

Yes. Those are the dogs.

And they look very similar to the dog in the top photograph. They are actually gold in color, as this painting of them clearly shows.

The dogs were not registered as golden retrievers or flat-coated retrievers, as would have been the norm. They were registered with the KC as a separate breed called the Russian yellow retriever. (There are actually two very different breeds that called Russian retrievers, one of which is nothing like a golden retriever!)

Because the St. Hubert’s dogs were registered as a separate variety of retriever, they actually competed as something other than the breed called “Flat-coats (golden)” in at least one dog show.

Now, as I said before, the story of the Russian origins of the golden retriever comes from Col. Trench. Col. Trench supposedly had the goods on the 1st Baron Tweedmouth’s breeding program. He had a letter from Guisachan’s kennel man that claimed the dogs were definitely derived from a troupe of Russian circus dogs.  The evidence even included that famous photo of Nous.

The story goes that the circus dogs were crossed with bloodhounds to make the yellow retrievers, which is where I think some of this bloodhound story comes from. If there were any bloodhound-retriever crosses, they most likely were not bred from.

Trench wanted to add new blood to his line, as the story goes, and he claimed to have gone to the Russian Empire in search of new blood. The dogs were all in the mountains when he came there, and he couldn’t find any.

Supposedly, these Russian circus dogs were all ovtcharkas– another gaping hole in the story. Ovtcharkas are lots of things, but one thing they are not is retrievers!

My guess is that even if the story about his trip to Russia had been true, if he came across the dogs, I think he’d definitely reconsider taking one home to breed to his retrievers.

But the Russian story was so persistent that even when the golden retriever became a separate breed, everyone believed they were Russian-derived.  It was accepted as truth until Elma Stonex got access to the Guisachan kennel records in the 1950’s.

And even today, I come across sources that swear goldens are from Russia.

Of course, it is generally accepted that Trench’s line died off when he passed away. It is not listed as one of the founding strains of golden retriever.

I don’t know exactly how to take Col. Trench’s legacy. Either he was a person who was prone to flights of fancy or a terrible liar. Whatever he did, he totally distorted our understanding of what a golden retriever is.

And although blond hovawarts could pass for golden retrievers, their relationship to the livestock guardian dogs is tenuous (except for some Cao de Castro Laboreiro that might be in the ancestral St. John’s water dog).

Golden retrievers are not retrieving Ovtcharkas!

But understanding this history explains why W.E. Mason put the Russian yellow retrievers as a separate breed from the flat-coated and golden retrievers in his Dogs of All Nations.


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I found something rather interesting in W.E. Mason’s Dogs of All Nations.

The entry for the flat-coated retriever has this description for its color:

“Color : Rich black,  free from rustiness and from white. There is also a Golden Retriever so named because of the golden or yellow color of his coat.”

 While it is interesting that liver isn’t even mentioned as a color for the flat-coat, Mason places the golden retriever as a color variety of the flat-coat. That means, in his eyes, the golden is basically a golden or yellow flat-coat.

This is the photo Mason includes with the flat-coat entry:

W.E. Mason's Flat-coat

Now, this book was published in 1915, when the golden was in the process of separating from the flat-coat.  During this same time period, the Russian origins myth about the golden was being bandied about. Mrs. Charlesworth, who is basically the founder of the golden retriever as a separate breed, was a firm believer in this story. In 1915, the dogs were considered separate breeds, but you could breed black flat-coats to goldens and then register the offspring as separate breeds depending upon color.

Apparently Mr. Mason was not a believer in the Russian origins of the golden. Or maybe he didn’t get that memo.

However, when one goes a bit deeper into his text in the section about Russian dogs, one comes across this dog:

Russian yellow retriever

The entry that includes this dog is called a “Russian yellow retriever.” The dog has this description:

Color: Yellow or rich red sable. Height: 28 in. Weight: 90 lbs.

This dog is similar in all essentials to the English [flat-coated] Retriever, except that he is a size bigger and heavier in coat, and of course different in color, as his name implies. He is used principally for tracking wounded deer.

Now, this dog is not Russian at all.

This is Col. William le Poer Trench’s strain that came from culls from the Tweedmouth strain. The culls he had were of the larger, Newfoundlandy- type of golden that appeared in some the dogs in the strain in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s. He firmly believed his dogs were Russian, and he managed to get the Kennel Club to let him show his dogs as a different strain. However, they had to be shown within flat-coat breed, which means they didn’t do so well.

He was a noted liar. He got a former keeper from Guisachan to write a letter verifying the Russian origins of the dog. He then went to Russia (supposedly in the Caucasus) in search of new stock. New stock from the Ovtcharka lines that were supposedly in this strain. Of course he found no dogs. He claimed that all the dogs were in the mountains with the sheep, and he couldn’t find any. However, it is more likely that he found some dogs of the Ovtcharka type, and after dealing with the dogs for a few minutes, very quickly realized they were entirely unsuitable as an outcross to a line of retrievers. (This video explains why).

