Posts Tagged ‘Retriever history’

These two Labrador retriever bitches belonged Arthur Holland-Hibbert, 3rd Viscount Knutsford.

The one on the left is Munden Saba. The one standing is Munden Single. Munden Single was the first Labrador retriever to run in a field trial.

Viscount Knutsford sent this photograph to Country Life Illustrated, which published the image and this letter on 26 October 1907:


Perhaps you may care to insert the enclosed photograph of two Labrador retriever bitches. The one standing is Munden Single, the other Munden Saba. They are typical of the breed, and I receive so many letters asking me to give the characteristic points of the Labrador, that it occurred to me such a picture might be appreciated by some of your readers.

A. Holland-Hibbert.

Viscount Knutsford was instrumental in getting the Labrador retriever recognized as a distinct breed.

Munden Single was almost entirely of Buccleuch breeding.

The other lines of dog include dogs that were Labradors, but as far as I can tell, the only lines that consisted of only smooth-coated retrievers in Britain are those of the Earls of Malmesbury and the Dukes of Buccleuch. These other lines in the Labrador foundational pedigrees were outcrossed to then the much more common wavy and flat-coated retrievers. Some of these wavy or flat-coated dogs were also referred to as “Labradors,” making research into the pedigrees more than a little difficult.

The fusion of the Malmesbury and Buccleuch lines also included the addition of fresh blood from Newfoundland. The dog called Buccleuch Avon in that pedigree was an import, and all modern Labrador retrievers have him in their pedigrees.

I put the origins of the modern Labrador retriever at the arrival of Avon.

Before that time, the term “Labrador” could have referred to virtually any retriever, and in some cases, even referred to the large Newfoundland dog.

By 1900, the term “Labrador retriever” came to have a very specific meaning.

And once it became more specific, a breed could be developed.

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This Sir Edwin Landseer painting of a St. John’s water dog named Cora has taken several different titles, but it is of a St. John’s water dog named Cora that belonged to a Mr. Alsop.

This dog looks very similar to a long-haired version of Lassie, one of that St. John’s water dogs in Newfoundland.

This is one of the earliest depictions of a St. John’s water dog, dating to 1822, when it was entitled Watchful Sentinel.  Labrador retriever historians know it best as Cora: A Labrador Dog, which they assume means “Labrador retriever” as we know it today.

A dog called a “Labrador” in the nineteen century almost universally refers to the St. John’s water dog in both its long-haired form (which was exported to England, where it became the basis for the early “retrievers proper.”) and the smooth-coated form (which the Newfoundlanders preferred).

I wish that Labrador retriever historians would understand that their breed as we know it today is actually a newcomer.  It didn’t start developing into its current form until about the mid-1880’s, when the smooth-coated retriever strains belonging the Dukes of Buccleuch and those belonging to the Earls of Malmesbury were merged and new imports of the smooth water dogs from Newfoundland were added to the combined bloodline.

See earlier posts:

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From Grantley Berkeley’s  Reminiscences of  Huntsman (1897):

I offer to the public a circumstance enacted in regard to vension-stealers, by myself and my black retriever dog Tramp. Tramp, to all appearance, is a cross between the Newfoundland dog and setter, and was given to me by Mr. Peacocke, of Pilewell Park, as useless to him from his headstrong humour. I soon found that the faults complained of were not in Tramp originally, but in his stupid breaker, whoever that man was, who had most decidedly whipped them into him. When’ he did wrong, therefore, I adopted the oil, in an endeavour to soften the vinegar humours the lash and want of judgment had mixed up, checking him only by voice and manner when he was in error, and fondling and caressing him when doing well. The dog really did not seem at first to know what a caress was, but seemed to imagine it a prelude to induce him to be caught to undergo punishment. Tramp trained on very well, and he is now a perfect retriever save in one thing— he will run and pick up before he is bidden to do so. He therefore only accompanies me in wild ground, where his running in cannot do much harm; and in wild ground among furze, to hunt, find, and then retrieve, he is perfection.

