Archive for the ‘working retrievers’ Category

This film appears to be a big-time rip off of Earnest Thompson Seton, and it’s obvious to me that he is a German shepherd and not a wolf. But this dog has all the same mannerisms as my dog, including the little playful “alligator snaps.”

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A few months ago, I wrote about how Sir Everett Millais created the modern basset hound when the inbred strains of Norman basset that were being bred in England were crossed with a bloodhound.

Sir Everett Millais was a dog show person. He was obsessed with developing the basset hound as we know it today, and as a judge, he was adamant about the newly developing English strains of dachshund take more after the hound component of their heritage than the “terrier” component.

Everett was the son of Sir John Everett Millais, a noted painter from a prominent Jersey family, and most “dog people” generally know only about his eldest son. The story of the cross between the Norman basset and the bloodhound well-documented breed lore, and much of our understanding of the dachshund in English-speaking countries comes from his work in founding that breed in England.

But of this particular Millais family, there was another son who had an interest in dogs. The youngest son of Sir John Everett Millais was John Guille Millais, an author, a painter, and naturalist of some note. I once wrote about his account of sheep-killing “Labrador dogs” in Newfoundland.

I paid almost no attention this author, other than I noted he was the younger brother of Sir Everett.  I searched around for more information about John Guille, but I got bored. I made a mental note of his name and then largely forgot about him.

A few years ago I came across a book written by John Guille.  It was called The Wildfowler in Scotland, which was published in 1901.  The book is ostensibly a how-to manual on shooting water and seabirds in Scotland, but it also includes accounts of his favorite retriever. Her name was Jet, and she was nothing like the celebrated show dogs of his brother:

“In my early days of shore shooting I was fortunate enough to procure a dog which eventually turned out to be (so far as my experience goes) the very best that ever stood on four legs. ‘Jet,’ for that was her name, was but a pup of ten months—a smooth-coated retriever of a most gentle and affectionate disposition, and quite unbroken—when I bought her of an innkeeper in Perth. She was the keenest and best nosed dog I have ever seen—too keen, as I found at first, and constantly running-in; but eventually she settled down and became almost human in her intelligence.

Every man becomes sentimental about something, and if I say too much here about dear old ‘Jet,’ who was my constant companion for sixteen years, the reader must forgive me. Many are the tales I could tell of her prowess; but I will confine myself to a few instances of her indomitable perseverance and pluck as a swimmer. One trick I mention as interesting, for she acquired it through her own cunning. Every shooter knows that while directing his eyes to the front or flank, as he naturally does while walking along the coast, birds often come up from behind, and before he can observe them, sheer off out of shot.  ‘Jet,’ however, was quite up to this.  As she trotted along behind me, she constantly glanced back over her shoulder, and if she saw anything coming, she would at once run in front of me, gazing alternatively at myself and the fowl in an inquiring manner,  thereby giving the chance of obtaining something desirable. There was no sea, however thunderous–even the great winter breakers of the North Atlantic– that she would not face, if I asked her to fetch some fallen treasure.

When the seas were unusually heavy, she betrayed a most remarkable instinct in preserving herself from being dashed from the rocks.  Instead of plunging into the mass of water, as a breaker surged towards her, she would allow herself to be carried out on the wash of the receding rush in time to meet the next huge wave and top it just as about to fall with a force that would have knocked her senseless had it broken upon her. More than once in a heavy sea she was not quick enough in this exploit, and paid smartly for her daring.  An instance occurred one day in the winter when I was lying among rocks near the Black Craig, Orkney Isles,  during one of those big westerly gales when Arctic gulls and Eiders come along the shore.  I had been watching them for some days previously, and whilst this gale was it height, a male eider came by, at which I fired.  The bird was hard hit, and made it out to sea, but had not gone 50 yards when it fell dead among the breakers.  As the sea was wild in the extreme, and I knew the bird would soon be blown ashore, I never thought of sending my dog after it; but ‘Jet’ who was pottering about in the rocks at a short distance, unfortunately had her eye also on the eider, and seeing it fall, at once made for it, in spite of all my efforts to stop her, all my shouting drowned by the roar of the ocean.  I could only stand and admire her pluck as she fought through the first two breakers. Now those who have lived much by the sea have noticed that those heavy breakers always travel over the face of the ocean in threes.  The third did for ‘Jet’ as she was trying to raise herself and look about for the bird. It completely broke over her, and I felt a chill go to my heart as, the next moment, I saw her body floating helplessly admidst the rush of seething waters.” (pg 45-47).

