Posts Tagged ‘tweed water spaniel’

The Tweed water spaniel was said to be different from the other varieties of water spaniel. It had a short coat that was quite wavy. All of the others had much longer coats, and Irish or Shannon water spaniel was quite long-haired. (This breed would become the modern Irish water spaniel or “Irish retriever”).

This difference from the other water spaniels is believed to be the result of the breed originated from a cross between an English water spaniel the and St. John’s water dog. This cross would give the dog a much more retriever-like appearance, because the St. Johns water dog or old type Newfoundland is the ancestor of all the retrievers.

The source for this account of the breed’s history comes from an early home veterinary manual. The book itself is mainly about horses. After all horses were the main source of transport during the nineteenth century, and veterinary medicine was primarily about treating horses. Dogs were secondary animals in that regard.

The book in question is the The Complete Farrier and British Sportsman (1816). The author, Richard Lawrence, includes a section on dogs at the end of the book. In this section, he has descriptions and treatises on all sorts of different dogs, including their histories.  The author also groups dog breeds, includng two sections on the water spaniels and water dogs (early retrievers). The Tweed water spaniel is categorized with the water dogs, not the water spaniels.

He writes that near the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the local water dogs had been crossed with Newfoundlands (meaning St. John’s Water dogs). this cross had greatly strengthened the dogs. The dogs are used to hunt along the rugged and rocky coast, and the dogs had developed into tough water dogs that were still quite biddable. The were used to retrieve shot game and may have been also used to retrieve salmon nets. It is little wonder that the First Baron Tweedmouth used this dog as one of the foundations of his breeding program.

If this account is accurate, then the Tweed water spaniel should probably have been classified as a retriever rather than a water spaniel. The only depiction of the dog can be found below:


There are few bad descriptions of the dogs that have appeared over the years, which claimed that they had thick, dropping lips and houndy ears, but my guess is that this comes from people who had never seen one. The dog in this depiction is mid-liver in color. It appears to have a brown nose and light colored eyes. However, because it is a portrait, the dog could just as easily be a reddish colored with the brown skin pigment gene. These dogs were always brownish, reddish, or yellow in color. It does bare some resemblance to the Murray River curly-coated retriever.

One other account of the breed also referred to this breed as a water dog. A flat-coated retriever authority (Mr. Stanely O’Neill) described a “water dog” from the Tweed to Elma Stonex. This dog was helping fisherman net salmon, and the dog was described as being “retrieverish,” not at all like a water spaniel. Hauling nets was a job that some water spaniels may have done, but it is said this profession the raison d’être for the St. John’s water dog.

Perhaps because these dogs were so commonly owned by “laborious classes” (as Lawrence calls them) that no one wished to dignify them with the name retriever.


Lawrence also has an interesting theory about the origins of the “water dogs” (early retrievers). He claims that dogs are cross between the Greenland dog and the water spaniel. He does not mistake a Greenland dog for a Newfoundland (St. John’s water dog) either. In the beginning of his section on dogs, Lawrence describes a Greenland dog as basically what we would call a Greenland dog today. It is the big, hauling spitz-type breed from Greenland!

I don’t know where he got this story to tell you the truth. It is the first and only mention of this type of dog in the ancestry of retrievers, although I admit that it is possible in the ancestry of the St. John’s water dog. The North American Arctic has several different types of these big sled dogs, which are also used for hunting and for protecting Inuit from polar bears. These dogs were sometimes given the blanket name of “Greenland dog,” even if they were of Canadian ancestry. Dogs of this type did not occur on the island of Newfoundland, but one does occur in Labrador, which is now called the Labrador Husky. It makes sense that some of these dogs could have been part of the ancestral stock that made up the St. John’s water dog, because the dogs were required to swim in absolutely frigid water. It could be the origin of the retriever’s unbelievably thick coat, comes out in great clumps twice a year during the shedding season. They were also required to haul things, and these big Arctic dogs were excellent at hauling. The dogs probably would have been better equipped to survive the Spartan conditions in the early English settlements at Newfoundland.

I do know that that in Helen Thayer’s book Polar Dream, she purchases a “polar bear dog” from some Inuit. The dog accompanies her to the magnetic North Pole, protecting her from polar bears. Thayer succeeds in becoming the first woman to reach the magnetic North Pole, because of “Charlie.” Charlie later accompanies Thayer and her husband on an expedition in the Yukon to observe wolf packs. Charlie is able to make the wolves feel calm around people, allowing Thayer and her husband a chance to watch them. The interesting thing about Charlie, though, is that he is a mixture of Canadian Eskimo Dog (Qimmiq) and Newfoundland.

A dog like this could be one of the many ancestors of St. John’s water dog. One can find painting of a St. John’s Water dog in one of Bruce Fogle’s books that had erect ears and a parti-colored coat, but other than that, I still find it a bit of a reach to say that there are Inuit dogs in the ancestry of the retrievers and Newfoundlands.

Could a dog like this be a retriever ancestor?

Could a dog like this be a retriever ancestor?

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This is a photo of some early Tweedmouth dogs, perhaps at Guisachan, dating back to the 1870’s or the early part of the 1880’s.


It is pretty obvious that black dogs were a part of the Tweedmouth strain, which makes sense. After all, the many of the important dogs in the outcrosses to the line were other wavy-coated retrievers, which were almost universally black. The early Tweedmouth dogs were small, showing the strong Tweed water spaniel influence that was apparent in the breed. The yellow dog on the left is a dark golden, while the one in the middle is a mid-gold dog with what appears to be brown skin pigmentation, which is also probably the result of the Tweed water spaniel’s influence.