In the winter of 1852 I was out on Holmesley walk with a warrant for a doe, and killed her on the edge of a bog in a valley running down to the railway, in sight, though a distant one, of three plate-layers, or navvies as they are vulgarly called, who were at work on the line. In company with me, only in couples, when I killed her, were my terriers and Tramp, as, after killing the doe, I intended to beat for woodcocks and rabbits. A Highland deer greyhound, and a very good one, the property of Sir Percy Shelley, was with me when the deer was killed, who was afterwards to be coupled up when the terriers were called for. It is a habit among the keepers in this forest to let a deer lie without anybody with it while they go for a conveyance to take it to the nearest lodge, and I have often asked them if they never had one stolen. They replied in the negative; but the circumstance I am narrating inclines me to think that deer have been stolen in this particular manner, although the theft has not been acknowledged. I did not like to leave the vicinity of the venison, so, while the woodman was gone for his cart, I continued on the adjacent hills, beating for woodcocks and rabbits. After being out of sight of the deer for some time, perhaps three-quarters of an hour, I reached a spot where I ought to have obtained a view of her, but could not make her out. The cart had not arrived to fetch her, of that I was sure; so, thinking perhaps that the heather hid her from my sight, I despatched my man to the spot, and bade him, if the deer was gone, to hold up his hat. He reached the spot, and the signal was made of the disappearance of the deer. Expecting the worst, that she had been carried off, I hastened to the place, and there, sure enough, was where her throat had left a sanguinary trace as she had been dragged out of sight into some furze, and then all traces of her disappeared. It was in cold, harsh, dry weather, and on the hills the footstep of a man made no impression, while over the bogs, if he stepped on the tufts of moss, they rose again after the step had passed, and no trace remained in that locality to denote a passage. I confess to have been angered by this incident, as I did not think that there was a man who, in the daylight and at a risk of being seen, would have attempted to steal anything of mine; so, as a last hope, I ordered my man to run off to a distant hill, where he could command a view of the low lands on one side, and I sent two of the woodmen, who had been by when I killed the deer, also in different directions: the steps of all three of these men were more or less stained with the blood of the deer, and they had all handled her in pulling her from the bog to a dry place. To this I beg the reader’s particular attention. The men having gone on their several missions, I made the usual sign to Thor that I had adopted to put him on the scent of a stricken deer, which he tracked very well, if the trail was quite fresh, nearly as well as a hound; and I endeavoured to obtain assistance through him. But it was of no avail; he always went back to the spot where the doe had lain dead. While endeavouring to make Thor understand my loss, Tramp, who was at my heels, stepped in front, and, looking up in my face with a very peculiar expression, suddenly put his nose to the ground, trotted a little way, and looked back to see if I observed him. I did observe him, and became at once convinced that he was about to aid me; indeed, so peculiar was his manner and method, that there was no mistaking it. He went off at a long, dejected-looking trot, more resembling a mad dog’s action than his own graceful method when on game, and I followed him in the greatest possible anxiety. When he came to the spot on which my man and the two woodmen, strangers to him and both tainted with thedeer, had severed and gone different ways, Tramp tame to a check, tried each track, and seemed perplexed, looking up to me for aid, which I had no power to give. All I could do was to say, ” Good dog Tramp,” and to encourage him quietly. To my infinite joy he again took up the running on a strange line that had nothing to do with the steps of my people, and on we went over bog and hill and at last down to the railway. I had both my guns on my shoulders, the rifle and shot gun, besides ammunition, and, so loaded, Tramp’s long trot kept me at a pace rather difficult to maintain; when he checked at the railway I was, therefore, some distance behind, and I saw him try in each direction and then look back for me. Just as I reached him he went on a line of scent down by the side of the railway towards the three plate-layers before mentioned, but, after carrying it on a short distance, he would not have it, but returned to the wires, up to which he had decidedly been right. He then for the first time crept through upon the plates, looked at me, and carried on the scent over the line to the heather on the other side. Here, then, for the first time, I had ocular demonstration as to his fidelity: in the soft sand between the rails I saw the print of a man’s footstep, not anything like so large a foot as mine, and yet, when I placed mine purposely by it, it was evident that the stranger was heavier than I was or carried some weight, for he sank much deeper in the sand. Short as the space permitted me was, I took notice of the nails of his shoes and any peculiarity on heels or soles; and, so true had Tramp been to the trail, that in one place he had actually stepped into the footprint of the man. There was the footprint of a second man, but that I did not much observe. The ditch of the embankment was wet where Tramp jumped it, and he checked on the other side; but my eye caught sight of the bottom of the ditch as I got over, and I saw that the water was newly mudded. A little lower down the ditch was dry again, and there were the small footsteps of my friend once more! Calling now in full confidence to Tramp, I set him right, and he carried the scent some distance down the ditch, and then away faster than ever in his long trot up the heathery hill and into the high furze towards the village of Burley, notorious for more than one bad character. Up the hill I followed to where Tramp disappeared, but, before I got there, Trampreturned as if seeking me, with great quickness in his manner and anxiety that I should arrive; he disappeared for a moment again, and then, as I neared the spot, he came to meet me, full of jumping joy and congratulation, and so he led

