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Posts Tagged ‘St. John’s Water Dog’

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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Nep

This is an early retriever. My guess is that Nep was a St. John’s water dog with feathering, an early version of what we’d later call the wavy-coated retriever or the flat-coated retriever. The name “Nep” is short for Neptune, a very common name for St. John’s water dogs and other Newfoundland dogs from the time period.

Look at how he marks the “blackcock.”

Blackcock is another word for the male black grouse. Hens of the species are called “greyhen,” because they are gray.

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This painting is callled “The Shooting Party– Ranton Abbey” by Sir Francis Grant.   It dates to about 1840, and it depicts Whig Party elites, including the then prime minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne. Ranton Abbey was a shooting estate in Staffordshire owned by Earl of Lichfield. These preserves were playgrounds for the nobility, where they pretended that they are somehow the great hunting people like their Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman ancestors.

The painting of interest because it shows the division of labor among canines at the shoot.

The spaniels are obvious, and the very closely resemble modern cocker spaniels.

At a shoot, their job is to push out the game to the guns. They might occasionally retrieve, but their main job is to “spring” the birds. (Origin of the term “springer” spaniel.)

The retrievers, though, are very different from what we might expect. The dog on the left is a black and tan and is something like a proto-wavy-coated retriever or a collie cross. Both of these dogs were used as retrievers. The dog on the left, with the Caucasus-type common pheasant in its mouth, is pretty well-known to golden retriever historians because it shows a yellow retriever in the act of retrieving. It looks somewhat golden retriever, though maybe a bit houndish compared to any modern breed of retrievers.

The retriever’s job at a shoot was to stay next to the shooters, and when game is shot, the dog is sent to fetch it.

In America, we largely disregard these two distinctions. We use spaniels as retrievers, and we flush birds with retrievers.

Spaniels were easy to breed as strains., which is why they have existed as breeds for far longer than retrievers.

Retrievers, however, are very hard to breed. To breed a strain that consistently exhibits the behavior is really quite difficult, something that those desiring retrieving strains of West Siberian laikas are currently experiencing.

So it was very common for shooting sportsmen to cross different types of dogs and call them “retrievers.”

Each gentlemen would have his own recipe to create a perfect retriever.

But then things changed. The modern dog fancy rose in England, and the founding president of the Kennel Club, Sewallis E. Shirley, a Conservative MP and sportsman, began to promote the large  black retriever derived from the St. John’s water dog as the gentleman’s retriever, and it wasn’t long before everyone had to have a black retriever of this type.

By the 1870’s,  every shooting gentleman had a black retriever of this type and many were being actively shown, but this change was not met without protest.

A Scottish sportsman wrote into The Field magazine denouncing both dog shows and the desire for people to keep their retrievers black and “pure.”

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).

These debates about dog shows are not that old.

But it was at this moment in history that retrievers ceased to be dogs that were bred in much the same way lurchers are today and became a defined sort of breed.

If we were today declare a lurcher breed, it is very likely that we’d get very similar discussions.

The Scottish sportsman did what all working dog breeders have always done:  breed for function and ignore bloodlines.

But the modern dog fancy creates a system in which blood purity or– at the very least– consistency in type are more important than function.

It’s the exact opposite of how people have bred dogs for thousands of years, and it’s also the exact opposite of how retrievers were bred for the past two hundred years.

No concept in the dog world has done the species more harm than this Victorian concept of “breed.”

It’s based upon very dodgy science, most of which was rejected by the 1920’s in most other fields.

But the dog fancy is largely an authoritarian organization, and if we think of it is a high church, it is a high church with only one real commandment: blood purity for blood purity’s sake.

It’s not served the dogs well.

We do not have a handle on genetic diseases at all, and we won’t so long as we adhere to this blood purity commandment.

And is blood purity producing better working dogs?

It’s difficult to say, but in the old days, when they could select for work only, they were producing capable gun dogs.

They didn’t need a system telling them which dogs could be bred together.

Yet we commonly hear that we have to have this concept of breed in order to produce better dogs.

But when you are breeding for working dogs within these confines, it’s very likely that abilities are suffering.

Wouldn’t it be nice to add a bit of border collie biddability into retrievers?

