Posts Tagged ‘Working retriever’

Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait Currier and Ives Wild Duck Shooting A Good Day's Sport

This painting was done for Currier and Ives, and if you want to see romantic portrayals of America from the nineteenth century, look up Currier and Ives prints.

The dogs are the traditional American retriever– the retrieving setter. I know American water spaniels and Chesapeake Bay retrievers are technically American retrievers, but they were regional dogs. And Chesapeakes were often just called “Newfoundland dogs.”

The ducks are a species called a redhead, but I think are better called “American pochard.”  They are very closely related to the pochard duck of Europe.

The British often complained that American setters weren’t as staunch to a point as their dogs were, and they blamed it on the dual purpose function of our setters.

In fact, it has been claimed that the popularity of the retriever in Britain largely resulted in the desire to have setters and pointers hold their position.   They could breed and train for a dog to hold the point very tightly, while another dog did all the retrieving.

But Americans used our setters just as the Europeans used their HPR’s, and this is why outside of those two regional breeds, retrievers did not exist in significant numbers in the US until after the Second World War.

Our setters did the job.

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Both of these breeds are pretty intelligent dogs, but they respond to this problem in very different ways.


Some people are commenting that because the border collie is faster in its retrieval, it therefore must be the more intelligent animal.

But look what’s going on here.

The golden retriever is being very judicious and deliberate. It’s that same sort of behavior that would allow a golden retriever to bring in a wounded pheasant or duck without giving it further damage.

Border collies are great Frisbee dogs. Golden retrievers almost always suck at it. They just aren’t as nutty about jumping up and grabbing things.

Border collies have been bred to move things and make things move.  If a border collie needs to use its teeth on stock, it is allowed to– though this is faulted in the border collie NASCAR events. Border collies are a very much a sporting dog that have been bred for almost neurotic behavior.  Everyone knows that border collies are smart, but they have another side to them, which actually makes them almost entirely unsuitable for general family pets.

I think one of the byproducts of breeding for a soft mouth is that you get a dog that is deliberate in how it relates to the world. This is why golden retrievers, even those from working lines that have a lot more energy than most family dogs, still make very good pets as well as working dogs. This is why both Labrador and golden retrievers and the crosses between them have proven to be the ultimate assistance dogs. They are biddable and intelligent, but they are deliberate and gentle as the work.

Border collies are geniuses, but they have not been bred with the same sort of “nous” or “sagacity” as a retriever.

And I should note here that as much as I complain about how breeding for a particular conformation in bulldogs has essentially ruined them, breeding for extreme behavior in border collies has had almost the same effect.

The border collie is just too much dog for the typical dog owner– and it’s also why I don’t think the solution to the dog fancy’s problems is to adopt the solution that working border collie people have embraced.

A trial that rewards extreme behavior and popular sire selection is just going to produce a dog that is just as genetically compromised as the show dogs and is going to have behavioral problems that are just as questionable as the bulldog’s health problems.

Now, if border collies were bred more like English shepherds, things might be very different. English shepherds are a real farm dog landrace– not a sporting dog at all. They vary in temperament, but many of them are sort of golden retrieverish in temperament. Others are are more like Chesapeake Bay dogs that are docile and intelligent, but they are good guards.

But they are not trial dogs. A better term for an English shepherd would be “generalist collie.”  Because they were always used to do a lot of different things on the farm, they were intentionally bred for sagacity.

And border collies might be canine geniuses, but in some ways they are very limited in their utility.

They have almost gone down the bulldog path, but they have gone along a side road.

This is the over-selection for an extreme temperament in order to win a particular kind of sheep dog trial.

American trial Labradors have undergone a very similar selection, which is one reason why some might prefer a golden retriever or British working Labrador for general gun dog work. In the end, the best retrievers are a balance between docility and sagacity and a strong working drive.

Border collies are all drive and biddablity but are often lacking in docility and deliberation.