me on into and through the gorse at times, more by the motion he gave it than any sight I had of him, till I came up to him, standing joyfully on guard over the body of the recaptured deer. We were then not far from the village, and I knew that whoever it was that had been obliged to abandon the load was safe enough housed by that time.

Having reached a conspicuous place on the hill, whence to signal my man, he came up, having begun to follow me as soon as he guessed what I was after, and, giving him possession of the deer, I returned to the railway, entered a cottage on the line to see if any man was there, and, finding that the owner of the cottage near which Tramp’s chase had passed was one of the plate-layers I had before observed at work, I took to the rails, followed by Tramp, Thor, and my terriers, as I knew no train was due, and proceeded by that unusual route directly for the three labourers. In nearing them I observed that, instead of looking up to stare at the unwonted trespass, each man became so busy with his pickaxe that one would have supposed they had been working for a wager, so, casting the guns to the left arm, I came right upon them, touched one man on the shoulder, collared the second, and told the third I arrested them all as having taken part in a robbery. You might have knocked them all down with a feather, so taken aback were they. I turned up the smock of one who had his on to see if there was any blood about him, but none was to be seen, and a glance at their feet showed me that every shoe was a larger one than mine; so, however conversant they might have been with the robbery, none of the three had carried the deer. They protested their innocence, and I asserted my belief of their guilty participation, because they were in full view of the spot whence the deer had been stolen and where she had been borne across the line; so I quitted them, with an assurance that I would that day apply to the inspectors of the line for their discharge unless they cleared themselves by stating all they knew of the transaction.

On reaching home I directly sent for a vigilant constable of police, and he started the same evening or the next morning, I forget which, and elicited such evidence from the plate-layers that he took into custody the little man who carried the stolen deer, and who was but recently discharged from gaol, having undergone punishment for stealing a gun. The next morning another constable captured an accomplice who had aided in the theft, a man who had been previously fined for a savage assault, in company with four or five others, on Bromfield, one of the marksmen of the forest, whom they had beaten and left for dead. These fellows were committed to Winchester to await their trial, and were afterwards convicted in two months with hard labour.

Now this is perhaps the most extraordinary instance of sagacity in that wonderful animal the dog ever related. Tramp had never run the scent of a deer, nor the scent of a man, and yet out of three or four lines of scent, the men all strange to him, and all more or less blooded or tainted with the deer, he distinguished the man who carried her, although not a drop of fresh blood fell to direct him, as the thieves took the precaution to tie up the head and throat before they removed her. The check where the lines of scent crossed each other showed that the various footsteps occasioned a difficulty; and also the one at the railway wires before he carried the trail over the line, that check too was accounted for. The thief had put the deer down there, while he ran to the plate -layers and bought a promise of silence from them by saying that they should have a share of the spoil. When Tramp showed an inclination to run down the line instead of across it, he was perfectly true to the steps of the man; but he had not gone forty yards before he discovered that he did not then carry the burthen he was endeavouring to overtake. He returned, therefore, before he had run those footsteps out, and resumed the scent where the deer was again lifted and carried on (pg. 265-270).

Grantley Berkeley was a member of parliament and owner of the retrieving deer greyhound named Smoaker.

He was much more gentle with animals than he was with people. He may have refused to whip Tramp, but when he was a boy, he was not above using whips on other children.

He also famously shot a highwayman who held up his carriage. He told the lone highwayman that he could see his partner standing behind him, and when the lone highwayman turned around, Berkeley shot him.

Berkeley was a writer by trade, and when he wrote a book called Berkeley Castle, it received a bad review. Berkeley went off the deep end. He attacked the critic with a whip. The critic sued Berkeley, and Berkeley countersued for libel. Both received damages.

But Berkeley wasn’t done yet. He challenged the critic to a duel, and the Berkeley shot him, which severely wounded the critic.