Wouldn’t it be nice to strengthen undercoat in golden retrievers by crossing them with Labradors with very thick undercoats?

These options have all been taken from breeders.

But it was not always the case.

It’s a very, very recent development.

And its validity should be questioned.

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Kala is a modern water dog in Newfoundand. Source for image.

Kala is a modern water dog in Newfoundand. Source for image.

A few days ago, a reader posted this blog post in the Blog Reader’s Group.

It talks about black water dogs in Newfoundland, but instead of calling them St. John’s water dogs, as I do, it is referred to as a Cape Shore water dog.

After a careful search on the Googles, I found that a Cape Shore water dog is also called an “eider dog,” probably because they used to retrieve shot eiders and other sea birds.

And of course, that is what the St. John’s water dog was used for in addition to being the fisherman’s dog.

From that blog post, we see that this breed is found on Newfoundland and on the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, the last vestiges of France’s North American empire, and there is a strong relationship between the Basques and these dogs.

I don’t know if the dogs in Spain that are featured are actually of an endemic Spanish water dog breed or if they are derived from Spanish imports of St. John’s water dogs from back in their heyday.

I think these dogs actually are St. John’s water dogs, though they probably have more than a bit of modern Labrador retriever ancestry. Labrador retrievers are, of course, derived from the St. John’s water dogs as are all the other retrievers but the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, which mostly of spaniel and collie extraction.

I think part of the problem in recognizing these dogs for what they are comes from two problems:

One is nomenclature.  The dog was called the St. John’s water dog, because that is where they were imported from. However, the breed was spread all over Newfoundland and Labrador and on St. Pierre and Miquelon. Its last redoubts as a “pure” strain– that is, unmixed with Labrador retriever blood–were in isolated outports (“fishing villages”) on Newfoundland’s Sou’west Coast.

But there are so many different names for this dog:  Newfoundland, wavy-coated retriever, lesser Newfoundland, true Newfoundland, black water dog, Labrador dog, small Labrador, and St. John’s dog (minus the “water”).

When you read histories of retrievers, you always see mention of Newfoundlands and Labradors, and when you see depictions of the dogs, some look like the big Newfoundland dog, which I think is almost entirely a creation of the British pet market, and dogs that look somewhat like black golden retriever or black Labradors with white markings on them.

If we could agree on the name for this dog, I think would be much clearer whether we should regard this landrace as extinct.

Yes.  This type of Newfoundland dog is a landrace,  and that brings us to the second problem.  Most dog authorities, including the great Richard Wolters, who wrote a history of Labrador retrievers, believe the last two St. Johns water dogs were two male dog that were living at Grand Bruit in the 1970s. These two dogs were said to be free of any Labrador retriever ancestry, but there definitely were dogs around that had mixed with their British descendant.

I define a landrace as dog that exists as a clearly defined type with in defined purpose and cultural context. However, it differs from a breed in that breeds have closed registries with a very narrowly defined set of physical characteristics.  A golden retriever is a breed, but the water dog from which it descends never was.

So if we call the St. John’s water dog a landrace, then all the dogs who are mixtures of St. John’s water dog and Labrador retriever are still St. John’s water dogs.

They just aren’t free of the globalized Labrador retriever blood.

And because it’s a landrace, I don’t think we should get all worked up about these dogs potentially having a bit of Labrador retriever in them, and if we are willing to admit that it is okay that that these dogs aren’t extinct.

Now if any readers from Newfoundland know anything more about this sort of dog, I would be happy if you passed this along.

I don’t think we are getting what this dog actually is because the nomenclature is not lining up. This is the famed Newfoundland dog that everyone wrote about all these years.

Of course, we need DNA samples.

These old outport dogs have been ignored for too long.  I think they may have a lot to tell us.

 

 

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Chesapeake duck dog

From a piece by George Norbury Appold in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (1885):

It is sincerely to be regretted, in view of his exceptionally valuable qualities, that suggested a close relationship to the otter-dog. His ability as a retriever emphasized this supposition. His superior qualities in this direction were so manifestly phenomenal that the few original specimens were eagerly purchased from their foreign owners by the gunners of Chesapeake Bay. The ability of this dog to withstand cold and exposure was far beyond that of the Irish retriever [Irish water spaniel]. Within a brief period he entirely superseded the last-named animal as a water-dog. For some unknown reason the Chesapeake duck-dog never became numerous; hence the owner of a pure-blooded specimen could hardly be induced to part with him at any price. In time this dog so identified himself with the waters of Chesapeake Bay as to be known by no other name than that borne by this estuary.

