by   David Hancock

In his Hunting and Shooting of 1971, Michael Brander wrote:

“The cross-bow, the arbalast and the stone-bow (both variants on the cross-bow) were becoming increasingly used in sport. With blunt bolts or stones for killing birds they were an effective weapon. Other methods of securing birds and small game, such as decoying, netting, trapping and liming were becoming increasingly common as the Middle Ages drew to their close and the protection of the ‘fowls of warren’ became correspondingly ineffective..”

trictly speaking, once you have named a distinct group of dogs as ‘gundogs’, their history begins with the invention of firearms. But hunters were ‘armed’ long before the introduction of firearms, with the spear, the bow and arrow, the boar-lance and the bolt-firing weapons to the fore. The net could also be described as a weapon, being used to capture rabbits or envelop game birds indicated by setting dogs. Before the invention of firearms, hunters were reliant on dogs which could indicate unseen game and not run-in, as well as those which could retrieve valuable bolts, especially from water, when used on wild fowl.

In the late Middle Ages, the netting of birds was not a simple matter; dogs had to be trained to find the quarry and ‘hold’ them whilst crouching expectantly but with immense patience. To further deter the birds from taking off, a kite-hawk, a device resembling a bird of prey, would be flown over them. Alternatively, a falcon could be positioned above them, either flown free or at the top of a long pole, within sight of the birds. Each stratagem ensured the birds clung to the ground, so enabling the hunter to proceed. Once the targeted, transfixed birds were grounded by this system, the netsmen could advance with their net and trail it over the prone dog and cast it over the stupified birds. Gamekeepers would often spread obstacles in open fields to prevent game being poached in this manner.

Shooting birds with a gun was initially regarded as pot-filling rather than sport. The sporting way was locating them with ‘setting dogs’ which then lay low to allow the hunters’ net to be drawn both over them and the crouching dogs or chiens couchant. There are many setters to this day that instinctively crouch low rather than stand and point in the classic pose. In continental Europe a draw-net or tirasse was employed; this involved the dogs crawling slowly towards the stationary birds, gradually driving the alarmed but not flight-prone birds towards the approaching netsmen. In such a way, the dogs ‘worked’ the birds into the net, rather as a well-trained collie urges sheep to move but not run. The value to the hunter, both here and on the continent, of a dog which instinctively found game on the ground, indicated its find, then almost hypnotised it into staying on the ground until a net descended on it, must have been priceless. 

The rapport between sportsman and setting dog was captured in The Sportsman’s Cabinet of 1803, with these words: “That the setting dog has more continual and intimate relations with man, than almost any other of the species; he hunts within his view, and almost under his hand; his master affords him pleasure, for the pleasure is mutual when the game is in the net; which being shown to the dog, he is caressed if he has done right, corrected if he has done wrong; his joy in the first instance, or his remorse in the latter, are equally apparent, and in this mutual gratification is formed the very basis of reciprocal affection.” We may well have lost that particular intimacy with our gundogs as operating distances increased with developing shooting methods.

I am inclined to believe that the earliest sporting dogs, other than hounds of the chase, were the dogs ‘da rete’ (of the net) and the water dogs that would retrieve bolts, arrows and wildfowl which had fallen into water. The ‘oysel’ or bird dogs of the 16th century were much more setter-like than anything else. I take the view that the expression chiens d’arret or stop-dogs is more likely a corruption of chiens de rets; the French word ‘rets’ meaning a net or a snare. Terms like chien couchant, chien d’oysel and chiens de rets were used for dogs working to the net before the distinct breeds for this task evolved. In his The Master of Game of 1410, Edward, Duke of York, called all bird dogs spaniels but pointed out that some could be trained for the net, referring to them as ‘couchers’. 

In his ground-breaking book Of English Dogs of 1576, the Cambridge scholar Dr Caius was recording: “When he hath found the bird, he keepeth sure and fast silence, he stayeth his steps and will proceed no further; and with a close, covert and watching eye, layeth his belly to the ground, and so creepeth forward like a worm…whereby it is supposed that this kind of dog is called Index, ‘Setter’, being indeed a name most consonant and agreeable to his quality.” Half a century later, Gervase Markham was writing: “It is meete that first before I wade further into this discourse, I shew you, what a Setting dogge is: you shall then understand that a Setting Dogge is a certaine lusty land spaniel, taught by nature to hunt the partridges, before, and more than any other chase.” He also referred to the taking of pheasants by bird-liming bushes, supported by spaniels.

