Posts Tagged ‘working retrievers’

Flat-coated retrievers with a pile of rabbits.

From British Dogs: Their Points, Selection, and Show Preparation (1903) by W.D. Drury:

For the writer’s part, if breaking a dog to his own hand, he would be less rigorous and exacting as regards the question of absolute steadiness. Almost from the commencement of his shooting days he has had a line of faithful helpmates that have had to fulfil the role, not only of the Retriever proper, but also that of Setter, Spaniel, and Sleuth-hound. His Retrievers have to find game, flush it, and retrieve it promptly to hand; nor is he so very particular if they make a start on the last-named mission before receiving the word of command. When one is on a tarn or a snipe-bog, it is as well that one’s dog should be off the mark pretty quickly, if he is to successfully retrieve a winged duck, or a snipe that falls fifty yards out in the water, beyond the rushes. Furthermore, the writer fears that he has caused thrills of horror in many a pheasant-slayer’s heart when he has sent his best Retriever into a furze-brake [a copse of gorse] to make the rabbits scuttle. For all that, he is always ready to back himself to go out, singlehanded, on a moor with one dog, and that dog a Flat-coated Retriever, and bring home a bigger and more varied bag than anyone else with one dog of any other breed; especially if there is any wild-fowl work to be done; for the dogs of the Blackthorn, Darenth, Zelstone, and Black Drake strain are, almost without exception, particularly brilliant at water. To see them work for snipe or duck is a revelation to those who have been accustomed to view a Retriever by the light of the broken-spirited porters who steadily collect game after a battue or drive.

If, perchance, the writer is so ill-advised as to let off at a hare that is beyond certain killing distance, and the poor brute makes off with a shattered hind leg, or vitals penetrated by only a pellet or two, he does not hesitate to send his dusky henchman on the war trail, chancing whether the dog will, in consequence, run in at the next hare that springs, or not.

The fact that Retrievers are only presumed to exist for the purpose of fetching and carrying is responsible for another fact— viz. that our sporting American cousins ignore the breed altogether, and no efforts on our part have ever succeeded in popularising the breed over the Herring Pond. They logically ask, “Say, what do we want with Retrievers? All our Pointers and Setters are taught the job.” But if it could be impressed upon them that a Retriever of the right sort will also do any kind of work that is asked of him, America might be the richer for one of the handsomest, cleverest, and most docile of the canine species (pg. 353-354).

Drury is writing about using a retriever very differently than one would have used them at trials or formal estate shoots. This the view of the retriever as a versatile hunting dog.  It is something very different from worrying about others think about a dog’s performance. It is that the dog performs.

It is an unorthodox statement today, and it certainly would have been unorthodox then.

But it should make us stop and think for a bit.

Americans would have been okay with water spaniels and Chesapeake Bay dogs, which are well-known to be quite versatile dogs. Many stories exist of Chesapeake Bay retrievers, the present time not accepted, baying raccoons and foxes.

It is also of note that Drury, who was British, thought of using a retriever to hunt duck as an unorthodox use.  The flat-coated retriever of the day was the most common breed of retriever, and its main utility was at the driven shoot. And the game was mostly pheasants, partridges, and wood and domestic pigeons.  Hares and rabbits were also taken, and it still common for British retrievers to take lagomorphs, and in Europe, they often are required to retrieve foxes.

Americans eventually found retrievers were good for ducking hunting, and although they can be used for other things, the popular imagination sees them as only duck dogs. Duck hunting in America is about the only thing that fully resembles a British driven shoot.

We have this kind of preserve shooting in the United States, but it is far less common than the British model. And in the early days, we had almost none of it. The birds were native and wild, and we used setters and then pointers. We in effect turned them into HPR’s, because we began to demand that both pointers and setters retrieve, a requirement that never existed in Britain.  This demand that they retrieve led to a lot of crossbreeding between setters and pointers in the United States, for it was widely known that pointers often were very hard to teach to retrieve. But everyone knew of a setter that was a natural retriever, so they were routinely crossbred.








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From Charles St. John’s A Tour in Sutherlandshire, with Extracts from a Sportsman and Naturalist (Vol. 2) (1849):

[H]owever good a water-dog your retriever may be, and however hardy, the less swimming and wetting he gets the better. Nothing is so ill-judged and useless as sending a dog into the water without good reason for it; doing so is always taking something, more or less, from his strength and injuring his constitution. When standing waiting for ducks in cold weather the poor animal has no means of drying or warming himself, and lies shivering at your feet, and laying up the foundation of rheumatism and other maladies.