Twenty five years ago he was at the apogee of his fame. Nearly every family living in the bay counties of Maryland owned one or more of untainted blood. Through carelessness the breed was allowed to deteriorate; in consequence, to-day few, if any, of pure blood are in existence. A small number, however, remain of sufficient purity of race and perfection of training to almost equal in efficiency their distinguished and untainted ancestors. There were, in reality, two varieties of this dog, the long and the smooth coated, the latter not so popular as the former. The Chesapeake duck-dog is of the same size as the small Newfoundland [St. John’s water dog], head broad, nose sharp, eyes small and bright, ears somewhat insignificant and set high; coat in color dark sedge, strong and tigtlyy curled, with a peculiar under fur, so thick that the dog can remain in the water a long time without his skin becoming wet. The hair on the legs is not so long. It is particularly short about the nose and eyes. The Chesapeake duck-dog is used by sportsmen who shoot wild fowl either from points or from “booby blinds” set in the water a short distance from the shore.This dog so closely resembles the color of sedge-grass as not to be distinguishable except very near by. He remains in concealment until ordered to “fetch.” At the command he springs into the water, breaking his way even through ice of considerable thickness. The wounded birds he first retrieves. When these are all gathered in, he secures the dead. Ducks in the Maryland waters generally fly in long strings. It often happens that the gunner, armed with a breech-loader, puts in several shots while the gang of birds is passing. In this case the well-trained and sagacious dog has much hard work to do, particularly if the weather be rough. His endurance, however, is remarkable, and he never seems to tire at his task. This continuous immersion in the water would be impossible to any animal not provided with the thick and almost water-proof under fur of the Chesapeake duck-dog.

With his affectionate disposition, great intelligence, strength, and the peculiar physical qualities which he possesses, adapting him to the retrieving of wild fowl beyond any other known breed, it is a great misfortune that closer attention has not been given to the preservation of the purity of the race (pg. 36-37).

The Chesapeake Bay retriever is derived from the St. John’s water dog, as are all the other large retrievers.

This type of “Newfoundland” dog would have been commonly available in the United States, but it was only Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay that anyone attempted to turn this dog into a strain of retriever.

Unlike the St. John’s water dog-derived retrievers bred in the British Isles, the Chesapeake Bay retriever was selected for liver and yellow to red coloration. In Britain, virtually every gentleman had to have a black retriever for driven shoots.

American ducks, however, were always heavily gunned, and there was always a belief that one needed a brown or yellow retriever for camouflage.

Most Americans used water spaniels for retrieving ducks and retrieving setters to pick up land-based game birds, but on Chesapeake Bay there was a retriever culture that was very distinct from that in the British Isles.

In some ways, it was a southern equivalent of the Newfoundland culture which used those rugged water dogs to haul in nets and lines, hunt waterfowl and sea birds, and guard the home.

The Marylanders used their dogs in almost the same way, but a great many of these people were also involved in market hunting, a sort of American equivalent of the African bushmeat trade.  Hunters would go out and kill as many ducks and other waterfowl as they could, which they would then sell to restaurants and markets in the growing cities.

It was bad for our wildlife, but the culture that thrived upon this slaughter created this dog.

In some weird way, the Chesapeake Bay retriever is a bit of a museum piece.

As the outports of Newfoundland have begun to dwindle away, the St. John’s water dog slowly disappeared.

But its descendants have wound up conquering the world. The Labrador retriever is the most common purebred dog in the world. Golden retrievers are also quite popular.

But only the Chesapeake Bay duck dog was essentially kept in much the same way as the dogs of Newfoundland.

This Chesapeake retriever culture got started in 1807, when two St. John’s water dogs were rescued from a British ship that had been working off the coast of Newfoundland. The dogs were placed in the homes of different owners, and one of these dogs wound up in the hands of Maryland Governor Edward Lloyd, a wealthy planter who was into importing improved breeds of domestic stock from Europe. The dog was actually traded for Merino ram at a time when America’s sheep industry was booming and everyone was trying to get Merino stock.