Some people can be quite gentle with animals but can be so cruel to others. In this piece, Berkeley seems smug that the venison thieves were convicted and received sentences of hard labor. Never mind that many venison thieves were stealing only to get protein for themselves or to sell at market to make little extra money. Wages in those days often were quite low, and it has been estimated that many working people in England were forced to live outside the law in order to survive. (There is a great chapter on cattle thieves and deer poachers in Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged. These people, along with the highwaymen, became folk heroes among the English populace, simply because they stuck it to the landed aristocracy at every chance they got.)

Berkeley was no fan of poachers or game thieves. He wrote a pamphlet that called for even stronger enforcement of game laws in 1845. The purpose of the laws was not just to keep game in abundant numbers. It was to issue out harsh punishment for the poor who broke them.

Tramp appears to be a particularly “sagacious” retriever, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that he was able to catch a trail that a deer greyhound would have missed. Retrievers were often derived from setter/”Newfoundland” crosses, and the setter part of the cross was deliberately chosen to increase scenting ability.

Tramp may have had some faults, but Grantley Berkeley was able to overlook them.

But he was far from lenient in his dealings with other people.

He was Mr. Law and Order, and if the poor poached his game, he wanted them to pay– beat them, work them, ship them to Australia!

But if Tramp breaks before being sent on a retrieve, don’t say anything. He’s just a good dog.

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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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Another photo from Country Life magazine (23 January 1897).

This is flat-coat bitch with her litter.

Such cute babies.

And the mother has that intelligent retriever expression in her eyes.

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The following text comes from Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey’s Letters to Young Shooters (1892):

There are certain points by which you may know a useful retriever, I mean one likely to do his work well if properly trained; though to lay down any hard and fast rules as to the appearance of a retriever is out of the question.

Every dog is called a retriever that can gallop for a half-mile after a wounded hare, whether he is small as a spaniel or big as a calf, his coat black, red, or brown, or of all horrible mixtures black and white, and whether he is rough as a sheep or smooth as a rabbit; a pure-bred retriever does not exist, for he is a mixture of colley, sheepdog, setter, and Newfoundland, with a strain maybe of poodle and Irish water spaniel, the latter being the best cross of all

However, let his ancestors be what they may, the animal we term a retriever is the most valuable dog we have for service with the gun; and if he is capable of being trained to his work, it is a small matter what his pedigree may be (pg. 372-373).

Out of that vast canine melange came four breeds of endemic British retriever. For some reason, all of these British retrievers are derived from the St. John’s water dog.

But before retrievers became standardized, there were greyhounds and even small terrier crosses doing this work.

Virtually every reference to a retriever that one will find in the historical record is to a “half-bred” or “mongrel” retriever. Whether these dogs were truly crossbreeds or simply reflecting the diversity that was inherent in the retriever gene pool, one can only conjecture.

But the dogs did standardize. Part the reason for this standardization had its roots in the early years of the dog fancy, but even at the time, everyone wanted certain type of dog as a retriever. Even someone who recognized that retrievers were of mixed ancestry had some ideas about what a retriever should look like.

Immediately following the text about the “mongrel” nature of retrievers Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey provides a list of what a retriever should look like. Even though he recognizes that other colors in retrievers existed, he makes it clear that only a black one will do. He prefers a smaller-sized retriever of the wavy-coated variety with a glossy coat. I don’t know how one gets a dog like that from his preferred poodle/Irish water spaniel cross!

So it was not only the dog fancy that wanted some standardization in retrievers; the shooting gentry had its own expectations of conformation. And one can see in the case of Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey’s criteria it was not necessarily based upon the notion of “working conformation.” The black coloration, which was the preferred coloration, has very little to do with a dog’s working ability. (Immune function, however, is  positively associated with melanism).

So even though the majority of retrievers were performance-bred mongrels, there were still selection pressures for a particular type.

And once one starts down that road, it isn’t a large move to standardize breeds from those outbred lines.








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The Labrador dog, let me remark, is a bold fellow, and, when well taught, understands, almost as well as any Christian biped, what you say to him.

Lambert De Boilieu, Recollections of Labrador Life (1861), pg. 172-173.

This first quote is known to virtually every Labrador retriever historian and fancier. I’ve seen it quoted in countless books, but it seems me that, after reading the accounts of these dogs in their native land, that most Labrador retriever people have not read the whole thing.

