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The barbet is really similar to the English rough water dog or water rug that Shakespeare or Markham knew.

The barbet is really similar to the English rough water dog or water rug that Shakespeare and Markham knew.

The text can be found  at the Poodle History Project.

The text in question comes from Gervase Markham’s Hunger’s Prevention or the Art of Fowling from Water and Land (1621).

He was a prolific non-fiction writer of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. He was well-acquainted with the early techniques of forestry and game keeping. This book is actually a treatise on how to shoot every kind of game bird that exists in Britain.

The dog in question is not a poodle– at least as we would understand it.

It is the dog more often referred to as the English rough water dog. It was something like a poodle or a barbet, but it was a distinctly English dog.

Contrary to this piece on spaniel history, Shakespeare was not referring to any breed of spaniel when he was talking about the English water spaniel when he mentioned the term “water rug.”  Both rough water dogs and English water spaniels existed, and Shakespeare used both terms.

The water rug quote is from a piece of dialogue spoken by Macbeth:

Macbeth: Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men,
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clipt
All by the name of dogs.”
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 1

Shakespeare mentions water spaniels, which also existed. The character Launce says:

She hath more qualities than a waterspaniel, which is much in a bare Christian.

William Shakespeare Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 3, Scene 1.

One wonders why the spaniel researchers didn’t look into this a little closer. It is clear here that the Bard deliberately is using two different terms for two different dogs. The water rug is the same thing as the English rough water dog. It was a dog of the poodle-type, and some texts refer to it as a poodle. The other dog is also a water dog. However, it is a cross between the rough water dog and a spaniel or setter. In Shakespeare’s time, setters were classed as spaniels. This tradition still exists in France, where index spaniels, which we would call setters, are still referred to as épagneuls. So it is quite possible that some water spaniels had setter them, rather than spaniel.

The old water dogs were almost entirely replaced by the water spaniels by the mid-eighteenth century. Stubbs painted a water spaniel that is more of the rough water dog type, but as far as I can tell, those dogs either disappeared entirely or were absorbed into the poodle.

water spaniel by stubbs

The water spaniels probably would’ve wound up the working water dogs of Europe had shooting pheasants, partridges, rabbits, and hares with shotguns not become a popular activity among the European gentry. They needed a dog that could retrieve from heavier cover and from the water. They started using water spaniels, collies, and setters to pick up shot game. Different nobles cross-bred them to create their own breeds of retriever. Retriever in those early days was a job description. Any dog that could pick up game was a retriever.

In the British colony of Newfoundland, the settlers had developed a dog for hauling nets and lines from the sea. Unlike any European dogs of this type, this dog often came with a short, thick coat that was quite waterproof. The dog could handle the frigid waters of the Grand Banks, and it lacked the coat that required clipping to be useful in the water. This dog was, of course, the St. John’s water dog.  This dog was also used for fowling in the Newfoundland back country as Newfoundland explorer and entrepreneur William Epps Cormack described them in 1822:

The dogs are admirably trained as retrievers in fowling, and are otherwise useful…The smooth or short haired dog is preferred because in frosty weather the long haired kind become encumbered with ice on coming out of the water.

When these dogs arrived in England with imports of cod, they were instantly chosen as working retrievers. In fact, they were so good at this sort of work, that every modern breed of retriever descends from some version of this dog. They were crossed with water spaniels along the River Tweed, which is why the Tweed water spaniel or Tweed water dog looked so much like a retriever.

The specially bred retrievers proved really useful for the work at hand, and then water spaniels began to disappear. Today, only one breed of water spaniel from the islands of Great Britain and Ireland still exists. Just as the water spaniel replaced the rough water dog, the retrievers replaced the water spaniels. However, the water spaniels were more clearly absorbed into the retrievers than the rough water dogs were absorbed into the poodles and water spaniels.

Shakespeare and Markham both knew the ancestors of the modern water dogs. In fact, both were around to see the gradual shift away from the dogs of the poodle type to dogs of the water spaniel type. That change was rather gradual. When the St. John’s water dog arrived on the scene, the change was rather drastic.

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