Posts Tagged ‘water dog’


These tiger salamanders retain gills into adulthood, and no, this is not an axolotl.

An axolotl is a species of tiger salamander that is always neotenic.

In this species, there are some that have neoteny and some do not.

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Unlike the somewhat problematic aquatic ape theory, what I’m about to propose really isn’t that controversial at all.

The acquatic ape theory (more correctly called “the aquatic ape hypothesis”) argues that it was living in and near the water that forced humans to evolve bipedalism and is also used to explain why we have fat under our skin and like to swim. It’s even used as a possible reason why we have little fur left on our bodies, and it also claims that humans are unique among primates in our ability to hold our breaths under water, which isn’t actually true.

This hypothesis contends that humans were on our way to becoming marine mammals, and that this has made all the difference.

I don’t buy it.

But I do think something like this has happened with another animal that we currently don’t regard as being a “marine mammal.”

I’m talking about retrievers.

Now, we usually don’t think of them as being marine mammals. They are, after all, just a subset of domestic dogs, which are themselves a subspecies of the common wolf, Canis lupus familiaris.

But unlike other dogs and wolves, the retriever is somewhat better adapted to swimming and diving than other dogs.

All dogs have connective tissue between their toes, but in retrievers, this connective tissue is a bit more extensive, which certainly gives them some advantage in swimming. All dogs are web-footed, but retrievers are more web-footed than others.

Many Labrador retrievers and some golden retrievers also have a tendency to put on quite a bit of fat. This is usually attributed to the dogs being derived from St. John’s water dogs that had to have voracious appetites to survive on Newfoundland during the winter when they weren’t used on the fishing fleet.

But such a tendency toward obesity doesn’t exist in arctic breeds, including those from Labrador and Greenland, which were similarly left to roam and forage when not being used for work. These dogs have healthy appetites. but you very rarely hear of a fat one.

But in Labrador retrievers, being fat is almost a breed characteristic. In the UK breed ring, the Kennel Club has had to crack down on people showing fat Labradors in the ring, for there are a great many dog judges in that country who think that a Lab shows ‘good bone’ when he’s shaped like a jiggling barrel.

This tendency towards being fat, though, does have an advantage for a dog that spends a lot of time in cold water. Fat insulates. It is also quite buoyant.

One can see that nature would have selected for St. John ‘s water that would have been more likely to have put on fat as a way of being able to handle swimming long distances in cold water. The fat would make the dog float more, and the animal would be able to keep its head above water with less effort.  And the fat would insulate it a bit more.

And although both of these features would be marginally advantageous, they would still have real consequences with a working water dog.

Before the St. John’s water dog developed, the European water dog was poodle-type animal. It had a very thick coat that protected the animal from the worst of the cold, but the coat also had a tendency to collect water. It was also a source of drag that slowed the animal down when it swam.

The clips we see in Portuguese water dogs and poodles stem from attempts to reduce drag while still keeping the protective coat.

The St. John’s water dog was different from all these European water dogs in that it had a smooth coat.

It was actually selected for this coat; any dogs that were born with feathering were shipped off to Europe.

A smooth coat has certain advantageous for a marine mammal.

After all, have you ever seen a seal with poodle fur?

What about a long-haired otter?

These animals have very close coats because this makes the animal move more efficiently through the water.

To have a water dog with an otter’s coat would have meant that clipping was no longer necessary.  The dense undercoat and the fat would have provided enough protection against the cold water, and the smooth coat required no maintenance. And the dog could swim longer and harder in very cold water for much longer.

The St. John’s water dog was dog on its way to becoming a marine mammal.

Indeed, if we now count polar bears a marine mammals, maybe we should classify this extinct breed of dog as one, too.

There are accounts of these dogs swimming for days at sea, which might be exaggerations, and stories of them diving many feet to retrieve shot seals.  There are even some fellows who use the dogs to pursue shot porpoises with varying degrees of success. They were also use to retrieve shot waterfowl and sea birds from those very same seas, which is sort of the same work their descendants do today.

