by   David Hancock

Important historical information on ships’ dogs used as fishing dogs in the south of England can be found in the words of the 6th Earl of Malmesbury, when contributing to the booklet The Labrador Retriever Club’s A Celebration of 75 Years, published by the club in 1991. He wrote: “My great-great-grandfather needed a good retrieving water dog, and a companion in the home. He found both qualities in the little Newfoundlander (later to be renamed the Labrador, which was a less cumbersome name. How did these dogs develop their retrieving instinct? It was customary for the fishing boats in Newfoundland to carry dogs. These dogs developed their retrieving instinct in two distinct ways. Fish hooks were not as well made as they are today. A large fish, when brought to the surface, might free itself from the hook. A dog with a special harness would be lowered from the deck – grab the fish – and be hauled back on board with, hopefully, the fish still in its mouth…I know from my own experience that many of these dogs have still inherited this retrieving of fish.” Preserved in the Natural History Museum outpost at Tring is a ‘Trawler Spaniel’, a parti-coloured dog, just under a foot high, resembling the small sporting spaniels found here and on the Continent, often included by artists in family portraits.

The Earl went on to point out that when his ancestor was importing dogs from the Newfoundland Fishing Fleet unloading in Poole Harbour, the fishing industry in Christchurch and Bournemouth harbours was intensive and the need for dogs extensive. Further north, the great retriever authority, Stanley O’Neill, recorded that his father was Superintendent of Grimsby Fish Docks, and he went with him to visit every port where fish was landed in England and Scotland, writing “I saw hundreds of water dogs around Grimsby and Yarmouth which were ships dogs, and it was well known that a cross with them to improve retrieving from water had been the origin of the curly-coats. In 1903, at Alnmouth, he saw men netting for salmon with a dog with a wavy or curly coat and of a tawny colour”. When he asked about the dog he was told it was a Tweed Water Spaniel. Such a dog was behind many of our emerging land retrievers, with what became the Golden Retriever, gaining from this type and coat colour. In his The Complete Farrier of 1815, Richard Lawrence wrote: “Along the rocky shores and dreadful declivities beyond the junction of the Tweed and the sea of Berwick, Water dogs have received an addition of strength from the experimental introductions of a cross with the Newfoundland dog…the liver-coloured is the most rapid of swimmers and the most eager in pursuit.”  The genotype of the purebred Newfoundland includes two different factors for the brown coat.

Landseer Newfoundlands can be piebald red or bronze; the American vet Leon Whitney has reported both blues and reds and Clarence Little, the American coat-colour inheritance expert, has recorded the tan point pattern in pedigree Newfoundlands. The dark liver is the classic water dog colour, as the American and Irish Water Spaniels, the Wetterhoun and the Lagotto display today. The Wetterhoun, once famed as an otter-hunter, and the Lagotto, still famous as a truffle-finder, also feature liver and white, as our own now extinct water spaniel did. It is of interest that the Newfoundland, once described as the Great Retriever, was depicted by Ben Marshall in his well-known painting of 1811 as being black and white and covered in small tight curls. Our ancestors bred dogs with waterproof coats to support them in their ship and shoreline tasks. As the show ring now fashions so much in the pedigree dog world, it is important that judges of water dog/spaniel breeds insist on the coat texture of the entry before them is traditional and doesn’t become the subject of exaggeration.

 Not surprisingly, dogs used to support hunting in water were favoured by the sea-going fraternity, fishermen, sailors and traders. The dogs were trained to retrieve lines lost overboard and used as couriers between ships, in the Spanish Armada for example. In time, such dogs featured in the settlements established along the eastern sea-board of the New World by British, Portuguese, Dutch and French traders. Water-dogs exist today in those countries: the Barbet in France, the Wetterhoun in Holland, the Curly-coated Retriever and the Irish Water 'Spaniel' here and the Portuguese Water Dog there. The latter, still favoured by fishermen in the Algarve, has either a long harsh oily coat or a tighter curly coat. The Barbet has the long woolly coat, the Wetterhoun the curly coat.

Of these three, the most distinctive is the Cao de Agua, now gaining strength in this country. An ancient Portuguese breed which can be traced back to very remote times, it has great similarity with the Spanish Water Dog, now being restored to that country's list of native breeds and the Italian Water Dog, the Lagotto Romagnolo, also being resurrected. Overseas kennel clubs do, unlike ours, try to conserve their national canine heritage. There is evidence that such breeds were regarded as sacred in pre-Christian times, any person killing a water-dog being subject to severe penalty. The highly individual water-dog clip led to the Romans referring to such dogs as Lion Dogs. This clip, with the bare mid-rift and hindquarters but featuring a plumed tail, does give a leonine appearance. The modern toy breed, the Lowchen (meaning lion-dog) displays this clip and is a member of the small Barbet or Barbichon (nowadays shortened to Bichon) group of dogs, embracing the Bolognese, the Havanese, the Maltese, the Bichon a poil frise and the Coton du Tulear.

The Sportsman’s Cabinet of 1803 records:            
“…this very description of water-dog differs materially in size, as well as in the length and rigid elasticity of the coat, from the smaller and more delicate, as well as more domesticated breed under the denomination of the water-spaniel, it becomes only necessary to recite such distinguishing traits of his utility as are but little known to that part of the sporting world who are situate in the centrical and inland parts of the kingdom. Upon the sea-coast, the breed is principally propagated, where they are mostly brought into use, and held in the highest proportional estimation; but along the rocky shores, and dreadful declivities, beyond the junction of the Tweed with the sea at Berwick, the breed has derived an addition of strength from the experimental introduction of a cross with the Newfoundland dog, which has rendered them only adequate to the arduous difficulties and diurnal perils in which they are systematically engaged.”
These dogs had to have a waterproof coat to survive and we should honour that heritage.        