Jet eventually washed up on the shore, alive but severely draggled. Millais carried her home two miles, and although modern retriever people would have her much more steady to shot, this tale is a story of her pluck and drive.

In the Tay Estuary,  Millais once shot a brent goose (“brant” goose for North Americans), but left the bird only slightly pinioned. Jet took off after the bird in the water, but the bird was a much faster swimmer than the dog.  The dog pursued the goose a great distance from the shore, and Millais estimated that he ran three miles trying to call her back in:

“I began to lose all hope of ever seeing my dear doggie again. However, by the merest chance, there happened that afternoon to be an old fellow collecting bait in a spot where never before or since have I seen a man so employed. We at once asked his help, but in vain. ‘Na, na,’ he said, ‘A ken fine yon spring tide; a few meenutes to get there and a’ day to get back.’ Bribery and persuasion having alike failed, I told the old chap that as I had no intention of seeing my dog drowned I should take his boat whether he liked it or not. That he did not like it was clear from his reply; but a glance at my beaming friend convinced him that resistance would be useless, so he sullenly assisted us to launch his coble.

It took about ten minutes to run out to ‘Jet’ and her quarry, and when the latter was promptly dispatched the staunch dog fetched it to the boat, obviously proud of her accomplishment. Poor old girl, she little knew how near death she had been! Without the help that only by good luck we were able to render, she would have gone on another mile or two; then, feeling tired, would have tried in vain to make headway back’ to the shore. It took us about four and a half hours to make the coast again in that angry sea.

At all sorts of shooting, whether grouse driving, covert shooting, or wildfowling, ‘Jet’ was equally reliable; and having constant practice throughout the shooting season, she became as good a retriever as the most exacting sportsman could desire. At flight shooting she was simply perfection, and seemed, like her master, to take special delight in sitting at twilight waiting for the black forms and whistling pinions of the approaching duck. On ‘coarse’ nights, when duck flying by are seen almost as soon as they are heard, a dog is seldom quicker than a man in catching sight of them; but on still, fine nights, when the moon rises early, and the birds can be heard approaching from a distance, a good dog will always see them before the shooter, and will indicate by his motions the precise direction from which they are coming. ‘Jet’ was very good at this, almost invariably rising from her sitting posture, stiffening herself in pointer fashion, and whining if she thought I was not paying sufficient attention to her suggestions. Frequently, too, in an evening, when the wind is not too strong, many trips of birds will come down wind, from behind the shooter, and on these occasions ‘Jet’s’ sharp ears have often helped me to a shot that I should otherwise have lost from lack of time to change my position.

And now good-bye, old ‘Jet,’ fondest and faithfullest of companions! Stone deaf, and stiff with rheumatism, she quietly lay down and died, in 1897, and I can hardly hope to ever see her like again (pg. 49-50).

Jet was a poorly trained animal by our standards today, but she had lots of drive and intelligence that could have been crafted into a fine working animal.  Her longevity is something that many retriever people would like to see again. In no breed of retriever do dogs routinely reach those great ages now.

Jet was not purebred by any stretch. She was a “collie-and-smooth-coated-retriever mongrel.” From her photo in Wildfowler, she looked very much like a small flat-coated retriever, so the “smooth coat” in her breed description like refers to her being a cross between some form of collie and what became the flat-coated retriever. She had definite feathering, and if she had been a cross with a collie and the dogs that became the Labrador retriever, she would have been without feathering. The flash of white on her muzzle might point to her collie ancestry, but she would have been very typical of the retrievers that Millais and other sporting young men at the time would have had.

John Guille Millais recommended crosses between “the curly and the waving retrievers. As a general rule a curly coat denotes strength, intelligence, and a relish for the hard and coarse work of the water; whilst the wavy-coated dogs are more amenable to discipline, and gifted. with a softness of mouth and sweetness of disposition not to be found in any other of the canine species” (pg. 44).