But they were most famous for retrieving fish off of lines. In the old days, the English fishermen from the West Country would come to Newfoundland to fish with hooked lines. They plied the waters in small dories, and they would send their dogs to help haul in the lines. In those days, the fishhooks often were not barbed, and when the dog came upon the hooked fish, there was a good chance that it could escape. A good dog could catch the cod if it managed to work its way off the hook at the last minute, which is not an easy task!

Most retrievers and the modern Newfoundland and Landseer breeds derive from this water dog.  Some strains are very well-adapted to swimming in cold water. Others less so.

The retrievers of the United Kingdom were used primarily on shooting estates, where land-based game birds and lagomorphs were their main quarry.  Some were used to retrieve waterfowl, but the British retriever culture was primarily that of a land-based working dog. Over time, they bred for a smaller and lither working dog, which still shows up in the strains of golden retriever that are primarily bred for work. During the heyday of the working flat-coated retriever (of which the golden retriever is a surviving remnant), the majority of these dogs were 50-60-pound dogs with longer legs and gracile frames– quite different indeed from the somewhat robust water dogs of Newfoundland from which they descended.

If the particular shore-fishing culture of Newfoundland had been allowed to continue on for many, many centuries, it is likely that the the St. John’s water dog really would have begun to have evolved through both natural and artificial selection into a much more marine-adapted animal than it was. Perhaps the would have evolved even more webbing between their toes. Maybe they would have actually evolved a real layer of blubber beneath their skins for insulation.

At least one species of wild dog is semiaquatic. The short-eared dog of South America has been little studied, but in most analyses of its diet show that it eats a lot of fish. The short-eared dog has very webbed feet— even more so than modern retrievers do. Because they live in Amazonia, they have no need for fat for insulation, but it has been suggested that this webbing is an adaptation that helps the dog pursue a more aquatic existence than other South American wild dogs.

St. John’s water dogs were famous for their fishing abilities, and they were well-known for charging into the surf and coming out with a fish, a feat that one sometimes sees retrievers doing quite well. One could see that over time, that the St. John’s breed would have evolved even more in this direction than the short-eared dog has.

But the Newfoundland fishing changed over time. Better hooks and mechanized fishing equipment made the dogs largely obsolete. The cod fishery has collapsed, as has the fishery for almost everything else. The outports of Newfoundland were shut down through resettlement schemes.

And the ancestral bloodlines of the St. John’s water dog became polluted with “improved” Labrador retriever blood from UK and the North American mainland. The last of the St. John’s water dogs with no Labrador retriever ancestry are believed to have died in the 1970’s.

In the US, Labrador retrievers are called “duck dogs,” but virtually no Labrador retriever that is being used as a hunting dog in the US today is used exclusively on waterfowl.  Most of them at least moonlight as flushers and retrievers land-based game birds, which usually have longer seasons and more liberal bag quotas.

The retriever has to be a spaniel a lot of the time.

In the UK, the retriever is still primarily used on land-based game, though they are still used in “wildfowling” (a nice word for duck hunting).

In no place is it required to be the same kind of water dog that its ancestors were.

The potential for it evolving into a canine marine mammal has long sense passed.

But it could have gone down this road.

The retrievers that exist today are gun dogs that have been built and selected out of this lineage.

And it’s really what makes them unique as working dogs.

Now, this all might sound a bit bizarre, but this summer, reader Mashka Petropolskaya sent me this master’s thesis on the behavior of Labrador retrievers in an aquatic environment.  The thesis was written by a student in the marine sciences program at the University of Porto in Portugal, and the thesis found that Labrador retrievers are unusually attracted to water and that access to water and swimming opportunities may be very important for the welfare of dogs in that breed.

Not all Labradors like the water, but there clearly is a tendency in retrievers to be interested in the water.

