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Performance bred: few of the strong characteristics modern retrievers possess occurred by accident.

WHOEVER FIRST OBSERVED THAT PEOPLE START to look like their dogs was probably referring to Eastern Shore baymen and their Chesapeakes. With rugged barrel chests and whiskers, 19th century market hunters and recreational waterfowlers molded the Chesapeake Bay retriever. Examining our duck dogs should help us gain a better understanding of the hunters of old and why breeds are the way they are. So, let's take a look at the origins of some of our most popular retrievers, and what their characteristics may say about the men who bred them.

Given that the Chessie's mysterious history (more on that shortly) is thought to have begun in the early 1800s, you might think it's one of our more recent breeds. Yet distinct varieties of canis familiaris are a relatively new phenomenon. According to the National Geographic documentary, "Science of Dogs," there are now more than 400 breeds in existence, 80 percent of which did not exist a mere 150 years ago. Ancient Egyptians and other early civilizations domesticated dogs, including sight hounds used for hunting. These breeds changed little for thousands of years until the industrial revolution afforded Europeans more time and money for leisure. It was during this period that a mainstream interest in the selective breeding of dogs arose. An explosion of new breeds resulted, something that could not have occurred with any other type of pet.

According to researchers at the National Institute of Health, who have successfully mapped the canine genome, dogs show more variation in size, shape and temperament than any other mammal. Their DNA is prone to rapid mutation within just a few generations, allowing humans to quickly alter a breed's characteristics with great specificity or create an entirely new breed. For instance, the uniquely sloping snout of the bull terrier (think Spuds MacKenzie) took just 45 years to perfect. Say you tried such a drastic alteration with a horse. No matter how determined your effort, a horse would always look like a horse. There are different breeds of horses, but they do not have the extreme variations you would see from a Labrador to a Lhasa Apso. You can't give a horse large floppy ears, or make one small enough for Paris Hilton to carry in her purse--much as the world could use that.

Only dogs can be bred with such ariation in so little time, which's probably why hunters who first solated and selectively bred our modern retrievers didn't just subtly alter existing breeds. They precisely tailored the breeds to meet heir needs.


Much mystery and lore surround the origins of the Chessie, but here's what we know. According to research by the American Chesapeake Bay Retriever Club, two Newfoundland dogs named Sailor and Canton were rescued from a sinking English fishing vessel off the coast of Maryland in 1807. They were never bred to one another--in fact they were essentially moved to opposite ends of the bay--but together they laid the foundation for the Chesapeake.

Nobody can say for certain what other dogs Sailor and Canton were bred to--curly-coated retrievers, St. John's water dogs, water spaniels and even coonhounds are a few hypotheses. All we know is Chesapeake Bay waterfowlers, especially market hunters, put forth an aggressive, if not informal breeding program.

Research by the American Chesapeake Bay Retriever Club indicates market hunters simply bred the dogs that most efficiently helped them make their livings and discarded the rest. Now, let's consider the needs of a market hunter. He worked long hours in dreadfully harsh conditions, and had no time for force-fetch or other formal training. Therefore, he needed a dog that could withstand the coldest, tallest rolling seas and take instinctive pleasure in retrieving ducks. Some theorize market men needed a dog to guard the boat and decoys while warming his bones at the local pub, possibly why Chessies have a reputation for being extremely loyal, one-man" dogs.

Market hunters didn't keep extensive records, but within a couple decades they had bred just the dog to meet their needs. In his book "The Golden Age of Waterfowling," Dr. Wayne Capooth said by the mid-1800s nearly every family living in Maryland's bay counties owned one or more Chessies. By 1878 the American Kennel Club formally recognized the breed.


Unlike the Chessie, inventors of many of today's breeds had the time, luxury and inclination to carefully consider which new genes to introduce. Lord Tweedmouth of Scotland, a wealthy noble who kept meticulous records, for instance, bred the golden retriever.

