Archive for the ‘Retriever history’ Category

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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These are not “golden retrievers,” as Christie’s claims. The true golden retriever program wasn’t underway until the 1860’s.

white retrievers

The painter was John Hamilton Glass, and the painting appeared in the Scottish Royal Academy in 1852.

The dogs are fairly large, and the one in the one in the background looks very much like a British conformation type golden retriever.

You can tell they are retrievers because the game presented are a pheasant and duck.

Yellow retrievers existed long before the true golden retriever came about.


And no, that terrier isn’t a Jack Russell, but you could call it that and not be entirely wrong.




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Hailstone Labradors

The dogs above are two purebred Labradors, and the white spots you see on the coats are not the result of the distortion or aging of the photo.

They actually are black dogs with what might be called “reverse Dalmatian spots.”

This coloration is quite rare in Labradors, and because of its rarity, no one knows its genetic basis. It just occasionally pops up in Labrador litters.

Countess Howe, one of the major forces behind the modern Labrador retriever breed, called this color “hailstone.

A very similar color also pops up in greyhounds, where it is much more common.

I have tongue-in-cheek called this coloration “ich” (pronounced “ick.”)

If you don’t know what “ich” refers to, well, there is a condition that occurs in freshwater fish called “ich.”

The official name for the disease is called Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, but most aquarists shorten it to “ich.” It is also called “white spot disease,” because it is easily recognized when one sees small white flecks on the gills and body of an aquarium fish.

The disease is caused by a protozoan called Ichthyopthirius that establishes itself on the body of the fish. Each white fleck is actually where a protozoan has set up a residence. These parasites wind up damaging so much of the skin and gill tissue that the mortality rate from fish affected by the disorder is quite high.

Of course, these dogs aren’t affected by anything other than some novel color phase.

It just happens to remind me of the deadly fish disease.

However, looking at these Labradors, I’m sure many will be reminded of the old cartoon 101 Dalmatians, where at one point, the Dalmatians try to sneak past Cruella de Vil and her minions, Horace and Jasper, by rolling themselves in soot and trying to pass themselves off as Labradors. Everything goes according to plan, until melting snow hits the dogs’ coats, revealing that they are Dalmatians and not Labradors.

(BTW, if you can’t tell the difference between a Labrador and a Dalmatian that is dyed black, there is no hope for you!).


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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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water spaniels ben marshall


These “spaniels” were owned by Mrs. Orby Hunter and were painted by Ben Marshall.

Their names were “Diver” and “Shuckleback.”

Diver is a barbet/English rough water dog/poodle type of water dog, but Shuckleback looks like a proto-curly coated retriever.

Maybe a bit of St. John’s water dog had been crossed in, or maybe he was of a sort of water dog that is part of the St. John’s water dog’s ancestry.

I imagine the Tweed water dogs being very similar to Shuckleback, just of the yellow or reddish coloration.

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From Stonehenge’s The Dogs of Great Britain, and Other Countries (1887). Dog was exhibited in 1877.

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red winchester retriever 1886  1

This old photograph is being marketed that of an Irish water spaniel, but it’s actually something much cooler.

Irish water spaniels were commonly used as retrievers in the US, but the McCarthy type of water spaniel was invariably liver in color.

And it never makes one double click on an image to make one wonder if a dog is actually a golden retriever.

Here’s a close-up of the dog’s head. It’s very retrievery:

red winchester retriever 1886

I think this animal is a red Winchester retriever, a type of long-coated retriever derived from the St. John’s water dog. It was said to have come from Ireland, but it may have been nothing more than a regional Irish variant of the early curly-coated retriever. Such dogs were in demand among waterfowl hunters in America, and retrievers that were born liver or gold/red in color got exported to fuel the market hunters’ demands on Chesapeake Bay.

This red Winchester type is sometimes regarded as a type of long-haired Chesapeake or a breed that got absorbed into Chesapeakes, which occasionally do have long-coated pups.

We could have made at least three breeds out of the types of retrievers out of what became the Chesapeake Bay retrievers.

This particular dog was photographed by Edward Payson Butler in Reno, Nevada in 1886.  People settling in the West in those later days liked to hunt. The Frontier was just about to close off entirely,and people who had made their fortunes in places like Nevada were eager to get improved hunting dogs from back East or Europe.

This red Winchester retriever would have been a prized possession and obviously cherished member of the family,

I should note that there were several names for this dog: brown Winchester, red Chester, and brown Chester.

One story is that the retrievers that founded this strain came from a British ship called the HMS Winchester that was said to have brought the red, long-coated retrievers out of Cork to America’s Eastern Seaboard.

Which of course, brings us back to the Duggan family water spaniels, which were also from Cork.

Maybe this type of water spaniel is the ancestral red Winchester type that was then crossed with the endemic Chesapeake duck dogs to found the red Winchester, which then got absorbed into the modern Chesapeake Bay retriever.

America’s retriever culture relied much more heavily on water spaniels and regional variants than the UK retriever culture. We preferred liver and yellow/red/gold dogs over black ones, while in Britain, the preference was for black ones. Golden, Labrador, and flat-coated retrievers have long, carefully documented pedigrees, but you will not find these documents in regard to curly-coated retrievers, Chesapeakes, or any breed of water spaniel.

We produced dogs like this one.

Just as our coonhounds were likely mostly drawn from the rejects English Old Southern hound packs, which were deer and hare specialists, our native retriever was drawn from the rejects of a culture that was obsessed with producing black retrievers.

Our hunting and shooting culture is very different from the Motherland. We are a nation born of conquering pioneers, not of decaying feudalism.

We were once a nation filled with game, and compared to the British Isles today, we are still teeming with wild beasts.

We didn’t need a dog to say that we were up-and-coming. We needed a dog that had a purposed.

Until the frontier closed.

And well-to-do people began to sport hunt as a homage to a past that once included a Davy Crockett, a Daniel Boone, and a Lewis Wetzel.

This is where we are now.

Sport-hunting begat the modern conservation movement and then the science of wildlife management, and as America has grown wealthy, we’ve been able to save many species. We’ve been able to keep a bit of the frontier wildness about.

We may not have the zapovedniks of Russia, but we still have enough wild or even “feral” places about.

And here, people can keep dogs like this red Winchester’s descendants and take him or her into the places that remind one of that storied past.

It’s never going to be the same, but it is a reasonable enough facsimile.

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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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Most sources list the Tweed water spaniel or Tweed water dog as a breed strongly resembling a small liver or yellow curly-coated retriever.

In the late nineteenth century, the flat-coated retriever expert Stanley O’Neil encountered some of the Tweeds helping salmon fishermen with their nets on the Northumberland coast:

Further up the coast, probably Alnmouth, I saw men netting for salmon. With them was a dog with a wavy or curly coat. It was a tawny colour but, wet and spumy, it was difficult to see the exact colour, or how much was due to bleach and salt. Whilst my elders discussed the fishing I asked these Northumberland salmon net men whether their dog was a Water-Dog or a Curly, airing my knowledge. They told me he was a Tweed Water Spaniel. This was a new one on me. I had a nasty suspicion my leg was being pulled. This dog looked like a brown Water Dog to me, certainly retrieverish, and not at all spanielly. I asked if he came from a trawler, and was told it came from Berwick.

The dogs were water spaniel/Newfoundland (“St. John’s water dog) crosses, which were essentially a regional variant of the curly-coated retriever.


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