Gundog breeds today are rightly revered and their sporting prowess as well as their breed type, which originated in function, perpetually prized. Sportsmen in early medieval times however knew the value of setting dogs and water dogs, the original retrievers, more than any of their successors. The invention of firearms did away with the need to recover arrows or bolts, as well as increasing the range at which game could be engaged. The setting dogs adapted from the net to the gun and survived, but the water dogs of Europe lost their value and many became ornamental dogs, like the Poodle. Some water dogs survive as breeds, with the Irish Water 'Spaniel' still causing discussion over whether it's a spaniel or a retriever. This type of dog, quite often black, liver or parti-coloured, had one physical feature which set it apart from most others, the texture of its coat. It is so easy when looking at a Standard Poodle in show clip to overlook their distinguished and ancient sporting history. And how many breeds recognised as gundogs can match their disease-free genotype? Anyone looking for a water retriever with instinctive skills, inherited prowess, a truly waterproof coat and freedom from faulty genes should look at the Standard Poodle, but stand by for ignorant comments from one-generation sportsmen, unaware of its heritage.

The Standard Poodle is a living example of the ancient waterdog whose blood is behind so many contemporary breeds: the Curly-coated Retriever, Wetterhoun of Holland, Portuguese and Spanish Waterdogs, Lagotto Romagnolo, Pudelpointer, Barbet, Irish and American Water Spaniels and the Boykin Spaniel. I suspect that the Hungarian breeds, the Puli and the Pumi, used as pastoral dogs, may, judging by their coat texture, have waterdog ancestry, as may the French breed, the Epagneul de Pont-Audemer. The Tweed Water Spaniel was behind our hugely popular Golden Retriever. The old English Water Spaniel's coat sometimes emerges in purebred English Springers. Although our breeds of retriever were not developed until comparatively recently, the use of dogs as retrievers by sportsmen is over a thousand years old. "Traine him to fetch whatsoever you shall throw from you...anything whatsoever that is portable; then you shall use him to fetch round cogell stones, and flints, which are troublesome in a Dogges mouth, and lastly Iron, Steele, Money, and all kindes of metall, which being colde in his teeth, slippery and ill to take up, a Dogge will be loth to fetch, but you must not desist or let him taste food till he will as familiarly bring and carry them as anything else whatsoever." So advised Gervase Markham early in the seventeenth century on the subject of training a 'Water Dogge' to retrieve.

Half a century earlier, the much quoted Dr. Caius identified the curly-coated Water Dogge as "bringing our Boultes and Arrowes out of the Water, which otherwise we could hardly recover, and often they restore to us our Shaftes which we thought never to see, touch or handle again." Such water-dogs were utilised on the continent too; in The Sketch Book of Jean de Tournes, published in France in 1556, we see illustrated 'The Great Water Dogge', a big black shaggy-headed dog swimming out to retrieve a duck from a lake. This sketch could so easily have been of the contemporary Barbet, still available in France (and now here), acknowledged as an ancient type, and used to infuse many sporting breeds with desirable water-dog characteristics. The dog depicted could also represent the modern Cao de Agua, the Portuguese Water Dog. These European water-dogs are the root stock of so many modern breeds.

I have seen pure-bred Labradors featuring a tightly-curled coat and we have all seen English Springer Spaniels with very curly coats. I suspect the linty coat of the distinctive Bedlington Terrier owes its origin to water-dog blood, perhaps that of the Tweed Water Spaniel, once known in the area where the Bedlington was developed. The early Airedale Terriers, bred originally as waterside terriers in the Aire valley, had noticeably curly coats; this is now frowned on, the word crinkle-coated being preferred. The now extinct Llanidloes Setter featured this tight, densely-curled, waterproof coat. The Tweed Water Spaniel blood in the Golden Retriever is however not only acknowledged but prized. Our ancestors knew the value of water-dog blood.

It may not suit the misplaced pride of the shooting man of today to acknowledge the blood of poodle-like dogs in his working gundogs or associate such dogs with his sporting image. I see it as a matter of gratitude more than anything else. It may be difficult to accept a shared origin between a strapping Curly and a toy Poodle, a sturdy Wetterhoun and a diminutive bichon and a lion-clipped tiny Lowchen and a whiptail. But, as the Chihuahua and the Great Dane dramatically illustrate, different purpose has led to different development; ornamental dogs are expected to be small, retrievers have to have substance and stamina.

The liver and the black coat colours of the ancient water-dogs and their unique curly texture have survived and surfaced in many of today's breeds, whether sporting or non-sporting in use. Their fondness for and durability in water lives on too, whether the breed is linked to Ireland or Holland, Italy or Spain, France or Portugal, America or Britain. Water-dogs are the rootstock of many of our sporting breeds whether they have lost or retained the typical coat texture and colours of their distant ancestors. The water-dogs of Europe have contributed a great deal to our sporting heritage and more should be made of the debt we owe them, in breed histories for example. May those of Italy and Spain, now saved from extinction, go from strength to strength. And how about recreating our Tweed Water Spaniel?