So maybe we really need to appreciate their “marine mammal”  tendencies more in order to provide them the best environment possible.

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This is the ancestor of the water spaniels and retrievers, which came later.

It is also a likely ancestor of the St. John’s water dog.

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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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The Bark interviews Karsten Heuer in the April/May 2010 issue. Heuer and his wife, Leanne Allison, made a documentary about their journey from Alberta to visit the renowned Canadian author and environmental activist Farley Mowat.  Accompanying Heuer and Allison on this journey were their two-year-old son, Zev (Hebrew for wolf) and their young border collie named Willow.

The family travel through the wilderness places that are featured so prominently in Mowat’s writings, including some epic wilderness canoeing.

When they arrived at Mowat’s home in Cape Breton, they meet Mowat’s Labrador cross named Chester. Because no more water dogs exist, it looks like Mowat has gone for the reasonable facsimile– the Labrador cross.

I am definitely going to have to see Finding Farley.


The most interesting part of the interview (for me, at least) was that Mowat has a manuscript of a book about Albert.

Not the wolf.

Albert the St. John’s water dog.

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This depiction of an English water spaniel comes from Stonehenge's The Dog in Health and Disease. It is one of the ancestors of the Norfolk retriever, and it may be the ancestor of some of the proto-retrievers.

A fellow named “Saxon “describes this breed in Hugh Dalziel’s British Dogs:

The colour is more often brown than black, and the shade of brown rather light than dark – a sort of sandy brown, in fact. Coat curly, of course, and the curls hardly so close and crisp as in the show retriever of the present day, but inclined to be open and woolly. The coat is not long, however, and across the back there is often a saddle of straight short hair. In texture the coat is inclined to be coarse, and it almost invariably looks rusty and feels harsh to the touch. This, however, may in some measure be due to neglect. The head is heavy and wise-looking, the muzzle square and broad; ears large, and somewhat thickly covered with long curly hair. The limbs stout and strong, with large and well-webbed feet. The tail is usually docked like a spaniel’s, but not so short. This seems to be quite a keeper’s custom, and probably originated from the fact that, to an inexperienced eye, the tail of a puppy generally appears too long for the dog. However, although docking the tail improves the appearance of a spaniel, in my opinion it completely spoils the symmetry of a retriever. I remember once asking a Norfolk keeper’s opinion of a very handsome flat-coated retriever I had.

After examining the dog carefully, the man said, ‘ Well, sir, he would be a rare nice-looking dog if you only cut half-a-yard off his tail.’ I need hardly add that I did not act on the suggestion.

When white appears on the chest it is more frequently in the form of a spot or patch than a narrow streak. They are usually rather above than below the medium size and are strong compact dogs. As a rule, they are exceedingly intelligent and tractable, capaple of being trained to almost anything, both in the way of tricks and with the gun. In temperament they are lively and cheerful, making excellent companions; and it is very rarely that they are found sulky or vicious. When only half-trained they are apt to be headstrong and impetuous, and, though naturally with a strong retrieving instinct, are often a little inclined to be hard-mouthed. This defect can be traced to two causes. It may be the rusult of injudicious breeding from hard-mouthed parents, or it may arise from careless or slovenly handling in their young days. However, when they are wanted almost exclusively for wildfowl shooting, this failing is not of so much moment, for they will be principally used for retrieving birds that fall in the water, and, as fowl are for the most part very tough birds, the rough grip as a dog seizes a duck will not cause much mischief, and while swimming the most inveterate “biter ” will seldom give his birds a second nip. For wildfowl shooting they are admirable.

These dogs remind of a breed in Australia called the Murray River Curly-coated retriever. This dog was developed along the Murray River to retrieve shot waterfowl. Its ancestors are believed to be the more curly-coated retriever that developed in Britain, the Irish water spaniel, and the wavy or flat-coated retriever. I’ve suggested that maybe the Norfolk retriever had some role in developing the Murray River curly, simply because the descriptions are so similar, except that Murray River curlies are not docked.