Like our Vermont strain of Merino, the Chesapeake Bay retriever became our variant of the St. John’s water dog.

Today, it’s not as common as its British cousins, the golden and Labrador retrievers, which were derived from St. John’s water dogs selected for estate shoots.

But it still has a devout following.

 

 

 

 

 

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Unlike the somewhat problematic aquatic ape theory, what I’m about to propose really isn’t that controversial at all.

The acquatic ape theory (more correctly called “the aquatic ape hypothesis”) argues that it was living in and near the water that forced humans to evolve bipedalism and is also used to explain why we have fat under our skin and like to swim. It’s even used as a possible reason why we have little fur left on our bodies, and it also claims that humans are unique among primates in our ability to hold our breaths under water, which isn’t actually true.

This hypothesis contends that humans were on our way to becoming marine mammals, and that this has made all the difference.

I don’t buy it.

But I do think something like this has happened with another animal that we currently don’t regard as being a “marine mammal.”

I’m talking about retrievers.

Now, we usually don’t think of them as being marine mammals. They are, after all, just a subset of domestic dogs, which are themselves a subspecies of the common wolf, Canis lupus familiaris.

But unlike other dogs and wolves, the retriever is somewhat better adapted to swimming and diving than other dogs.

All dogs have connective tissue between their toes, but in retrievers, this connective tissue is a bit more extensive, which certainly gives them some advantage in swimming. All dogs are web-footed, but retrievers are more web-footed than others.

Many Labrador retrievers and some golden retrievers also have a tendency to put on quite a bit of fat. This is usually attributed to the dogs being derived from St. John’s water dogs that had to have voracious appetites to survive on Newfoundland during the winter when they weren’t used on the fishing fleet.

But such a tendency toward obesity doesn’t exist in arctic breeds, including those from Labrador and Greenland, which were similarly left to roam and forage when not being used for work. These dogs have healthy appetites. but you very rarely hear of a fat one.

But in Labrador retrievers, being fat is almost a breed characteristic. In the UK breed ring, the Kennel Club has had to crack down on people showing fat Labradors in the ring, for there are a great many dog judges in that country who think that a Lab shows ‘good bone’ when he’s shaped like a jiggling barrel.

This tendency towards being fat, though, does have an advantage for a dog that spends a lot of time in cold water. Fat insulates. It is also quite buoyant.

One can see that nature would have selected for St. John ‘s water that would have been more likely to have put on fat as a way of being able to handle swimming long distances in cold water. The fat would make the dog float more, and the animal would be able to keep its head above water with less effort.  And the fat would insulate it a bit more.

And although both of these features would be marginally advantageous, they would still have real consequences with a working water dog.

Before the St. John’s water dog developed, the European water dog was poodle-type animal. It had a very thick coat that protected the animal from the worst of the cold, but the coat also had a tendency to collect water. It was also a source of drag that slowed the animal down when it swam.

The clips we see in Portuguese water dogs and poodles stem from attempts to reduce drag while still keeping the protective coat.

The St. John’s water dog was different from all these European water dogs in that it had a smooth coat.

It was actually selected for this coat; any dogs that were born with feathering were shipped off to Europe.

A smooth coat has certain advantageous for a marine mammal.

After all, have you ever seen a seal with poodle fur?

What about a long-haired otter?

These animals have very close coats because this makes the animal move more efficiently through the water.

To have a water dog with an otter’s coat would have meant that clipping was no longer necessary.  The dense undercoat and the fat would have provided enough protection against the cold water, and the smooth coat required no maintenance. And the dog could swim longer and harder in very cold water for much longer.

The St. John’s water dog was dog on its way to becoming a marine mammal.

Indeed, if we now count polar bears a marine mammals, maybe we should classify this extinct breed of dog as one, too.

There are accounts of these dogs swimming for days at sea, which might be exaggerations, and stories of them diving many feet to retrieve shot seals.  There are even some fellows who use the dogs to pursue shot porpoises with varying degrees of success. They were also use to retrieve shot waterfowl and sea birds from those very same seas, which is sort of the same work their descendants do today.