Boilieu was a mercantile agent in Labrador (not Newfoundland) in the early 1850’s. He became intimately familiar with the hard-working water curs and their many uses. Within his account, one finds some interesting tidbits:

During winter, for want of horses, dogs are used for the purpose of conveying all sorts of produce to and from the bays, as well as for pleasure. Some are trained as retrievers, watch, house, and water dogs. Still they are all of the same breed. The retriever is well known in England, but I fancy the duty of the Labrador watch-dog is little if at all understood. In the summer and fall, then, many stray ducks may be seen frequenting the small bays round the islands; the watch-dog lands with you, and, with much caution, examines the shore, and directly he observes ducks, he will instantly lie down and crawl out of their sight, then immediately rise and run towards you, when by his actions you may be sure he has sighted a company. He leads the way, and when in the vicinity of the birds, down he crouches, and you must do the same. Should you be over-eager, and fire at too great a distance, and miss your birds, the dog looks towards them for a moment, as if reflecting!—” It’s no use going into the water, he has not killed any,”—and stands still. If, on the other hand, you have a good shot— killing, say, half-a-dozen, and crippling three or four—in he bounds, leaving the dead birds and giving chase to the cripples. If they are wounded in the wings they swim with difficulty, and cannot dive, and so become an easy spoil. The dog has the instinct to know this, for he wastes but little time in the pursuit. It constantly arises that the spot from whence the ducks are shot is, at least, ten feet perpendicular from the water; sportsmen provide themselves in such instances with what is termed a “gunning gaff,” some twelve feet long, with an iron crook at the end, made in the shape of a shepherd’s crook. The dog brings a duck at a time under the rock; you place the crook round its neck, and draw it up or land it. The last bird the dog retains in his mouth, and allows himself to be drawn up in a somewhat scientific manner; that is to say, having seized the. bird firmly across the wings he swims under the rock, and allows his master to place the hook through his collar at the back of the neck; then placing his paws against the rock, and throwing his weight on the gaff, he gracefully walks up and lands his game; did be not retain it in the operation in all probability he would be choked. Of a fine day I have seen these dogs near the landwash amusing themselves fishing, diving six or seven feet, and bringing up a fish every time. Their mode of diving is not direct, but spiral.

It has been said a goose is a foolish bird, and certainly the geese of Labrador are very foolish indeed. They are found some miles up the bays, and when discovered the dog uses a simple artifice to decoy them. Near the shore (the neighbourhood of a small wood, with goose-grass in the foreground, is their favourite resort) he rushes out of the wood into the water and swims some eight or ten yards, with head low and-tail out—looking something like a water-fowl—then comes back to the shore, and so continues until he fancies they are within shot, when he quietly waits by your side watching your gun, and, by his looks, showing his anxiety to see the flash. Then off he goes and secures his birds, and lands them at your feet.

The house-dog has a peculiar sagacity. I trained one to keep house in a noiseless manner. If myself or steward was not at home, and a visitor called, the dog would allow him to walk in, sit down, light and smoke his pipe, as if unconscious of his presence; but if the visitor attempted to leave the house the dog was up in an instant, and, placing himself in the doorway, showed a set of teeth of dazzling but appalling whiteness. The frightened fellow again returns and takes his seat, the dog once more lies down, and thus the pair are seen on the return of one of the household. A visitor once served that way takes care to look through the window on his next call, to see if any one is at home. The dogs sent to England, with rough shaggy coats, are useless on the coast; the true-bred and serviceable dog having smooth, short hair, very close and compact to the body. I sent to England a fine specimen of these, but unfortunately the vessel which bore it had the misfortune to be wrecked on the north coast of Ireland, and all hands were lost (pg. 239-244).

The first account of the retrievers being “gaffed” up as the returned from retrieves is a testament to how tough these ancestral retrievers were. It also would have been a selection pressure for hard mouth, for a dog that would hold onto anything while going through that procedure would have to have a good grip on what it was retrieving.

However, it is very interesting to note that Boilieu observed first hand what I have inferred had to have happened with long-haired puppies that were born on Newfoundland.  My inference came from the paucity of accounts smooth-coated retrievers in England in the nineteenth century. Because the smooth coat is dominant to the feathered coat, one would have thought that the majority of retrievers in Britain would have been short-haired. That is not what we see. The feathered wavy-coated retriever was the most common retriever in Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is sometimes suggested that the feathering came from setters that were crossed with these dogs, but the simple rules of population genetics say that this is unlikely. If the smooth-coated dogs were bred to setters, the majority of the dogs that resulted from those crosses would have been short-haired.  But that is not what the historical record shows.