John Guille was ultimately going against his brother’s aesthetic. His favorite dogs are retrievers bred for work:

“In selecting a pup for wildfowling work the shooter cannot be too careful in his inquiries as to the cleverness, mouth, taste for the water, and other characteristics of the mother. Where possible, he should ascertain this for himself, as the mental capacity and proclivities of the mother are generally transmitted to the pups. I think am correct in saying that a dog gets from her most of his abilities—good, bad, or indifferent; while his external form is due rather to his father. Good bench qualities will, of course, add to his value, as affording more pleasure to the eye, but otherwise, they are of no importance (pg 44).

John Guille Millais would eventually become a major force in conservation.  He was a co-founder of what became Fauna & Flora International, and his travels in North America, Europe, and Africa brought him into contact with many wild things. He wrote of his experiences in those regions, but he also wrote tomes of natural history, including books on magnolias and rhododendrons.  He wrote about deer species and deer hunting, and he often returned to the subject of wing-shooting and the natural history of game birds and waterfowl.

Like so many young men of his class, he came to natural history with the gun in his hand and a retriever at his heels. It was around the same time that Jet came into his life that John Guille and his father met the ornithologist John Gould.  That meeting laid the eggs of a passion that would drive the young man out onto the windswept coasts with his little black retriever. (It also became the inspiration for Sir John Everett Millais’s painting The Ruling Passion.)

John Guille Millais, at least when it came to dogs, was a bit of rebel compared to his brother. Everett Millais was a doyen among the dog show set. He was more interested in producing dogs that could be judged and discussed in lavish sitting rooms. John Guille was more interested in the wilder working dogs, the ones with rugged coats and lots of pluck and courage.

I am so glad that John Guille Millais was able to have this connection with Jet. She was a wonderful creature, the very sort of dog that burns your psyche deeply, the kind that visits you in dreams and leaves the memories waxing rheumy.



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These are the big European red foxes, and yes, Weimaraners are gun dogs, but they have more applications in Europe than just “bird dogs.”

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One of the classic books on hunting dogs in the United States in the early part of last century was Oliver Hartley’s Hunting Dogs (1909). The book is geared toward the Eastern and Midwestern states, and although he rambles a bit in places, there are some quite eloquent pieces of prose in parts of the book.

Take his discussion on why men should go coonhunting:

There are many reasons why the ‘coon hunt is fast becoming one of the most popular of the manly sports. The ‘coon is found in many sections of the United States. Other game is becoming very scarce. The wealthy business man, the man of affairs who is tied to his desk six days out of the week, can own a ‘coon hound and in the stilly hours of the night, after the day’s turmoil of business, can enjoy a few hours of the most strenuous sport now left to us and witness a battle royal between his faithful hound and the monarch of the forest, the wily ‘coon. Nothing that I can contemplate is more exhilarating or more soothing to the nerves than the excitement of the ‘coon hunt. From the first long drawn note when the trail is struck until the hound’s victorious cry at the tree, it is one round of excitement and anticipation. What or whose hound is leading? What direction will Mr. Coon take? What dog will be first to tree? And then the fight! It is simply great! And then showing the hide to the boys who didn’t go, and telling them about it for days to come.

The ‘coon hunt calls for manhood. Tender weaklings cannot endure the exertions necessary to enjoy this sport. It is too strenuous for the lazy man or the effeminate man to enjoy. They shudder at the thoughts of donning a pair of heavy hip boots and tramping thru swamps and slashes, crossing creeks and barbed wire fences, thru briars and thickets, maybe for several miles, and the probability of getting lost and having to stay all night. But to the man with nerve and backbone this is one of the enjoyable features. It affords great fun to get a tenderfoot to go out for the first time and initiate him into the “‘coon hunters’ club.” The tenderfoot will use every cuss word ever invented and will coin new ones when the supply of old ones becomes worn out and ineffective. He will cuss the briars, cuss the ditches, cuss the creek, cuss the fences, cuss the swamps, cuss the slashes, cuss the man who persuaded him to go, and finally cuss himself for going. But when the excitement of the chase is on and when the fight commences he becomes reconciled; and if good luck is had he is very likely to be the next man to propose another “‘coon hunt.”

