Posts Tagged ‘Russian Tracker’


I know of only one case in the history of the modern dog fancy in which a fanciful story of a dog breed origin was rejected.

And that is with the golden retriever.

For first half the twentieth century, golden retrievers were said to have the following origin:

The Golden Retriever is a descendant of an old breed of dogs known as trackers, which are native to Asiatic Russia. Russian trackers are huge dogs measuring about 30 inches at the shoulder and often weighing 100 pounds. The breed serves man in a variety of ways in its homeland, among which, it is reported, is to guard isolated flocks of sheep in winter with great steadfastness and courage. According to the American Kennel Club, the circumstances leading to the development of the Golden Retriever breed primarily from tracker stock are as related below.

In 1860, Sir Dudley Marjoribanks watched the performance of a troupe of Russian tracker dogs at a circus in Brighton, England. He was impressed by the intelligence shown by these dogs and, reasoning that this could be put to good use in the field, he purchased the entire troupe of eight dogs and took them to his seat in the Guischan deer forest in Scotland. Here they were bred without out-crossing for 10 years, but there was no game in Scotland suitable to their size, and in about 1870 plans were abandoned to establish the breed in its original form.

The Golden Retriever is a powerfully built dog with a rich, golden-colored coat. Fine retrievers and agreeable companions, dogs of this breed are gaining in popularity in Illinois and the Middle West.

At this time the Russian trackers were crossed with Bloodhounds. There is no record of crosses with other breeds, and only one generation of Bloodhound crosses is reported, but the descendants appear, on the basis of photographic records and notes, to have soon developed into the present Golden Retriever type, whose characters included smaller size than the tracker, as well as intensification of scenting ability, refinement, and a slight darkening of the color of the coat.

–Ralph Yeater, “Bird Dogs in Sport and Conservation” (1948).

The dog in called the Russian tracker is actually some sort of ovtcharka, perhaps a Central Asian or a Caucasian. (Tracker may be an English corruption of the word  “ovtcharka.”)

These dogs are not bird dogs.

They never have been.

They are about as unlike a golden retriever as another dog can be, but for some odd reason, people thought that this breed was an ancestor of the golden retriever. Golden retrievers are very social dogs. Ovtcharkas are very bonded to their families and flocks. Golden retrievers have been bred for pretty high prey drive. Ovtcharkas have been bred to have less prey drive.  Golden retrievers have been bred to be agreeable with other dogs, including strange ones. Ovtcharkas have been bred to kill strange dogs that come too near their flocks.

Crossing a bloodhound with an ovtcharka will not magically create a golden retriever. It will not make the ovtcharka smaller or darken the coat.

All you will get a is an ovtcharka/bloodhound cross, which might be nice if you want a sheep dog than can track down missing sheep.

Despite the real problems with this story fitting what we already know about golden retrievers and those particular breeds of dog, people readily believed that story.

It was only rejected when the true story was revealed:

However the true history of the breed was first published by Lord Ilchester in 1952 in an article in the Country Life entitled “The Origin of the Yellow Retriever”. This was based on over ten years of research by Mrs Stonex and in 1959 she and Lord Ilchester put their findings to the Kennel Club.

In 1960 the Crufts catalogue carried the true origins of the breed as approved by the Kennel Club:

“Description of the Golden Retriever

‘The origin of the Golden Retriever is less obscure than most of the Retriever varieties, as the breed was definitely started by the first Lord Tweedmouth last century, as shown in his carefully kept private stud book and notes, first brought to light by his great-nephew, the Earl of Ilchester, in 1952.

In 1868 Lord Tweedmouth mated a yellow Wavy-Coated retriever (Nous) he had bought from a cobbler in Brighton (bred by Lord Chichester) to a Tweed Water Spaniel (Belle) from Ladykirk on the Tweed. These Tweed Water-Spaniels, rare except in the Border Country, are described by authorities of the time as like a small Retriever, liver-coloured and curly-coated. Lord Tweedmouth methodically line-bred down from this mating between 1868 and 1890, using another Tweed Water-Spaniel, and outcrosses of two black Retrievers, an Irish Setter and a sandy coloured Bloodhound. (It is now known that one of the most influential Kennels in the first part of the century which lies behind all present day Golden Retrievers was founded on stock bred by Lord Tweedmouth.)”