But Boilieu actually saw these long-haired dogs being exported to England. As a mercantile agent in Labrador, he was in the business of exports and imports, so he knew what the people of Newfoundland and Labrador valued.

Boilieu clearly understood that these working dogs in Newfoundland were the same breed that was being widely used as a retriever in England, so to the average British person, the word “Labrador” very often referred to a long-haired dog, but in Labrador and Newfoundland, it referred to the dog with the otter’s coat. That explains why the later dogs on Newfoundland were mostly of this short-haired type.

The ancestral retriever, the St. John’s water dog or “Labrador,” was the ultimate working and hunting dog. It had evolved to work in the wild frontier that included wild, game-filled forests and one of the most productive marine ecoystems in the world. These tough and  intelligent dogs– dogs of common settlers and fisherman– are the ancestors of all of our retrievers, which worked the shooting estates of the landed gentry in Britain.

They were forged in the wild country and then refined in the genteel motherland.

Born paupers, they became princes. And then became the beloved family pets we know today.

Related posts:

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I know that I have posted a link to this video before, but there is a CBC interview with Farley Mowat in which Albert, his St. John’s water dog, is featured. There is another similar dog in the film named Vickie.  (Get it? Victoria and Albert?) I think she may have been nothing more than a Labrador mix that happened to look like a St. John’s water dog.


This is what the ancestral retriever looked like.

Beware of alligators in the Limpopo River!


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This painting is by Sir Edwin Landseer. The black and tan dog holding a brush in his mouth is obviously a retriever– one that may have been upon crossing black-and-tan (“Gordon”) setters with some form of Newfoundland. The other two look to be other prototypes for a retriever– a pointer cross and a poodleish terrier-type.

Black and tan individuals occasionally pop up in Labradors, which means that the black and tan coloration was evident in Newfoundlands and St. John’s water dogs.

It is amazing that this retriever has an expression that so resembles that of a modern golden retriever. Indeed, if this dog had been a golden one, we might mistake it for a descendant of the Tweedmouth strain.

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This dog was owned by Grantley Berkeley and was painted by Abraham Cooper, who, as a young man, worked for Sir Henry Meux. Meux owned the Meux Brewery in London, which Dudley Marjoribanks, 1st Baron Tweedmouth, purchased from him. One of Meux’s black retrievers appears in the pedigrees of the retrievers kept at Guisachan, so this unusual retrieving greyhound did have some interesting connections. (Meux is pronounced “Myooks.”)

Cooper was famous as painter of dogs and horses, and Smoaker was far from the only retriever he painted.

On the occasion of Smaoker’s death in 1832, Cooper describes him in a letter to the editor The New Sporting Magazine:

Mr. Editor,

I Was much grieved to read in your last number an account of the death of the Hon. Grantley Berkeley’s dog Smoaker, whose performances I have frequently witnessed—and very clever they were; added to which, a more magnificent animal was never seen, especially when employed as a retriever. The style with which he took his fences, clearing the highest at a single bound, cannot be surpassed.

The first time I saw him do this, was one day when out shooting with the Hon. Moreton and Grantley Berkeley, at Cranford, when,having just killed a cock pheasant, Mr. G. B. exclaimed, ” Now, Cooper, if you wish to see something beautiful, and worthy a painter’s notice, observe Smoaker as he comes out of the cover with your bird;” and it certainly was a treat; the rich and varied plumage of the pheasant, contrasted with the white colour of the dog, and the whole so admirably relieved by the sombre dark wood, made an impression on my mind which I hope will never be erased. On my return home I made a slight sketch, which, though it does not come up to my ideas of the beauty of the subjects, yet, in the absence of Nature herself, I hope will prove acceptable to your numerous readers. Mr. Editor,

Your obedient servant,

A. Cooper, R. A.

Smoaker was well-known in his day. His exploits were described in another letter:

