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The Retrievers

It is obviously useless to shoot game unless you can find it after
it has been wounded or killed, and from the earliest times it has
been the habit of sportsmen to train their dogs to do the work which
they could not always successfully do for themselves. The Pointers,
Setters, and Spaniels of our forefathers were carefully broken not
only to find and stand their game, but also to fetch the fallen birds.
This use of the setting and pointing dog is still common on the
Continent and in the United States, and there is no inaccuracy in
a French artist depicting a Pointer with a partridge in its mouth,
or showing a Setter retrieving waterfowl.

The Springer and the old curly-coated water-dog were regarded as
particularly adroit in the double work of finding and retrieving.
Pointers and Setters who had been thus broken were found to
deteriorate in steadiness in the field, and it gradually came to be
realised that even the Spaniel's capacity for retrieving was limited.
A larger and quicker dog was wanted to divide the labour, and to be
used solely as a retriever in conjunction with the other gun dogs.
The Poodle was tried for retrieving with some success, and he showed
considerable aptitude in finding and fetching wounded wild duck; but
he, too, was inclined to maul his birds and deliver them dead. Even
the old English Sheepdog was occasionally engaged in the work, and
various crosses with Spaniel or Setter and Collie were attempted in
the endeavour to produce a grade breed having the desired qualities
of a good nose, a soft mouth, and an understanding brain, together
with a coat that would protect its wearer from the ill effects of
frequent immersion in water.

It was when these efforts were most active--namely about the year
1850--that new material was discovered in a black-coated dog recently
introduced into England from Labrador. He was a natural water-dog,
with a constitution impervious to chills, and entirely free from the
liability to ear canker, which had always been a drawback to the use
of the Spaniel as a retriever of waterfowl. Moreover, he was himself
reputed to be a born retriever of game, and remarkably sagacious.
His importers called him a Spaniel--a breed name which at one time
was also applied to his relative the Newfoundland. Probably there
were not many specimens of the race in England, and, although there
is no record explicitly saying so, it is conjectured that these were
crossed with the English Setter, producing what is now familiarly
known as the black, flat-coated Retriever.

One very remarkable attribute of the Retriever is that notwithstanding
the known fact that the parent stock was mongrel, and that in the
early dogs the Setter type largely predominated, the ultimate result
has favoured the Labrador cross distinctly and prominently, proving
how potent, even when grafted upon a stock admittedly various, is
the blood of a pure race, and how powerful its influence for fixing
type and character over the other less vital elements with which it
is blended.

From the first, sportsmen recognised the extreme value of the new
retrieving dog. Strengthened and improved by the Labrador blood, he
had lost little if any of the Setter beauty of form. He was a
dignified, substantial, intelligent, good-tempered, affectionate
companion, faithful, talented, highly cultivated, and esteemed, in
the season and out of it, for his mind as well as his beauty.

It is only comparatively recently that we have realised how excellent
an all-around sporting dog the Retriever has become. In many cases,
indeed, where grouse and partridge are driven or walked-up a
well-broken, soft-mouthed Retriever is unquestionably superior to
Pointer, Setter, or Spaniel, and for general work in the field he
is the best companion that a shooting man can possess.

Doubtless in earlier days, when the art of training was less
thoroughly understood, the breaking of a dog was a matter of infinite
trouble to breeders. Most of the gun dogs could be taught by patience
and practice to retrieve fur or feather, but game carefully and
skilfully shot is easily rendered valueless by being mumbled and
mauled by powerful jaws not schooled to gentleness. And this question
of a tender mouth was certainly one of the problems that perturbed
the minds of the originators of the breed. The difficulty was overcome
by process of selection, and by the exclusion from breeding operations
of all hard-mouthed specimens, with the happy effect that in the
present time it is exceptional to find a working Retriever who does
not know how to bring his bird to hand without injuring it. A better
knowledge of what is expected of him distinguishes our modern
Retriever. He knows his duty, and is intensely eager to perform it,
but he no longer rushes off unbidden at the firing of the gun. He
has learned to remain at heel until he is ordered by word or gesture
from his master, upon whom he relies as his friend and director.