A half dozen hunts will make an enthusiastic ‘coon hunter of any able bodied man — and I might suggest that a half a thousand ‘coon hunts will make an able bodied man out of any man. It will throw off the waste matter and dead tissues of the body, cause deep breathing, arouse torpid and sluggish livers, promote digestion, and is a general panacea for all human ailments of both mind and body.

So it is rigorous sport that pits man and dogs against the “monarch of the forest,” which will be the only place in all of Western literature where a raccoon is given this title!

And it will cure you of just about all that ails you!





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Here’s a good video of German hunters going after hares and pheasants with an assortment of dogs, including Drahthaars and Kurzhaars as well as at least one Langhaar and a wire-haired teckel.

There is a lot of ceremony involved in German hunting traditions, but I particularly enjoy the dog that howls along with the horns at the end.


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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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This is from a book that is used as part of the hunter training curriculum in Switzerland:

Credit by Hubertus Castle.

   Credit by Hubertus Castle.

The book is called Jagen in der Schweiz – Auf dem Weg zur Jagdprüfung, which also comes with videos.

In Central European countries, hunting licenses are not as easily procured as in the United States or Canada. In those countries, it really is expected that the hunter be a true naturalist and possess a deep understanding of natural history, ecology, marksmanship, and bushcraft.

The golden retriever is depicted with other typical hunting breeds that would be used in Switzerland, including leashed scenthounds, spaniels, HPRs, and setters. The author apparently knew that the best way to show a working golden retriever is to show one from working bloodlines, which are not necessarily the most common type in Europe.

I saw quite a few of these dogs in Bavaria a few years ago, but the bulk of the European population is the cream-colored, heavily-built type.

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Central European retrieving tests require the dogs to retrieve fur, including foxes.

Note that this GSP has not been docked.

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A bag of a pigeon stock dove, a pheasant hen, and two foxes. (From a European hunting group on Facebook).

golden retriever hunting foxes

In Europe, gun dogs are expected to retrieve fur, even varmints.


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wire fox terriers john emms

The painting above is by John Emms. a British dog artist whose work chronicled many of the scenes and dogs of the dog fancy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

These dogs are not Jack Russell terriers.

Well, allow me to qualify that statement:

In the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as a Jack Russell terrier.

There were fox terriers, and the Rev. John Russell (“Jack Russell”) was a sporting parson who rode to hounds in Devon.  Foxhunting in the UK is today an illegal and much maligned pastime.

But at the time, it was the most quintessentially English sport.  Americans emulated their mother country and imported both foxhounds and foxes*, and the only reason why there are foxes in Australia today is because someone wanted to bring foxhunting Down Under.

It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that foxhunting became a sport of the nobility. Before that, hounds were run on deer, but as the wool industry became more and more important to the country, there became a need to control foxes. Yes, foxes do occasionally take a lamb, but occasionally is far too often.

And deer parks became very expensive to maintain, and it was much economically sensible to turn those forests into agricultural land for growing grain or pasturing sheep. In this environment, deer became scarce, and foxes became numerous.

So if you have this tradition of riding to hounds after deer, why not train the dogs to take on a fox?

And thus began the British tradition of foxhunting began.

Now, foxhunting ends with the hounds killing the fox– at least that’s the tradition. In America, where red foxes have to compete with all sorts of native predators, the numbers have always been fairly low, but on the island of Great Britain, foxes existed in very high numbers. So American hunts usually never end with the dogs killing the fox.

The fox just goes in a den, and the chase is over.

In the traditional British hunt, the foxes goes in a hole, and when the hounds discover it, another dog is brought in to do some dirty work.

This would be the canine equivalent of the ferret– the earth dog

The earth dog’s job is to go into the den where the fox is and make it run out– the traditional term is “bolting.”

When the fox charges out, the hounds either catch it or start running it again.

This is not an efficient way to hunt at all. The best way is to call the foxes in and shoot them, but hunting in this way was meant to be a replacement for hounding deer. In Medieval England,  access to these deer forests and the right to keep hounds for hunting was always a right of the nobility. Commoners were given some access to the forests over time, and at different times, these rules were relaxed. However, during the reign of the Hanoverian kings, these laws were quite draconian.  Poaching became not only a crime, it became a sort of way of class resistance. The hunts were symbolic of being part of the upper class, and this simple fact is why the Labour Party (the mainstream socialist party in the UK) has always had issues with hunting, especially riding to hounds.