"The Ultimate Hunting Dog Reference Book" by Vickie Lamb tells us Lord Tweedmouth had a strong interest in hunting and also a knack for breeding horses, particularly Scottish ponies; in combining these interests, he set out to breed his idea of the greatest duck dog ever fashioned--one that was stronger and more talented in the water than any retriever in existence--with all the grace, charm and good looks fit for nobility.

In 1865, Lord Tweedmouth selected a yellow male wavy-coated retriever from a litter of otherwise black puppies. In 1868 and 1871, the pup was bred to a Tweed water spaniel, a now-extinct breed that was popular in that era. Puppies from these two litters were bred with wavy and flat-coated retrievers, a red setter, and an additional Tweed water spaniel. The breed was an instant hit, and by the early 1900s it had reached North America.

The golden is intelligent, eager to please and moves with a fluid gait as lovely as its luxurious coat. In fact, Tweedmouth's only mistake, if you can call it one, was giving the golden an almost excessive beauty. Goldens became too popular, too quickly, and their sporting potential was diluted as American's eagerly bred them as mere pets. But thanks to the careful efforts of breeders, today's "field bred" goldens are enjoying a resurgence.


Goldens and Chessies were originally bred specifically for waterfowl hunting. However, it's rather ironic that today's most popular duck dog was not. A likely descendant of the St. John's water dog and close relative of the Newfoundland, the Labrador retriever appears in literature as early as 1814. Research by the National Labrador Retriever Club and others tells us fishermen bred the Lab to assist them with a number of tasks, especially retrieving their nets. These men weren't duck hunters per se, but needed their dogs to be loyal, intelligent, courageous in high seas, have a strong work ethic, and a dense, water-repelling coat.

As noted by "The Ultimate Hunting Dog Reference Book," 19th century British duck hunters saw potential in the Lab and began importing them. This is arguably when the Lab became the Lab. The fishermen of Labrador and Newfoundland gave the breed retrieving instinct, powerful build and sound temperament; the English made it a duck dog, carefully refining the breed by crossing talented Labs of pure blood.

In a sense, the Lab is a combination of the breeding strategies that molded the Chessie and golden. Like the Chessie, blue-collar men made the Lab tough. And, like the golden, wealthy men improved its hunting talents.

Today, the Lab is the American Kennel Club's most registered breed, and by far the most popular waterfowl retriever. Should its popularity concern us? Canine DNA lends itself to rapid mutation--intentionally or not--and history has shown the detrimental effect that popularity had on the golden. So, while the Lab remains as competent as ever, let's not forget the responsibility we have to keep this so. All it takes is a generation or two of lackadaisical breeding to set back countless decades of effort.

It is the duty of responsible breeders to maintain the health, integrity and hunting instinct of our retriever breeds. Duck dogs are a reflection of waterfowling culture. What will our dogs say about us? Will they reflect lazy, overzealous breeding, or care, appreciation and a steadfast commitment to breed standards? Let us be mindful of the responsibility we've been handed by the previous caretakers of the breeds, and the legacy we will leave for the next generation.


A small, canoe-friendly dog that hunts turkeys and fetches ducks, the Boykin spaniel originated in South Carolina. According to legend, during the early 20th century, a stray spaniel (the exact breed is unknown) began following a banker in Spartanburg, S.C., as he walked to church. The banker kept the dog, and soon recognized its retrieving ability. So, according to The Boykin Spaniel Club of America, he gave the dog to his longtime hunting buddy, Whit Boykin, in hopes of developing its talents. Under Boykin's tutelage, the stray became a talented duck/ turkey dog and was crossed with several breeds, possibly including the Chesapeake Bay retriever, springer spaniel, cocker spaniel and American water spaniel.

In just a few generations of breeding, Boykin created a superb duck/turkey dog with an ideal stature (25-35 pounds) for hunting the swamps of South Carolina. Humans imagined such a dog, and it was made possible through Boykin's careful diligence and, I contend, the unique and remarkable properties of canine DNA.
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Author:Wintersteen, Kyle
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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