These dogs look a lot like the big pet goldens that are offered today.

It is interesting that their job description was tracking wounded deer. There are accounts of the Tweedmouth strain dogs doing a lot of deer tracking at Guisachan. This is usually where someone says that bloodhound was crossed in, but the evidence isn’t that good. And my main complaint with it is that I have found no records of short-haired dogs with heavy ears in the entire strain.

But it is very interesting that the Tweedmouth strain of wavy or flat-coat was exhibited in two different breeds at one point. I should note that Trench’s Russian dogs played no role in the founding of the golden retriever as a separate breed. His strain became defunct after he died in 1920.

And if you look at the early goldens from the Ingestre, Noranby, and Culham lines, you can see that they are very clearly of the flat-coat/wavy-coat type, and not of the giant yellow dogs that supposedly came from Mother Russia.

 

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After World War II, the Soviets used Newfoundlands to create the Moscow retriever.

After World War II, the Soviets used Newfoundlands to create the Moscow retriever.

The name Russian retriever was applied to both what I argue is a Russian version of the poodle and to Colonel le Poer Trench’s St. Hubert’s golden retrievers. After World War II, there was another “retriever” developed in Russia.

After World War II, suitable working dogs in the Soviet Union were nearly impossible to find. The Soviet Union was an isolated country, and very few Western dog breeds could be found in the country. The horrors of the Second World War  had destroyed the countryside. Dogs died because of food shortages. Others died in the war itself.  All dogs were declared state property, so when anyone found a line of Western dogs, they were easily collected.

Dogs of several breeds were taken into The Central Military School of Working Dogs. Under the command of Colonel Medvedev, the dogs were placed into breeding programs to produce superior working dogs for military purposes. These were to be improved “socialist” breeds. The breeding program was referred to as the Red Star Kennels. The most famous dog to come out of the breeding program was the Black Russian Terrier, which is really a dog of the Schnauzer/Bouvier type with some Airedale in its background. This breed was bred for military and police work.

Another breed developed in the same program was the Moscow water dog or Moscow retriever. It was actually developed in Belarus (Byelorussia). The program bred the Newfoundland dogs that still existed in the Soviet Union with bitches of the native Soviet breeds, including the Caucasian Ovtcharka and the East European Shepherd (derived from crossing German shepherds with various local guard dogs).

The dogs were bred to rescue people from the water in the same way that we see in Newfoundlands, Portugese water dogs, and Swansea Jack.  The dogs did enter the water and swam well, as one would expect from dogs with Newfoundland in them, but they also were very aggressive, even attacking people in the water, as one would expect from dogs with Caucasian Ovtcharka in their background.  However, the dogs were more biddable than purebred Ovtcharkas, because of their shepherd and Newfoundland ancestry.

This breed was deemed a failure, but because it did a good temperament for a protection dog, it was crossed into the Black Russian terrier.

The Red Star Kennels were able to produce only one breed of any merit. Several reasons may exist for this inability to produce so many improved breeds. The first of these is that the dog stock from which the kennel managers had to choose were largely dogs that were remnants of purebreds imported to the country at odd times. They did not have the best dogs with the greatest genetic diversity in the program. Secondly, the program chose too many breeds to create. Historically, it is nearly impossible to created more than one strain with a single breeding program.  Finally, Lysenkoism had replaced the study of genetics in the Soviet Union, and if you’re going to breed dogs, you had better know some genetics.

I also attribute always relying on Caucasian Ovtcharkas as the outcross is a major handicap. Caucasian Ovtcharkas were crossed with St. Bernards to create a “Moscow Watchdog.” They were crossed the Ovtcharka with the Great Dane to make the “Moscow Great Dane.”

The problem is that Caucasian Ovtcharkas are tough dogs. They are excellent guardians of property or livestock. However, unlike Western protection breeds, they are much harder to control. The dogs introduced intractability into these experimental dogs, virtually dooming them from the start.

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The mondern Komondor from Hungary is quite similar to the description of one version of the supposed "Russian retriever."

The mondern Komondor from Hungary is quite similar to the description of one version of the supposed "Russian retriever."

Hugh Dalziel in British Dogs discusses another breed of retriever. It is described as heavy dog with thick curly hair that grows on the face like “modern Skye terrier.” The coat is difficult to maintain, and it often becomes “felted” (corded through matting). Dalziel quotes “Idstone” (Reverend Thomas Pearce) who describes one working a battue with some more convential retrievers. The dog gets bogged down in a thicket of dense thorns, and the handlers must cut its coat out of the vegetation in order to free it.