My suggestion that these black dogs are of the same line as the yellow ones is based on their appearance. These black dogs are of exactly the same type as the yellow ones.  Interestingly, these dogs all have straight coats or possess just a slight wave.

The small size of these dogs is quite remarkable. Today, goldens and flat-coats are large dogs, averaging 60-70 pounds for both breeds, although the golden technically can range down to 55 pounds for bitches in the American Kennel Club. A few goldens can be only 40 pounds, but these dog are a rarity.

This size suggests that the Tweed water spaniel was probably a mid-size dog, not a large one, and it was probably smaller than the modern Irish water spaniel.

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We have finally made it to the origin of the golden retriever. The golden retriever started as a line of wavy-coated retriever. (Check out part II of this series to learn about this breed).  During the nineteenth century it was commonly suggested that only black retrievers were capable of doing work. The vast majority of retrievers were black. Black early Labradors were being bred from the short-haired St. John’s Water Dog, while black wavy and curly-coats were much more common on shooting estates. The black color in retrievers is dominant, but whenever new blood from other breeds was introduced, recessive genes for other colors began to appear. Liver or chocoloate was in the original St. John’s Water dog, and most retriever breeds have this coloration– curlies, Labs, flat-coats, and chesapeakes all allow for this color and the Newfoundland comes in it, too. It was not a preferred color. Crosses with setters and yellow or reddish water spaniels introduced the recessive red color into retriever lines. This happened a lot in water spaniels because all water spaniels were deemed liver, even if they were actually genetically red dogs with brown skin pigment.  The Welsh black setter often carried a gene for red, and there are setters in the North of England and Scotland, such as the Featherstone Castle Setter, which came in pale gold. If two black retrievers were bred that carried the gene for recessive red (which is the color of all yellow or gold retievers and all red setters– Irish, gordon or otherwise), then yellow, red, or gold puppies could be born in the litters.

Such was the case of “Nous,” a wavy-coated retriever born in 1864. Here’s a picture of Nous as an old dog.

Nous is the founder of the Tweedmouth strain of wavy-coats. He resembles a modern golden retriever of the dark color almost exactly.

Nous is the founder of the Tweedmouth strain of wavy-coats. He resembles a modern golden retriever of the dark color almost exactly.

Nous was born to black wavy-coated parents belonging to Lord Chichester. The yellow or reddish pup would have probably been drowned, but the Lord gave him to a cobbler who lived at Brighton in lieu of a debt. The cobbler kept Nous at Brighton as a pet, but like many perfomance bred dogs, one can only assume that he was driving his owner crazy. When Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks saw the dog. He offered to buy him, but since it was a Sunday when he made the proposal, the actual purchase wasn’t until Monday. Nous was taken to a shooting estate called Guisachan in Inverness-shire.

Marjoribanks was a politician, a Liberal MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, and had been made a baron. His title was 1st Baron Tweedmouth, which is often incorrectly called “Lord Tweedmouth” in breed lore. He was an experienced victorian animal breeder, starting his own line of Aberdeen-Angus cattle, breeding quality setters and pointers for the grouse moors, and generally trying to improve the stock he produced of all species. He was somewhat unusual in his desire to start a line of yellow retrievers.  Yellows were deemed less trainable than blacks. However, in his plan, he had found a yellow breed to cross into his yellow retrievers that would increase their trainability.

This yellow breed was one of the “liver” water spaniels. It was actually a yellow breed with black pigment, which came from cream to tawny gold in color. It was called the Tweed Water Spaniel, and one had been procured  to breed with Nous. (Nous’s trainabilty was already evident because his name denoted his “wisdom” and “common sense.” That’s what his name means in vernacular nineteenth century English. It’s borrowed word from Greek that means “mind or intellect.”)

Here’s what Tweed Water Spaniels looked like:

This breed’s origins are unclear. Some have suggested that this breed is a mixture of every sort of dog that retrieves, including the St. John’s Water Dog, which might explain its retriever-like appearance. Collies may have been introduced to increase trainability. And golden colored setters, perhaps culls from the Featherstone Castle Line, may have been crossed in. This breed was common among fisherman living in the River Tweed valley. The River Tweed is part of the border between Scotland and England. The dog depicted above is a dark gold dog that appears “liver.” However, it has black pigmentation. This is the only depiction of this breed.

Nous was bred to one of these intelligent, working class water spaniels named “Belle.” Their offspring would start the line known as “Tweedmouth’s strain” of wavy-coated retrievers. This litter was born in 1868, meaning that the first litter of golden retrievers is older than the first registered yellow Labrador, Ben of Hyde, a dog born in 1899.

In the next installment, I will explain how the Tweedmouth strain developed, and how it affected the development of both the golden and the flat-coated retriever. I will also explain how those breeds interacted with the development of the Labrador. I will also show you some areas in the historical record in which I have some skepticism.

BTW, the records are clear that this was how the golden retriever started. There was a crazy myth that persisted until the 1950’s that the breed was descended from a Russian circus dog called a “Russian tracker” that Baron Tweedmouth bred to bloodhounds to make the retriever. This breed was said to be a sheep dog, used for guarding sheep. Russian sheepdogs are livestock guardian dogs, but they can’t be used for tracking or for retrieving game either. Crossing them with bloodhounds would be counterproductive. And none of them would be circus dog. Some early fanciers believed this so much that they registered golden retrievers as Russian retrievers, even showing them against yellow flat-coats, which were also golden retrievers.

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