I forward you an account of Smoaker, a celebrated Deer Greyhound of the old English sort, famed alike for his speed and courage when in pursuit of deer, as for his qualities in retrieving to the gun all sorts of lesser game ; he was the property of the Honorable GrantleyBerkeley, and died of old age, on the 19th of this month, at Harrold Hall, Bedfordshire, aged fifteen years. Smoaker was originally purchased by Mr. Berkeley of a Farmer residing at Burnham, near Maidenbead, when about two years old, and was one of the largest and finest dogs ever seen. As a proof of his great muscular strength, his neck was so large that he never could be chained up, having the power of slipping the collar whenever it pleased him over his head. Shortly after he came into Mr. Berkeley’s possession, be was, for greater safety, kept locked up in a granary at Cranford, from whence an attempt was soon made, by some person well acquainted with tho dog, to steal him; he was safely locked up at nine at night, and at about three the next morning was found barking under his former

Master’s window at Burnham, a distance of fourteen miles.

What gave rise to the suspicion that an attempt had been made to steal him, was, that on the day previous to this, a man had been inquiring at the Keeper’s Lodge, where the dog was kept, and it has since been thought that Smoaker escaped from the person who stole him and returned thus to his former home. After this he was scarcely ever separated from Mr. Berkeley, and from his extraordinary qualities in the field and docility in the house, he became a welcome guest at all houses where the sporting arrangements of his master required his presence, travelling in his carriage and sleeping in his room.

Smoaker has frequently singlehanded coursed, brought to bay, and pulled down a Royal Hart, and has twice been severely wounded by the antlers ; once in particular he coursed a stag in Hamstead Park, a seat of Lord Craven, from which the deer broke into the open country, but was brought to bay in the river, and here the stag had the advantage, the water being deep enough to cause the dog to swim, yet sufficiently shallow to enable the stag to make use of all his powers; Smoaker was severely wounded in the body, and was only saved by the presence of mind of Mr.

Cary, a servant of Mr. Berkeley, who happened to be on the spot, and who ran in and caught the dog as he was again attacking the deer, and thus saved his life; the deer was secured, being so exhausted that he would not leave the water. Smoaker in his capacity of retriever was pronounced by his late Royal Highness the Duke of York to be one of the cleverest dogs of the sort he had ever seen; his nose was’ remarkably fine, and the way in which he used to mark where a bird fell was wonderful. An instance of this was seen on the Downs at Ashdown Park (Lord Craven’s); Mr. Berkeley had killed a brace of Partridges, but the bird from the first barrel had flown some distance, towered, and fallen in some standing barley without any perceptible object to mark the place, whereas the second bird was killed dead; the dog first picked up the second bird, and then, though he must have had his eyes off the spot where the first bird fell, he ran directly to within a yard of where it lay, though at a considerable distance, and picked up that also. In the house his sagacity was also remarkable, if his master was not in his shooting-dress he never showed any desire to follow him, unless called ; and if he went out on horseback, the dog invariably used to go up stairs to a passage window which commanded a view of the different roads and watch the direction his master took; he would then return quietly to the drawing-room, and sit or walk out with Mrs. Berkeley till his master’s return. If his master left the house without his being aware of it he would not rest until, accompanied by Mrs. Berkeley, he had looked into every room in the house, scratching at all the doors till they were opened for him, and when he had ascertained that his master was not to be found, he would then return and remain quietly as usual. It was also curious to see his different ways of finding out if his master had left the house, either at home or in any house where he mighthappen to be a guest. If he missed Mr. Berkeley he used to go into the hall and examine all the hats, and if he found his master’s he would contentedly lay down and watch; but if not, and he knew that his master was dressed for shooting, he was always uneasy, returning to the drawingroom and seeming to wish to look over the house. He was an excellent water dog, but at times if the river was slightly frozen and the ice annoyed him in crossing to fetch any bird that had fallen on the other side, he would on his return go round by the bridge, and on strange ground, would frequently run to any object that looked like a bridge, and though in doing this he had sometimes to jump over fences, yet he always brought the bird, whether snipe or any thing else, as clean as when it was killed. For sagacity and good temper Smoaker has never been surpassed, and his great attachment to his master and mistress was duly appreciated by both ; when they went from home without him, as was but rarely the case, he used to live in the same rooms as when they were at home, as nothing but force could induce him to take up his residence either in the kitchen or offices. One thing is worthy of remark, which is that nothing could ever induce this dog to fetch and carry either a glove, stick, or any thing else, whether thrown into the water or not, such inducements to make him swim he always appeared to treat with contempt, but if the smallest bird or even a rat was in the water he would swim any distance to fetch it.