From this description it can be seen that all Golden Retrievers go back to the yellow retriever Nous who himself was obviously the produce of Flat – coated Retrievers. Many canine authorities of the day including Rawdon Lee in his Modern Dogs (1893) referred to brown retrievers including pale chocolate coloured dogs being bred from black parents.

In the pedigree of Prim and Rose, the last two yellow retrievers recorded in Lord Tweedsmouth’s records, one can see the influence of both the Flat-coated Retriever and the Tweed Water Spaniel in the development of the Golden Retriever.


Lord Ilchester was Lord Tweedmouth’s nephew, and he knew the dogs when he was young boy.

I am still very skeptical that bloodhound was ever used in the cross because there have never been any smooth-coated golden retrievers. Smooth coats in dog breed are almost always dominant over long coats, and they certainly are when golden retrievers are bred to scenthounds.

Bloodhounds are very unlike golden retrievers in that they are not particularly disposed to take direction, and golden retrievers are notoriously easy dogs to train. The mention of the bloodhound in them may be nothing more than a bit of lore from the old implausible Russian tracker story that filtered into the actual historiography.

The Irish setter in the cross is also somewhat misleading. The original record said “red setter,” which most likely meant red Gordon setter, which were quite common in region around Inverness at the time Lord Tweedmouth began breeding his dogs.

The golden retriever’s origins are with the wavy/flat-coated retriever, which is derived from the St. John’s water dog, an import from Newfoundland. Labrador retrievers are derived from the same stock, and for a time it was not unusual for smooth and long-coated pups to be born in retriever litters, even when they were being standardized into wavy-coated retrievers.

Why were people so willing to believe the nonsense about golden retrievers being ovtcharka/bloodhounds?

Well, for one thing, this story gave legitimacy to separating the color variety from the wavy/flat-coated retriever type.

Yellow and red dogs had a very hard time winning prizes at dog shows, so there was a pressure for them to leave.

However, if the dogs were nothing more than a color variety of the flat-coated retriever, then there would be no good reason to split the breed.

At the time flat-coated retrievers were the most common retriever in the UK. Almost all of them were black. Black was the color that every British gentleman wanted in his retrievers.

And that was the color that won at shows. It didn’t matter if the dog happened to have been a flat-coat or a curly-coat. Black dogs won over the other colors.

But if you have this story that claims that the golden retriever has some sort of exotic origin, then you have legitimacy in your move to split the variety from the black dogs.

Golden retrievers actually got the better deal out of the split than their black relatives, who often appeared in the same litters with them.

Flat-coated retrievers became quite rare during the Interwar years, but golden retrievers became more and more popular, particularly after the Second World War.

What amazes me most about this entire story, though, is how quickly the official golden retriever organizations accepted the true story and began dropping the Russian origins nonsense.

With so many other breeds, you can show the documentation about the actual origins, and they will simply deny it all.

Chinese crested dogs are from China. Dalmatians are from Croatia.

No evidence for either origin story exists.

But people want to believe it.












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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.


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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It does KIND OF look like a golden, but it acts nothing like one! The natural ears for this dog are floppy, but not like a golden’s. I remember reading somewhere about some fool who went to the Caucasus looking for some new blood to put into his golden or Russian retrievers. He arrived in the summer when the shepherds had their flocks in the mountains, and when he saw the dogs, he realized that he didn’t need these behaviors in his working retriever lines. This was back when most of the Caucasus were under the control of the Russian Empire.

BTW, if you want one of these dogs, they are NOTHING like retrievers or 90 percent of domestic dogs found in Noth America. The closest thing to them in behavior is the Fila Brasileiro, which is a breed of mastiff from Brazil.

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Remember how I said that there was a Russian sheepdog from the Caucasus that the golden retriever is said to descend from?  It exists. Most are this wolfish colored, but some are fawn in color. However, it is nothing like the golden, as you can see. No one would ever cross this with a retriever. Retrievers are not dog aggressive at all. At a weekend shoot, retrievers have to mill about with other dogs from other places.  This is the Russian Tracker from the Caucasus. My guess is no one used them as circus dogs either.

This breed and the Fila Brasileiro are the most aggressive dogs.

I have a question: Why would anyone in America, with our tort system, want a dog that creates that kind of liability?

Socialization works, but it is not foolproof!

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