But they were most famous for retrieving fish off of lines. In the old days, the English fishermen from the West Country would come to Newfoundland to fish with hooked lines. They plied the waters in small dories, and they would send their dogs to help haul in the lines. In those days, the fishhooks often were not barbed, and when the dog came upon the hooked fish, there was a good chance that it could escape. A good dog could catch the cod if it managed to work its way off the hook at the last minute, which is not an easy task!

Most retrievers and the modern Newfoundland and Landseer breeds derive from this water dog.  Some strains are very well-adapted to swimming in cold water. Others less so.

The retrievers of the United Kingdom were used primarily on shooting estates, where land-based game birds and lagomorphs were their main quarry.  Some were used to retrieve waterfowl, but the British retriever culture was primarily that of a land-based working dog. Over time, they bred for a smaller and lither working dog, which still shows up in the strains of golden retriever that are primarily bred for work. During the heyday of the working flat-coated retriever (of which the golden retriever is a surviving remnant), the majority of these dogs were 50-60-pound dogs with longer legs and gracile frames– quite different indeed from the somewhat robust water dogs of Newfoundland from which they descended.

If the particular shore-fishing culture of Newfoundland had been allowed to continue on for many, many centuries, it is likely that the the St. John’s water dog really would have begun to have evolved through both natural and artificial selection into a much more marine-adapted animal than it was. Perhaps the would have evolved even more webbing between their toes. Maybe they would have actually evolved a real layer of blubber beneath their skins for insulation.

At least one species of wild dog is semiaquatic. The short-eared dog of South America has been little studied, but in most analyses of its diet show that it eats a lot of fish. The short-eared dog has very webbed feet— even more so than modern retrievers do. Because they live in Amazonia, they have no need for fat for insulation, but it has been suggested that this webbing is an adaptation that helps the dog pursue a more aquatic existence than other South American wild dogs.

St. John’s water dogs were famous for their fishing abilities, and they were well-known for charging into the surf and coming out with a fish, a feat that one sometimes sees retrievers doing quite well. One could see that over time, that the St. John’s breed would have evolved even more in this direction than the short-eared dog has.

But the Newfoundland fishing changed over time. Better hooks and mechanized fishing equipment made the dogs largely obsolete. The cod fishery has collapsed, as has the fishery for almost everything else. The outports of Newfoundland were shut down through resettlement schemes.

And the ancestral bloodlines of the St. John’s water dog became polluted with “improved” Labrador retriever blood from UK and the North American mainland. The last of the St. John’s water dogs with no Labrador retriever ancestry are believed to have died in the 1970’s.

In the US, Labrador retrievers are called “duck dogs,” but virtually no Labrador retriever that is being used as a hunting dog in the US today is used exclusively on waterfowl.  Most of them at least moonlight as flushers and retrievers land-based game birds, which usually have longer seasons and more liberal bag quotas.

The retriever has to be a spaniel a lot of the time.

In the UK, the retriever is still primarily used on land-based game, though they are still used in “wildfowling” (a nice word for duck hunting).

In no place is it required to be the same kind of water dog that its ancestors were.

The potential for it evolving into a canine marine mammal has long sense passed.

But it could have gone down this road.

The retrievers that exist today are gun dogs that have been built and selected out of this lineage.

And it’s really what makes them unique as working dogs.

Now, this all might sound a bit bizarre, but this summer, reader Mashka Petropolskaya sent me this master’s thesis on the behavior of Labrador retrievers in an aquatic environment.  The thesis was written by a student in the marine sciences program at the University of Porto in Portugal, and the thesis found that Labrador retrievers are unusually attracted to water and that access to water and swimming opportunities may be very important for the welfare of dogs in that breed.

Not all Labradors like the water, but there clearly is a tendency in retrievers to be interested in the water.

So maybe we really need to appreciate their “marine mammal”  tendencies more in order to provide them the best environment possible.

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Golden retriever playing with a Newfoundland pup:

Source.

Of course, the Newfoundland pup will be at least twice the size of the golden when it matures.

But both are descendants of that old water dog from Newfoundland.

The two breeds also have a common history in that both have become the family dog to have.

The golden retriever’s popularity has come in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Newfoundland was popular from the late eighteenth century through the late nineteenth century.

The old water dog of Newfoundland has been an enduring classic among modern dog lovers.

We just have fallen in love with different permuations at different times.

 

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