Saxon believed the Norfolk dog was derived from taking the English water spaniel and breeding it to the Labrador (St. John’s water dog). This cross was more common in British retrievers than one would think. After all, the so-called Tweed water spaniel, was mostly a cross between an indigenous strain of water spaniel and the “Newfoundland” dog (St. John’s water dog). The modern breed called curly-coated retriever is believed to have developed through cross-breeding water spaniels and St. John’s water dogs. 

Indeed, this cross-breeding had to have been commonplace. If one reads any literature on water spaniels, the dogs are very common throughout Great Britain and Ireland until about the middle of the nineteenth century. Then, the dogs begin to disappear. The word retriever starts to replace them in the literature, and it is very likely that the dogs themselves were being replaced.

The curly-coated retriever was promoted as a show dog in the early fancy. Although it did not have the patronage of the flat-coated retriever, it was not well-publicized as a working dog. The curly was often denounced in sportsmen’s literature as being inferior to the flat-coat.

Perhaps the patrons of the Norfolk retriever were trying to keep alive a strain of working curly that was no longer associated with the bad reputation of the curly-coated retriever.  (Of course, the dogs may have not  deserved that reputation at all. The flat-coated retriever had many powerful friends in the early British dog fancy, and it is possible that the early trial system was designed to make the flat-coat look good.)

In the end, it really didn’t matter. The Norfolk retriever is no more. I cannot find any references of the breed later the First World War. 

And there are still questions about what it exactly was. Maybe it didn’t go extinct after all. Maybe it is an ancestor of the Murray River curly. Maybe it was absorbed into the modern curly.

We just don’t know.

In fact, it might be that the Norfolk retriever was the last of a surviving line of British water dogs– some of them called water dogs and some called water spaniels– that were actually ancestral to the modern retrievers and the St. John’s water dog.  I find this possibility a bit more interesting, but it is also one that Dalziel and his “experts” didn’t explore.

And it’s a shame that they didn’t.

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Check out this breeder’s website. (Not the same breeder as the puppies above).

The history is pretty good, although it is more likely that the more plausible theory is that these dogs originated from Central Asian (Turkish, Turkic, or Magyar) ancestors.

These dogs are both water dogs and herders, which is why I think they are the missing link between the water dogs and puli. The puli-type is most likely the ancestor of all of these dogs.

It is possible that these dogs wound up in the hands of the North Africans. These dogs were probably introduced by through trade. Remember, most of North Africa was Christian and connected to European civilization. It makes sense that some of these dogs would have wound up in Iberia, as they spread out of Asia into the Mediterranean.

I do doubt these dogs have an origin in North Africa after that part of the world became part of the Islamic world. No active herding breed exists in Muslim countries, although one can find livestock guardians in those cultures. I doubt that these dogs were introduced to Iberia by the Moors. Herding dogs are simply not part of Islamic civilization.

I also doubt that this breed is the “most ancient” of water dogs. In reality, that dog is long extinct. In Europe, it has radiated out into so many different breeds, including the water spaniels and retrievers of Britain, the St. John’s water dog of Newfoundland, the truffle-hunting Lagottos Romagnolos  of Italy, and the ubiquitous poodle of Germany, France, and Russia.

The fact that Spanish water dogs are herders should tell you a lot about the origins of these dogs and their relations. The old name “Perro Turco” for this  breed suggests two origins. Either these dogs came from Central Asia through Turkey, or they are the descendants of the Magyar’s puli-type dogs.  The latter sounds possible because many Western Europeans referred to the Magyar people (who we call Hungarians) as Turks. (The name of the man who discovered grapes in Vinland was named Tyrkir. He is sometimes listed as a German slave, but he is also often suggested to be  Hungarian. After all, the Norse were probably also calling Magyars Turks.)

See also The History of Water Dogs post.

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From Treytor.