A dog who has much water-work to do should always be kept in good condition, and, if possible, even fat. It is a mistake to suppose that allowing him to come into the house and warm himself before the fire makes him less hardy; on the contrary, I consider that getting warm and comfortable before the kitchen fire on coming home gives the retriever a better chance of keeping up his strength, health, and energy when much exposed to cold and wet during the day; a far better chance, indeed, than if, on returning, he is put into a cold kennel, where, however well supplied with straw, hours must elapse before he is thoroughly warm and dry. Most rough dogs stand cold well enough as long as they are tolerably dry, but frequent wetting is certain to cause disease and rheumatism. I am sure too, with regard to water dogs, that a good covering of fat is a far more efficacious means of keeping them warm than the roughest coat of hair that dog ever wore. In wild animals, such as otters, seals, &c., which are much exposed to wet in cold countries, we always find that their chief defence against the cold consists in a thick coating of fat, and that their hair is short and close. In like manner dogs who are in good condition can better sustain the intense cold of the water than those whose only defence consists in a shaggy hide. Short-coated dogs are also the most active and powerful swimmers, and get dry sooner than those who are too rough-coated (pg. 149-151).

This little excerpt raises some important points.

Among them is that it suggests the current custom for running retrievers in straight lines through water– though very impressive at trials and tests– is probably ill-advised. However, I don’t think anyone these days thinks that rheumatism is caused by exposure to the cold, but exposure to the cold can aggravate pre-existing arthritis.  Never mind that as a dog becomes more chilled from the water, the less likely it is to enjoy swimming or be willing to do so.

The comment about fat is always of interest, as is the discussion of coat.

Both golden and Labrador retrievers tend toward pudginess.  I’ve always assumed that this tendency was related to their functions as water dogs. Fat is a very good insulator in cold water, which is why every marine mammal– except the sea otter– has some blubber as its primary insulation against the cold. St. John goes on to explain how different mammals use fat as insulation when swimming in cold water, concluding that a retriever should have some fat on its body if it is to be in the water regularly. (I don’t think anyone is claiming that fat dog is a healthy dog, but it does suggest that having slightly more body fat content might be an advantage for a water retriever.)

A very oily, very dense long-coated retriever won’t take on as much water as one with lighter coat that is lacking in oil, but it goes without saying that the Labrador has the more functional coat than any of the feathered retrievers.

In St. John’s writings, one gets the impression that he was deeply concerned for the welfare of his dogs and greatly appreciative of them as individuals. He was also willing to break convention, using his retrievers to track otters and flush foxes, as well as using them to hunt deer. In another text, one of his retriever is attacked by an otter while swimming. The dog would have been severely injured but for its wavy coat, but as a result of that attack, the dog becomes death on otters, hunting them out no matter where they are found.

So maybe the “rough” retriever may have had some advantages if the poor dog happened to be swimming where aggressive otters were known to frequent.

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The “Labrador” jumping from the boat isn’t a Labrador.


There are two interesting aspects of this clip.

The first of these is I see no Newfoundlands.

I thought Newfoundlands made up the mainstay of these working dogs.

All I see in this clip are Labrador and golden retrievers.

The other interesting thing is they are actually doing something working (or at least trial and test) retrievers aren’t encouraged to do.

They are encouraged to find the shortest, most efficient route to the object.

In the North American retriever culture, we want straight lines.

I can’t think of a more fun job for many retrievers than this water rescue work.

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The dog on the left is obese. However, in America, we still like to breed our Labs bigger, even if they aren't overweight.

The Lab on the left is obese. However, in America, we like to breed our Labs larger, even if they aren't overweight.

Over the years, I’ve noticed something about pet-line Labradors.

People who market these dogs almost always offer two types.

One of these is the English type, which I have often heard referred to as the “Bentley.” These dogs are particularly sought after because they are derived from European show lines and are quite calm and placid.

In theory, of course.

Many of these dogs don’t live up to the hype of being super calm and some, like some golden retrievers, can be quite surly.

But of particular interest to me is the other way pet quality Labs are marketed: it’s gonna be a big dog!