That’s why they aren’t my kind of dog.

I don’t care how smart they are.


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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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Red and white retriever

This painting is by Edward Armfield (1817 – 1896), and the bird it is retrieving is a gray partridge, which in North America has the unfortunate name of “Hungarian partridge,” even though it is almost always called the “English partridge” in the United Kingdom. (Some Americans call it a “Hun,” a term that, as German-America, find pretty offensive. We don’t turn Belgian babies into soap!)

The dog looks to be of St. John’s water dog extraction. It has the robust build of that breed, and like many that were imported into the UK during the early nineteenth century, it has feathering.

Of course, the dog likely isn’t of “pure breeding.”

Through much of the nineteenth century, retrievers were the gentry’s equivalent of the poacher’s lurcher. Each shooting nobleman bred retrievers by crossing different types of dog. As we’ve seen, this tradition heavily conflicted with the British dog fancy that came later, which demanded that every retriever be a black dog.

This dog is particularly interesting because it’s red and white. It doesn’t appear to be a liver and white dog at all. The red coloration is the same that appears on golden retrievers and Irish setters. However, it’s also a particolor, which is unlike any golden retriever living today.

But if this dog had been bred to solid black dogs, the recessive red coloration would be carried, and the chances are good that one of its descendants would have been a solid red or gold dog.

I don’t know any specifics about this retriever. I don’t know its name or where it lived. All I know is that it’s a British retriever from the early to middle nineteenth century. If anyone knows any more details, please pass them along.

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Jose Cruz of Chatham Hill Dogs sent me these photos of a working “Chatham Hill retriever,” a cross between a flat-coated retriever and an American cocker spaniel. “Lucky” has proven to be quite a good duck dog.


Jose writes:

He went on this hunt along side a working Golden and a working Labrador. This working Chattie was the better of the three at doing the job. And the owner is extremely proud of the fact that this guy at half the size of the big dogs is a very good retriever. Please note he is only one of about a dozen of our “Working” Chatties in real world situations, not a hunt trial or trophy contest. And that where I’ve always focused. If the dog is a necessity then it will adapt to the challenges it is presented. Dogs are that resilient.

Jose has caught a lot of hell from the flat-coated retriever community. He currently also breeds from yellow flat-coated retrievers, which is a very bad thing to do in flat-coats.

He’s also bred this line of spaniel retrievers.

This dog resembles a photo I once saw of one of the last English water spaniels. It was black and very rugged looking.

It looked very much like Lucky.


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This is the dog from the “Wildfowling on Lough Neagh” video that I wrote about earlier.

The dog is “just a mongrel,” but the narrator calls him the “best retrieving dog [he’s] ever seen.”

I would venture to say that this dog is a golden retriever/Labrador cross, but it’s a brown-skinned yellow, something that would be uncommon in European golden retrievers.

It’s just a purpose-bred mongrel or crossbred retriever with a thick golden coat.

Everything about the dog say “I’m a retriever. Don’t ask for my papers. Now, just let me swim out and get you that duck.”

Whatever his pedigree, he is a relic of sorts.

At one time, all the retrievers were like this dog.

They were bred solely for performance.

They weren’t given a lot of fancy training, but they did their job.

The pedigree didn’t matter.

They were retrievers.

No certificate told them what they were.

Only the splash into the cold water and the struggling wounded duck revealed their identity.

That’s the way it is with this retriever.

Whatever he is exactly doesn’t matter; he is a retriever.

And that’s all we need to know.

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Lough Neagh is a lake or “loch” in the middle of Northern Ireland.

Wildfowling is English for “duck hunting.”


The pochard is a close relative of the North American redhead duck, and it looks very much a redhead.

And the “good retriever” on the lough is “just a mongrel.”

However, the dog looks very much like I imagine a Tweed water spaniel looked like– a yellow retriever with a thick, slightly wavy coat, and brown skin pigment.