Sorry, but this is a small goldendoodle named “Waffle.” This goldendoodle, though, has some throwback features that are really similar to the Tweed water dog or Tweed water spaniel.

Except for the shaggy hair on her muzzle, her coat is really quite like a Tweed water dog’s. It’s wavy to rather curly, but it’s not as long as a golden retriever or Irish water spaniel.

The reasons for this dog exhibiting such throwback features is quite simple.

Poodles are a “refined” version of the old European water dogs. There were once dozens of different strains.

In Britain, the regional strain was the rough water dog or “water rug.” This dog got absorbed into the water spaniels through regularly outcrossing. In fact, a water spaniel is descended from the rough water dog crossed with either a spaniel or setter. Some individuals developed smoother coats throw the backcrosses, while others developed smooth hair on the muzzle and tail only (like the Irish water spaniel. I have seen a goldendoodle with the same basic coat length patterns as an Irish water spaniel, except for the “rat tail.”)

The water spaniels were then largely absorbed into the retrievers, which also included the St. John’s water dog, setters, and collies as parts of their gene pool.

This little golden-poodle cross is a throwback to these older strains, both of which descend from the old European water dogs.

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From Havshexan (a very good channel).

These dogs are an Irish red and white setter, which is the original Irish setter that descends from the ancient red and white spaniels that were kept by the Celts in Gaul, and the lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian dog derived from the ancient European water dogs of the poodle type. This breed is better-known as a truffle hunter.

This particular dog really strongly resembles the rough water dogs of England, which George Stubbs painted as water spaniels.


Dogs of both types would contribute genes to the dogs that became the water spaniels and retrievers. Eventually, the water spaniels were absorbed into retrievers, except for the Irish water spaniel known around the River Shannon. That breed still exists as the Irish water spaniel. (The American water spaniel did not get absorbed either, but it was largely replaced by the retrievers after the Second World War.)

So these two dogs are cousins to the retrievers, even though they have rather different behavior from them. The setter can get birdy, while the water dog will enter water to retrieve with great enthusiasm. The setter gave some retrievers a tendency to point birds, which was further augmented in the Labrador through cross-breeding with pointers. The water dog gave the curlies their unique coats, brought in a bit of a tighter wave in the wavy-coats, and still pops up in some flat-coats, correctly appears in about half of the golden retrievers, and still appears on Labradors, especially when they are of an advanced age.

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The mondern Komondor from Hungary is quite similar to the description of one version of the supposed "Russian retriever."

The mondern Komondor from Hungary is quite similar to the description of one version of the supposed "Russian retriever."

Hugh Dalziel in British Dogs discusses another breed of retriever. It is described as heavy dog with thick curly hair that grows on the face like “modern Skye terrier.” The coat is difficult to maintain, and it often becomes “felted” (corded through matting). Dalziel quotes “Idstone” (Reverend Thomas Pearce) who describes one working a battue with some more convential retrievers. The dog gets bogged down in a thicket of dense thorns, and the handlers must cut its coat out of the vegetation in order to free it.

However, I am uncertain as to what breed this dog represents. In Marcia Schlehr’s book on goldens (The New Complete Golden Retriever), the author uses the analysis of Dalziel and that of Idstone to suggest that this Russian retriever was a Komondor.

However, Dalziel’s account is of a dog that is “docile” and has a great future as a companion dog, rather than a hunter. The use of Idstone’s description of the dog retrieving suggests that this breed had some retrieving instinct.

Further, Dalziel claims that the breed called the “Russian setter” is a cross between this dog and an English setter. This finding leaves me to question whether this breed was a Komondor or a related livestock guardian breed.