There are now in Mr. Berkeley’s possession three descendants of Smoaker, called Shark, Skim and Snake, the former a yellow dog, the other two white with a spot like the sire. Shark is an excellent Deer Greyhound and retriever, and has succeeded his sire in the field and in the house; he is of great size but not so large as Smoaker; the others are bitches and have entered to deer only. To give those who have never seen Smoaker in idea of his size, I need only say that when standing by the dining table his head was six or seven inches above it, and when standing on his hind legs he could place his forefeet with ease on a person’s shoulders, standing above six feet in height.

Grantley Berkeley wrote Smoaker the following epitaph:

And dost thou wonder why beneath this shade,

A lonely tombstone stands upon the green,

And wherefore near it others are not made

To add their silent numbers to the scene ?

‘Tis answer’d thus—No hallow’d ground appears,

No land allotted to the human clay,

If sacred—’tis alone from sorrow’s tears

Shed fast for one but lately pass’d away;

For one whose walk through life was in the light,

Who held no bitter passions in his breast,

Who had no envy in his heart to blight

Or man or woman from a place of rest.

One who was beautiful without conceit,

Was brave not boastful in his given pow’rs,

Who never cloak’d intention with deceit,

Or kept revenge for favourable hours.

Then reader listen here, beneath this mound,

A noble dog is stretch’d upon his lair,

Like man he mingles with the common ground,

But where his spirit ?—echo answers—where ?

The lips of beauty n’er again shall press

The head that here lies buried in repose,

Or soft hand sooth with lingering caress

The faithful crest that bristled on her foes.

The antler’d monarch of the waste may browse

Upon the wilds in safety and be still,

The Hound is dead who could so nobly rouse

The bounding red Deer by the mountain rill.

Now, Smoaker was described as a deer greyhound. That means that he was bit larger than the typical hare-coursing greyhound. These dogs had to be quite a bit tougher and more stoutly built than the dogs that merely ran down hares or rabbits.  He was often set upon the deer on his own, which meant that really had to have a great deal of speed and strength to be successful in his pursuits.

The fact that he could do the work of a deer-coursing and retriever work points to the intelligence of this dog. Many dog experts will tell you that any dog that knows how to use its jaws for the kill can never be used to retrieve. The dog will become hardmouthed and will kill those animals it is sent to retrieve.  Some of Raymond Coppinger’s theories on dog behavior require dogs to be motor pattern dependent in their predatory behavior. Retrievers can never learn to kill because their predator motor patterns are distorted away from the killing bite part of the predatory sequence. However, nearly all German HPR breeds retrieve and point birds and small game– and hunt wild boar, foxes, and deer. And Smoaker was a greyhound who was similarly multi-talented.

It is certainly true that Smoaker’s behavior is a little different from a normal retriever, which will start carrying objects of all sorts from an early age. It appears that Smoaker had no time for that foolishness and focused all of his retrieving birds and mammals. Perhaps it was because of his prowess as a deer-courser that made him ignore objects that were thrown for him.

At any rate, Smoaker was truly an interesting animal. In a time when “retriever” was a job description and not a breed,  Smoaker would have been at home with the terriers, terrier crosses, and collie-type dogs that were being used along with more traditional gun dog and retrieving breeds for this task.

If it could retrieve shot game, it was a retriever, and the way to produce more was to breed two retrieving dogs together. Never mind the ancestry.

And for that reason, virtually any kind of dog could be deep within the ancestry of the dogs we now call retrievers.

It was quite an experimental time, and every retriever person had his own recipe to produce the best dogs.

In that respect, they were more like the lurchers of the poaching commoners or the modern day racing sled dogs. Breed for performance, not pedigree, and see what you get.

Of course, I don’t know how many retrieving greyhounds there were. Shark, Smoaker’s son, apparently had his sire’s retrieving talents, but I do not know of any other accounts of a greyhound being used as a retriever.

A retrieving greyhound is not what anyone would have expected. When I first saw the depiction, I thought he was some sort of large terrier cross, but when I found out the particulars of his story, I was amazed.

Those old sporting gentleman were truly open to experimentation– even using a dog that killed his quarry to pick up shot birds.

An amazing story of a truly remarkable dog.






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