Spaniels were used too with the net and the hawk. The use of names for types and uses of dogs was more than loose in past times. The Irish called the setter the English Spaniel for quite some time, the poet Gay referred to the setter as ‘the creeping spaniel’. All longer or rougher-haired sporting dogs, not used as hounds, were once clubbed together as spaniels. The cocking spaniel was also called the gun spaniel. In his Rural Sports of 1870, Delabere Blaine disputes a Captain Brown’s statement that “The true English-bred spaniel differs but little in figure from the setter, except in size”, writing that “It is evident Captain Brown here thought only of the large sporting spaniel. Both springers and cockers are used in greyhound coursing, and the excellent scenting qualities of each usually enables them to find every hare in their beat.”    

Nicholas Cox, in 1677, was stressing the value of the spaniel in hawking, writing: “How necessary a thing it (i.e. the spaniel) is to falconry I think nobody need question, as well as to spring and retrieve a fowl being flown to the mark, and also in divers and other ways to help and assist falcons and goshawks.” But was he writing of spaniels or setters or even, before the days of pure-breeding, of a blend of the two? The veracity of sources matters too; Dr Caius was a scholar not a sportsman and undoubtedly had his leg pulled by the latter; Cox was a shameless plagiarist who used material on French dogs as arising from here; Markham was a clever and prolific journalist who often wrote beyond his knowledge.

But when real sportsmen write you soon get a marvellous impression of the essence of the sport itself. In an article headed The Setter and Grouse, ‘Nimrod’ in a sporting magazine of 1837, described the practice of an old-fashioned squire in Flintshire, Peter Davies of Broughton Hall: “The old gentleman took the field in good style, being accompanied by a servant to hold his horse when he dismounted, and two mounted keepers in their green plush jackets and gold-laced hats. A leash of highly-bred red and white setters were let loose at a time, and beautifully did they range the fields, quartering the ground in obedience to the voice or whistle. On the game being found, every dog was down, with his belly close on the ground; and the net being unfurled, the keepers advanced on a gentle trot, at a certain distance from each other, and drew it over them and the covey at the same time. Choice was then made of the finest birds, which were carried home alive, and kept in a room till wanted, and occasionally all would be let fly again, on ascertaining their fitness for the spit. Modern sportsmen may consider this tame sport, and so in fact it is, compared with the excitement attending the gun; but still it has its advantages. It was the means of preserving game on an estate, by equalising the number of cock and hen birds – at least to an extent – and killing the old ones; no birds were destroyed but what were fit for eating; and such as were destroyed, were put to death at once, without the chance of lingering from the effects of a wound, which is a circumstance inseparable from shooting.” Sounds like ethically-acceptable sport to me, awaiting a come-back.       

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.

A number of old books on sporting dogs describe the setter as the fowler’s dog and link the pointer breeds only with the introduction of firearms. In the 17th century on the continent and in the early 18th century in England, the braques and pointing griffons were developed, probably benefiting from the blood of the hounds, like the bracke and the scenthound griffons (or Gayffons as Markham misnamed them in 1630) in central Europe. In England, the setter breeds and the Pointer developed separate loyal bands of devotees, with the Rev Simons writing in 1776: “The setter cannot be degraded into a pointer; but the pointer may be elevated to a setter, though but a second class. The setter is only of service where there is room to run a net, so must be hunted accordingly. Whole coveys are the just attention of the setter...The pointer as has been the setter, is broke from chasing we well suppose, to which the sight of the game had hitherto been the stimulus. Now, although he will hear the whirl and departure of the birds it is more than probable the report of the gun will agitate him into the forgetfulness of duty and the urge to pursue.”   The gundog had arrived.  

  The invention of firearms and the subsequent improvements in the range and accuracy of guns in the shooting field brought about a large measure of redundancy in the ancient art of decoying, now rarely known about by sportsmen let alone practised. We still of course put out bird-dummies to entice feathered game like woodpigeon and duck, but it is extremely rare to come across decoy-dogs at work, despite their time-honoured employment in this field in many different countries. In Canada, in Holland and certainly in one place in England however, this ancient canine skill is being perpetuated. From medieval times the antics of the "tumbler" have been well documented, although I notice that writers on lurchers often use the pseudonym "tumbler" whereas this should, more accurately for them, be "stealer". The tumbler aroused the curiosity of furred and feathered game by its histrionic performance, lowering their guard, reducing their caution and then enticing them, sometimes into nets or within range of the guns, and sometimes seizing them itself.

In Bewick's "A General History of Quadrupeds" of 1790, the tumbler was described as being ..."so called from its cunning manner of taking rabbits and other game. It did not run directly at them, but, in a careless and inattentive manner, tumbled itself about till it came within reach of its prey, which it always seized by a sudden spring."  Dr Caius, in his long letter to the naturalist Conrad Gessner of 1570 used these words to describe similar antics..."When he comes to a rabbit-warren, he does not worry the rabbits by running after them, nor frighten them by barks, nor show any other marks of emnity, but casually and like a friend he passes by them in artful silence, carefully noting the rabbits' holes..."