Although most field and American show line Labs are in the 55-80 pound range and virtually all English Labs fit that definition, most of the Labs I see are in the 90 pounds or more range.

Large size does not have much utility for a working dog, and in the real world, smaller size does have its advantages.

I know of breeders of field line Labs that produce “canoe” Labs that are smaller than normal. The term comes from a possible linkage between these so-called “canoe dogs” that acted as retrievers for the native peoples of the Northeast and Eastern Canada. Speculatively, I have suggested that these dogs are related to the St. John’s water dogs and the Newfoundlands, which means they are possible ancestors of the retrievers. (Here’s a photo of a canoe dog. It looks like small Labrador with prick ears and a bushy tail.) Canoe dogs were about 30 pound or so in weight, and canoe Labradors tend to be in the 30-45 pound range.

The only reason to breed a super large Labrador is to sell puppies.

It’s also great for the ego.

I’m sure the conversations go something like this:

My Lab is bigger than yours.

Does it retrieve or listen to commands?

No. But he’s 130 pounds and built like an Angus bull.

I have looked at the histor of Labradors and other retrievers rather closely, and I can tell you with certainty that the St.John’s water dog, the ancestral Labrador, was never a giant dog.

Now, the other Newfoundland was historically used as a retrievers on estate shoots. In the nineteenth century, virtually all of the dogs in that particular breed were Landseers. They may have played some role in the development of retrievers, although their large size and slowness were always problematic.

However, I don’t think it’s exactly correct to think of these dogs as a model on which we could assume the conformation of the modern Labrador retriever. A big lumbering dog is by definition at a disadvantage as a retriever. It simply cannot swim with the speed necessary to do its work. It is also going to overheat more easily, simply because it is bigger. If one his hunting ducks, a big dog takes up more space on a boat or blind.

But none of this matters in the realm of selling pets.

Get a couple of guys bragging about the size of their dogs, and you soon have a perfect market.

Bigger is better.

It doesn’t matter that large size puts strain on the dog’s heart or make it more prone to various dysplasias as it grows.

Bigger is better.

I’ve noted this tendency exists in golden retrievers, but it is at a much lower level. I hope it stays this way, because goldens can’t stand any further fad breeding and remain viable as a strain.

However, it has happened to virtually all large gentle dogs that are in demand as family pets.

Does anyone seriously believe that St. Bernards always weighed 200 pounds?

If it happened to that breed, why couldn’t this happen to the retrievers?

Virtually all the pet Labs I see are huge.

It’s what people want.

I’m honestly suprised they haven’t made up a cock-and-bull story about the size of these dogs, something like the Roman Rottweilers or reconstructed dire wolf.

But maybe the desire to brag about size is enough to get people to accept such huge dogs.

These big Labs are so common, that people are often surprised when they find out how big their breed standard requires them to be.

It’s almost like you made something up or uttered the phrase “Nova Scotia Duck Tolling retriever.”

We’ve become so accustomed to seeing giant Labs that they now seem normal.

I hope for the sake of the dogs that we don’t continue to demand an increase in size.

Of course, serious Labrador people are going to breed normally sized dogs.

The pet people can just keep breeding ’em bigger and bigger.

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Group steadiness:


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Source for image.

What I am about to explain here might be offensive to curly-coated retriever owners. It is not intended to be.

I am merely quoting what Harding Cox, a retrieverman of the late nineteenth centuries and early twentieth centuries, thought of the breed. The breed has definitely changed since then, because it is no longer a “fancy” breed. It is now bred for sound working conformation and ability by its dedicated breeders.

Cox wrote the section on retrievers in W.D. Drury’s British Dogs: Their Points, Selection and Show Preparation (1903), and to be fair, Cox was a flat-coated retriever enthusiast.

He begins his section on retrievers with this somewhat Spencerian  prediction:

That the Curly-coated Retriever is doomed to practical extinction is a notable and an undeniable fact, which must be put down to the inevitable law of the survival of the fittest…For every Curly-coated dog (speaking of the recognised show type) used in the field, or exhibited on the bench, there are now a score, at least, of Flat-coats. (333).


Cox explains that reason why the curly lost favor in the British gun dog circles did not have much to do with their lack of tractability or their supposed reputation for hardmouth.