However, I am uncertain as to what breed this dog represents. In Marcia Schlehr’s book on goldens (The New Complete Golden Retriever), the author uses the analysis of Dalziel and that of Idstone to suggest that this Russian retriever was a Komondor.

However, Dalziel’s account is of a dog that is “docile” and has a great future as a companion dog, rather than a hunter. The use of Idstone’s description of the dog retrieving suggests that this breed had some retrieving instinct.

Further, Dalziel claims that the breed called the “Russian setter” is a cross between this dog and an English setter. This finding leaves me to question whether this breed was a Komondor or a related livestock guardian breed.

Livestock guardian dogs, unlike retrievers or herding dogs (like the border collie and puli), have been bred to have almost no predator motor patterns and possess a very high threshold of stimulation before these motor patterns can be exhibited. Wild wolves have a very low threshold, and even captive bred wolves can easily become aroused to attack children and small pets. Retrievers and herding dogs are in between wolves and livestock guardian dogs in that they have a moderate threshold for exhibiting these predatory behaviors, but the way that these predatory motor patterns work has been modified through selective breeding and training. It is possible for a retriever or herding dog to become a full predator, but it is usually within the context the modified predatory behavior. (I had a golden retriever that would kill things like woodchucks and cottontail rabbits, but she would require that they be thrown to retrieve before she would even try to eat them.) It’s because of the retrieving behavior in the Russian retriever that I hestitate to place it as the Komondor.

Further, Komondorok are not docile dogs. They are, in fact, probably the best guard dog that money can buy. They are very suspicious of strangers and dogs they do not know. The breed is rather cute with its shaggy face and “Benji” characteristics. However, this breed is not a nice, sweet dog, like the Old English Sheepdog. It bonds strongly with its family, and if not socialized, it will hate everyone else. This is not the temperament described by Dalziel or Idstone.

Again, I am not claiming that this breed had anything to do with the development of the golden retriever, but it does appear to me that there was a real Russian retriever. It had nothing to do with the dogs bred by Colonel le Poer Trench. Those dogs were derived from obvious Tweedmouth breeding, although they were heavier and coarser than the ones that were being developed elsewhere as part of the flat-coated retriever breed.

What do I think the Russian retriever was? I think it was the Russian equivalent of the poodle. Poodles were developed in the northern part of the German speaking world, including the Baltic coast. Poodles are water dogs and can be used as a retriever. The standard poodles are very retriever-like in their temperament. During the Medieval period, Germanic traders, following the crusades of the Teutonic Knights and other Western Christian orders, began to trade extensively with the people of this region. This trading eventually became part of the Hanseatic League’s trading circle.

As the poodle developed as a water dog, it may have been brought to Russia for the same purpose. There, it evolved in a larger and coarser dog in order to handle the harsh conditions of Russia.

If the dog didn’t arrive then, then it is possible that the dog came to Russia through Russia’s close association with German speaking nobility. In fact, Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, was a native German speaker, born in the German speaking city of Stettin (now Sczeczin, Poland).

Another source for poodles to the Russians was France. The French did fall in the love with the poodle at some point in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the Russian emperor, Peter the Great, was obsessed with French achievements. He made French the academic and intellectual language of Russia and encouraged them to adopt French customs. This French obsession in Russia existed for many decades, and it is likely that they imported poodles and used them as water dogs. Further, Napoleon’s army had kept poodles as mascots. These dogs are reported among the regiments that invaded Russia in 1812. So there are many historical sources for dogs of this type existing in Russia.

The difference between this dog and the poodle probably resulted from selection, both natural and artificial, for a dog that could withstand the rugged conditions of that country. This would explain why Dalziel reports the dog as being larger (26 inches at the shoulder) and having a stocky build.

Further, poodles can be corded. I’ve always sworn that the Puli of Hungary, the Sheep poodles of Germany and the Netherlands, and water dogs (including the poodle) are related. The puli may have some common ancestry with the Komondor, but the two breeds are used very differently and have very different temperaments. The puli has a herding dog’s temperament of biddability and controlled prey drive. If socialized and trimmed, it has been found that the puli can be a sociable and friendly dog. A few have even been trained as water retrievers.  It is because of these similarities that I think the Russian retriever was really a Russian poodle-type dog, not a Komondor.

The British had already discarded their  poodle-type water dog, the English rough water dog, by the time this breed appeared in that country. This breed was very similar to the Barbet (the real “French poodle”) and the poodle. However, it was absorbed into the water spaniel breeds by the beginning  of the nineteenth century, existing as a relict by the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The water spaniels were then absorbed into the retrievers, existing currently as only two or three breeds in the entire world.  Their contemporary retrievers were a far “more advanced model” than the dog the Russians were using for that purpose.

So the Russian retriever, the real one, was probably a Russian poodle.

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