Livestock guardian dogs, unlike retrievers or herding dogs (like the border collie and puli), have been bred to have almost no predator motor patterns and possess a very high threshold of stimulation before these motor patterns can be exhibited. Wild wolves have a very low threshold, and even captive bred wolves can easily become aroused to attack children and small pets. Retrievers and herding dogs are in between wolves and livestock guardian dogs in that they have a moderate threshold for exhibiting these predatory behaviors, but the way that these predatory motor patterns work has been modified through selective breeding and training. It is possible for a retriever or herding dog to become a full predator, but it is usually within the context the modified predatory behavior. (I had a golden retriever that would kill things like woodchucks and cottontail rabbits, but she would require that they be thrown to retrieve before she would even try to eat them.) It’s because of the retrieving behavior in the Russian retriever that I hestitate to place it as the Komondor.

Further, Komondorok are not docile dogs. They are, in fact, probably the best guard dog that money can buy. They are very suspicious of strangers and dogs they do not know. The breed is rather cute with its shaggy face and “Benji” characteristics. However, this breed is not a nice, sweet dog, like the Old English Sheepdog. It bonds strongly with its family, and if not socialized, it will hate everyone else. This is not the temperament described by Dalziel or Idstone.

Again, I am not claiming that this breed had anything to do with the development of the golden retriever, but it does appear to me that there was a real Russian retriever. It had nothing to do with the dogs bred by Colonel le Poer Trench. Those dogs were derived from obvious Tweedmouth breeding, although they were heavier and coarser than the ones that were being developed elsewhere as part of the flat-coated retriever breed.

What do I think the Russian retriever was? I think it was the Russian equivalent of the poodle. Poodles were developed in the northern part of the German speaking world, including the Baltic coast. Poodles are water dogs and can be used as a retriever. The standard poodles are very retriever-like in their temperament. During the Medieval period, Germanic traders, following the crusades of the Teutonic Knights and other Western Christian orders, began to trade extensively with the people of this region. This trading eventually became part of the Hanseatic League’s trading circle.

As the poodle developed as a water dog, it may have been brought to Russia for the same purpose. There, it evolved in a larger and coarser dog in order to handle the harsh conditions of Russia.

If the dog didn’t arrive then, then it is possible that the dog came to Russia through Russia’s close association with German speaking nobility. In fact, Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, was a native German speaker, born in the German speaking city of Stettin (now Sczeczin, Poland).

Another source for poodles to the Russians was France. The French did fall in the love with the poodle at some point in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the Russian emperor, Peter the Great, was obsessed with French achievements. He made French the academic and intellectual language of Russia and encouraged them to adopt French customs. This French obsession in Russia existed for many decades, and it is likely that they imported poodles and used them as water dogs. Further, Napoleon’s army had kept poodles as mascots. These dogs are reported among the regiments that invaded Russia in 1812. So there are many historical sources for dogs of this type existing in Russia.

The difference between this dog and the poodle probably resulted from selection, both natural and artificial, for a dog that could withstand the rugged conditions of that country. This would explain why Dalziel reports the dog as being larger (26 inches at the shoulder) and having a stocky build.

Further, poodles can be corded. I’ve always sworn that the Puli of Hungary, the Sheep poodles of Germany and the Netherlands, and water dogs (including the poodle) are related. The puli may have some common ancestry with the Komondor, but the two breeds are used very differently and have very different temperaments. The puli has a herding dog’s temperament of biddability and controlled prey drive. If socialized and trimmed, it has been found that the puli can be a sociable and friendly dog. A few have even been trained as water retrievers.  It is because of these similarities that I think the Russian retriever was really a Russian poodle-type dog, not a Komondor.

The British had already discarded their  poodle-type water dog, the English rough water dog, by the time this breed appeared in that country. This breed was very similar to the Barbet (the real “French poodle”) and the poodle. However, it was absorbed into the water spaniel breeds by the beginning  of the nineteenth century, existing as a relict by the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The water spaniels were then absorbed into the retrievers, existing currently as only two or three breeds in the entire world.  Their contemporary retrievers were a far “more advanced model” than the dog the Russians were using for that purpose.

So the Russian retriever, the real one, was probably a Russian poodle.

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