Cox contends that the real reason why the curly was not favored at time is that it was thought of as a show dog, not a working dog:

There seems to be a prevailing impression that the average disposition of the Curly-coated Retriever…is not as sweet and benevolent as that of the more popular dog [the flat-coat], and that he is less tractable. The writer’s only experience of these animals is in the show-ring, and he confesses that he has always found the exhibits mild and friendly enough. Probably the real reason of their unpopularity lies in the fact that they are more or less a “fancy” breed (345).

In this analysis, the real reason why the curly lost favor in Britain is because it was a dog bred solely for the show ring.

After all, this breed does have an unusual feature that is difficult to breed. Their coats do not withstand any crossbreeding. If you breed a curly to Labrador, you will have a dog with short hair and some wave to it. At this time, though, crossbreeding different strains of retriever was a common practice, and thus, the curly missed out on some of the experimental breeding that goldens, Labradors, and flat-coats experienced.

If you’re breeding for that feature, you’re not breeding for working ability. You’re breeding for the coat and for the rosettes that this coat will win you.

And that’s a recipe for disaster for a working dog.

If all the competitor breeds are being cross-bred and selectively bred for work, and you are breeding for a peculiar physical feature, your dog will not be able to keep up with them.

And the curly nearly went into extinction as Harding Cox suggested.

Of course, the flat-coat didn’t remain top dog in the trial circuit. After the First World War, the Labrador, which had been developed from breeding recently imported St. John’s water dogs with flat-coats, Chesapeakes, and all sorts of other dogs (including pointers and foxhounds), began to come into its own. The flat-coat developed a bad reputation for being hard to handle and for having possible borzoi ancestry (sight hounds are known for being terrible retrievers.) The yellow version of flat-coat became a separate breed, and it became the secondary retriever to the Labrador.

Nearly becoming extinct actually proved to be a blessing for the curly, for now the only people who were breeding them were truly interested in producing the best possible dog. The modern curly is now a dog with good working conformation and retrieving instinct, but most people don’t know about it. If the average person sees one, I guarantee you that the first question will be “Is that a Labradoodle?”

Losing popularity isn’t such a bad thing.


Today, the top working retriever is the Labrador. Most waterfowl hunters in North America go for Labradors.

In fact, the Labrador is now even more popular than its flat-coat predecessor. It is now the most common dog breed in the world.

The golden is the secondary dog. It is the curly of today.

However, this breed still remains common enough, although its popularity in Europe has started to drop off. In the US and Canada, it is still a very popular breed.

Most golden retrievers are rather like the curlies of the nineteenth century. They have been bred for their novel appearance alone.  Working ability has been secondary.

And many working retriever people pass the golden over.

It is just a matter of time until the golden begins to really lose its status in our society.

When I first heard of them, they were touted as being very easily trained and very good natured.

A few years ago, they were touted as being very good natured and much calmer than Labradors. (This isn’t necessarily a good thing, because extremely calm dogs are on their way to losing their working ability.)

Now, their temperaments have become far less reliable than they once were.

As things have progressed, the golden is not thought of as a working retriever. It’s thought of as a fancy breed for yuppies to own.

All of these factors set the golden up for meeting a very similar fate that befell the curly in the early twentieth century.

Is this a bad thing?

Well, as I said before, losing a lot of popularity was a blessing for the curly. It allowed only the most dedicated people to breed them.

And with all the problems that the golden is facing, the only way to solve them is for the breed to lose some it of its popularity. Too many stupid people are breeding them.

If the demand for cute little golden retriever puppies would just drop, dedicated golden retriever people would be able to breed good dogs once again.


It amazes me how many comments I get whenever I offer even a tepid criticism of a breed. I usually don’t attack individual dogs, but I do attack breeding practices. However, these criticisms are viewed as affronts against an individual dog, which may be sound, smart, and healthy.

I have nothing against the curly-coated retriever.

In fact, if you read this post and didn’t know any better, I bet you’d think I hate golden retrievers.

The truth is that I can offer a criticism of a breeding practice or trend within a gene pool and still respect the individual dog.

Every dog breed and every bloodline within a breed or strain has its virtues and vices. We need to be honest about them.

It’s only then that we can have real discussions about improving our dogs through selective breeding.

But because this candor eludes too many people who consider themselves dog people, we can’t have that conversation.

But for the sake of the dogs, we need to have that conversation.

It’s time to detach our egos from our dogs.

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Flat-coat retrieving

At Pet Connection.

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