With the fox replacing the deer as the primary quarry, there became a need for the earth dog to help finish the hunt. Deer don’t go to ground. Hounds can cut them off or wear them out pretty easily, but once a fox goes into a den of some sort, the hounds have no chance of catching them.

So the terrier is needed to flush out the fox.

Now, England always had terriers. Their primary purpose was to kill vermin– rat out of the granaries, bolt out badgers, rabbits, foxes, and otters to the gun or into nets or lurchers’  jaws.

They were dogs of the small farmer.  Probably the best way to think of these dogs is the general Jack Russell type terriers that aren’t registered today, as well as the Patterdales, borders, and fells. Some of these dogs were dwarfs. Others were wire-haired. Some were smooth.  These were commoners’ dogs and were definitely associated with poachers. When deer chasing was the main noble sport, there was no way one of these little dogs would be on a hunt.

But things had changed, but the nobles began to modify these terriers.

Almost none were predominantly white. Red and red sable coloration is very common in these dogs even today, and they had to be common in the early terriers used on fox hunts.

And this presented a problem for the foxhunters:

When a fox is spotted running on the ground, the hunting cry is “tally ho,” and the chase starts again.  But if you have a terrier that resembles a fox in anyway, there is a risk that a huntsman might see the terrier, call “tally ho,”  and start a false chase.

But if the terrier is mostly white, then there is no way you’re going to mistake this dog for a fox.

Further, a white terrier is by nature that used for hunting foxes on mounted hunts then it is not the dog of a poacher.

And that’s how we got this white hunt terrier, which has since become several breeds.

The original name was “fox terrier.”

In the past hundred years, there are now two kennel club breeds called “fox terriers,” which are the wire fox terrier and the smooth.

These dogs have rather long muzzles, but that is not what they looked like at all when they were being used on mounted hunts.

They looked like the dogs in painting above. We would call them Jack Russells, but what North Americans call a Jack Russell is just this old type of fox terrier.

This is the type of fox terrier that the parson loved, and because this type of fox terrier was used on a regular basis, it retained the old type.

The fox terrier, according to the Rev. John Russell, was a four way cross of farm terrier, beagle, bulldog, and Italian greyhound.

The fact that this type of fox terrier still exists in juxtaposition to the two breeds of fox terrier that are in the kennel club is a really good example of what happens when a dog exists solely for the show ring.

These three breeds are all essentially the same breed, just bred to different standards. The long muzzles, upright shoulders, and stilted gaits of the show fox terriers are quite uncommon in long-legged Jack Russells.

In the show ring, selection pressures for performance can become released, and selection pressures for novelty, even deformity, become more evident.

Both of these breeds of show fox terrier have entirely left their roots.

And that is precisely what got rewarded at Westminster last night. Winning Best in Show last night was a wire fox terrier named GCH Afterall Painting The Sky.  This breed has won Best in Show at Westminster 14 times, so it’s not particularly a shocker.

GCH CH AfterAll Painting the Sky

This dog has the typical stilted gait of a wire fox terrier, and she looks nothing like the dogs in the Emms painting.

And if you saw the Emms painting, you’d say they were Jack Russells.

Of course, in the UK, hunt terriers are out of work. Foxhunting as it was once practiced is illegal. They can still be used to rat and control vermin.

They have essentially fallen from their noble rise back into their common roots.

The earth dog as it once existed is largely out of a job, especially in North America where we now coyote chase  with hounds and shoot groundhogs. We turned out terriers into treeing dogs, the rat terriers and the feists.

But it’s interesting to me that we celebrate this breed:

It is as English and elitist as anything we can imagine over here. It’s an elitists’ terrier used for an elitists’ sport.

And that’s our show dog of the year.

It tells us that the kennel club system as it exists right now is pretty foreign institution. Most dog people in the country really don’t take it seriously.

And that, I can say, is going to be the thing that saves dogs in this country.


*At one time it was believed that most red foxes in the Eastern US were English red foxes, but a recent genetic study revealed that they are actually native red foxes that wandered down here from Canada.


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