Phrases like "careless and inattentive manner" and acting "casually and like a friend" describe most perceptively the crafty technique of the decoy dog whether "tumbling" or leading ducks astray. The dog used as a decoy in duck hunting often worked in partnership with tame ducks to entice their wild relatives along ever-narrowing netted or caged channels until they were made captive. Jesse in his exhaustive "Researches into the History of the British Dog" of 1866 described how in the fens of Essex dogs resembling the "colly" were used with  tame ducks to entice wildfowl into tunnel-nets.

The skill of the decoy dog lies in giving the inquisitive ducks only fleeting and seemingly tantalising glimpses of its progress through the reeds and undergrowth, taking great care never to frighten them or even give them cause for suspicion. Before the use of firearms and indeed in the days when their range was very limited, these dogs must have been enormously valuable to duck-hunters.

The distinctive feature of dogs used in this way was the well-flagged tail. Their colour was usually fox-red, leading to some being referred to as fox-dogs, partly also because foxes will entice game by playful antics in a very similar vein. Clever little fox-like dogs have been used in many different countries in any number of ways in the pursuit of game: in Finland, their red-coated bark-pointer spitz transfixes feathered game by its mesmeric barking whilst awaiting the arrival of the hunters; in Japan, the russet-coated Shiba Inu was once used to flush birds for the falcon and the Tahl-tan Indians in British Columbia hunted bear, lynx and porcupine with their little black bear-dogs, which were often mistaken for foxes.

At the end of the last century "ginger 'coy dogs" were frequently to be seen alongside the lurchers in gypsy camps, especially in East Anglia. Because no pedigree breed in this mould has been handed down to us, very little reference is made nowadays to these gifted and at one time invaluable dogs, rather as the ancient water-dogs are rarely acknowledged in the histories of our gundog breeds. Both decoy-dogs and water-dogs were usually handled by the humbler hunters like gypsies and so very little has been written about them.

In Europe it seems that the Dutch in particular had perfected the art of duck decoying, with the word itself coming from  their word endekoy, a duck cage. The first duck decoy in Britain was built by a Dutchman, Hydrach Hilens, just over three hundred years ago in St James's park for Charles the Second. Such a decoy usually consists of a small shallow pond secluded by trees with a number of "pipes" leading off it, each about 60 metres long. These pipes or caged tunnels are six metres wide and four metres high at their entrance but narrowing right down to the decoyman's net.

Along the curve of the pipe the decoyman (or kooiker in Holland) is concealed behind reed-screens. One of the few remaining in Britain is a joint venture between the National Trust and the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Naturalists' Trust at Boarstall. This decoy is marked on the 1697 map of the Manor of Boarstall in the Buckinghamshire County Record Office. Tame "call ducks" are no longer used here but Daniel White who once worked this decoy for over 60 years used six large Rouen call ducks. The yearly average of duck taken at the end of the last century was 800.  I believe there are only four kooikers still operating in Holland but they have retained their specialist breed of decoy dog, the Kooikerhondje, a small red and white spaniel-like dog with a tail very much like that of the Cavalier King Charles spaniel. We appear to have lost our native red-coated decoy dog which surely could still have been useful if only to those wishing to ring, photograph, paint or just study wild duck.

In Canada, probably taken there by European colonists, there is the Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retriever, a golden-red medium-sized dog with the distinct look of our Golden Retriever about it. This Canadian dog is about 20" at the shoulder with a compact muscular build, alert, agile and determined, a strong swimmer, easy to train and a natural retriever. To be a successful duck-toller, such a dog needs a playful nature, a strong desire to retrieve and a heavily-feathered tail which is in constant motion, to lure inquisitive ducks closer to the hunter. The value of a dog with such instinctive skill must have been priceless to wildfowlers both before and after the invention and development of firearms. Bird-dogs are immensely versatile!

Against that background, I have recently been watching a TV series about isolated settlers in Alaska called Alaska - The Last Frontier. This concerns an admirable group of hunter-farmers facing the demands of climate and terrain in this little-populated part of the world. But I am simply astonished at their under-use of dogs to help them survive in this testing environment. They shoot wildfowl but elect to wade in to retrieve the shot game rather than use water retrievers like the Chesapeake Bay dog. They need to entice wildfowl within gunfire range but do not use decoy dogs, like the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever from the other side of North America. They hunt bear without making use of dogs as exemplified by the Karelian Bear Dog in Finland (or indeed by the old Tahl-tan Bear Dogs of further east in the USA). They hunt moose without utilising dogs like the ace elk-hunting Finnish Spitz to locate and distract them. They misuse a Catahoula Leopard Dog (a hound breed) when attempting to introduce him to retrieving shot game. If any group of people need dogs, this one is seriously depriving itself!