Of course, the dog is likely a Labrador cross, and the other dog is almost like a retriever-derived lurcher.

But its similarities to my understanding of what a Tweed water spaniel or Tweed water dog was are awfully beguiling to my imagination.

The water spaniel or water dog of Northern Ireland was also very similar to the Tweed– and they were likely close relatives. It was also very much like a retriever, but it was always either solid liver or liver with some white markings on the chest and feet.  Yellows didn’t exist in that breed.

Yes. It also resembles a deadgrass Chesapeake Bay retriever.

I guess in this part of Northern Ireland, retrievers are still bred in the old way. If it retrieves, it gets bred to another dog that retrieves. Pedigree doesn’t matter.

There is no pretense in this hunting expedition. It is just a couple of guys getting together with the dogs to shoot some wild ducks for supper.

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(Source for image)

A golden retriever named Tank at a hunt test in Minnesota.

“Roll that beautiful bean footage!”




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Four flat-coats with the day’s kill. If you look closely, you can see the dogs have fetched a rather large pile of rabbits!

This image comes from Country Life Illustrated (28 October 1899). The dog seated next to the largest pile more strongly resembles a golden retriever than a modern flat-coat, which is more evidence that both “golden retriever” and ” modern flat-coated” body types were evident in the original wavy/flat-coated breed.

Retrievers and other dogs in the sporting group are known as “gun dogs” in Europe. That means they hunt game with someone armed with a gun. This game might include birds, but no one would call such dogs “bird dogs,” as we do in the United States. That’s because these dogs are often required to work furred game. Retrievers often pick up rabbits or hares, and in Germany, their HPR’s are used on a wide variety of game, including foxes, boar, and deer.

Shooting rabbits appears a bit too utilitarian to be an activity for a sporting gentlemen of the nineteenth century. However, rabbits were– and still are– actively managed on estates for this purpose. Why did the European rabbit get introduced to Australia?  It wasn’t an accident. It was intentionally introduced as a game animal. (A somewhat bad idea.)

In the tradition of the British battue shoot, the rabbits were driven into shooting range by spaniels while the retrievers sat steady near the shooters. When the rabbits were shot, each retriever was sent separately to fetch the bunnies.

In my part of the world, rabbit hunting is done with beagles– almost exclusively. The beagles are normally run in braces or small packs, and all they do is make the rabbit run. Cottontail rabbits run in a pattern that circles around several brier patches and brush heaps– where the rabbits seek refuge from the dogs. The beagles work the rabbits out of these refuges and make them run around until they come out in the open in front of the hunter’s gun. The beagles don’t retrieve, of course, but they will take to rabbit chases with almost no training. Sight hounds, which are used in more open parts of the world, are totally impractical here. The cover is too heavy for them to run at full speed, and the steep hillsides require dogs that are more sure-footed than the double-suspension gallop can provide.

Using a division of labor among the gun dogs in a shoot was more the sign of British affluence than anything else. The truth is a retriever can easily work as a spaniel, and many spaniels can be taught to retrieve.  One could have cut down on the dogs used in a shoot very quickly, but that wasn’t the point.

Appearance is what mattered, and having separate retrievers and flushers was the proper way.  It was also a good symbol of conspicuous consumption.  More dogs require more training from the keepers, and more dogs require more care. Only people who are truly of means can afford such extravagances.

And that’s the important symbolism:  I have the means to have several specialized dogs, so I am truly a person of worth.

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These images come from a shoot at Apedale Moor in Yorkshire, which was featured in Country Life Illustrated (19 August 1905).  The main shooter is Lord Bolton, a major landowner in this park of Yorkshire.  This shoot is notable for using a few Labradors.  1905 was the during the heyday of the flat-coated retriever, so using Labradors was something of a novelty.

Lord Bolton shooting with a Labrador.

This is Col. Augustus Cathcart with a flat-coated retriever named Jock. Jock’s first owner was a tenant farmer who died in the Second Boer War.

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