It would be idle to expect that the offspring of unbroken sire and
dam can be as easily educated as a Retriever whose parents before
him have been properly trained. Inherited qualities count for a great
deal in the adaptability of all sporting dogs, and the reason why
one meets with so many Retrievers that are incapable or disobedient
or gun-shy is simply that their preliminary education has been
neglected--the education which should begin when the dog is very

In his earliest youth he should be trained to prompt obedience to
a given word or a wave of the hand. It is well to teach him very early
to enter water, or he may be found wanting when you require him to
fetch a bird from river or lake. Lessons in retrieving ought to be
a part of his daily routine. Equally necessary is it to break him
in to the knowledge that sheep and lambs are not game to be chased,
and that rabbits and hares are to be discriminated from feathered

Gun-shyness is often supposed to be hereditary; but it is not so.
Any puppy can be cured of gun-shyness in half a dozen short lessons.
Sir Henry Smith's advice is to get your puppy accustomed to the sound
and sight of a gun being fired, first at a distance and gradually
nearer and nearer, until he knows that no harm will come to him.
Companionship and sympathy between dog and master is the beginning
and end of the whole business, and there is a moral obligation between
them which ought never to be strained.

Both as a worker and as a show dog the flat-coated Retriever has
reached something very near to the ideal standard of perfection which
has been consistently bred up to. Careful selection and systematic
breeding, backed up by enthusiasm, have resulted in the production
of a dog combining useful working qualities with the highest degree
of beauty.

A very prominent admirer and breeder was the late Mr. S. E. Shirley,
the President of the Kennel Club, who owned many Retrievers
superlative both as workers and as show dogs, and who probably did
more for the breed than any other man of his generation.

Mr. Shirley's work was carried on by Mr. Harding Cox, who devoted
much time and energy to the production of good Retrievers, many of
which were of Mr. Shirley's strain. Mr. Cox's dogs deservedly achieved
considerable fame for their levelness of type, and the improvement
in heads so noticeable at the present time is to be ascribed to his
breeding for this point. Mr. L. Allen Shuter, the owner of Ch. Darenth
and other excellent Retrievers of his own breeding, claims also a
large share of credit for the part he has played in the general
improvement of the breed. Mr. C. A. Phillips, too, owned admirable
specimens, and the name of the late Lieut.-Colonel Cornwall Legh must
be included. Many of Colonel Legh's bitches were of Shirley blood,
but it is believed that a breed of Retrievers had existed at High
Legh for several generations, with which a judicious cross was made,
the result being not only the formation of a remarkable kennel, but
also a decided influence for good upon the breed in general.

But since the Shirley days, when competition was more limited than
it is at present, no kennel of Retrievers has ever attained anything
like the distinction of that owned by Mr. H. Reginald Cooke, at
Riverside, Nantwich. By acquiring the best specimens of the breed
from all available sources, Mr. Cooke has gathered together a stock
which has never been equalled. His ideas of type and conformation
are the outcome of close and attentive study and consistent practice,
and one needs to go to Riverside if one desires to see the highest
examples of what a modern flat-coated Retriever can be.

Since Dr. Bond Moore imparted to the Retriever a fixity of character,
the coats have become longer and less wavy, and in conformation of
skull, colour of eye, straightness of legs, and quality of bone, there
has been a perceptible improvement.

As there is no club devoted to the breed, and consequently no official
standard of points, the following description of the perfect Retriever
is offered:--

* * * * *

GENERAL APPEARANCE--That of a well-proportioned bright and active
sporting dog, showing power without lumber and raciness without
weediness. HEAD--Long, fine, without being weak, the muzzle square,
the underjaw strong with an absence of lippiness or throatiness.
EYES--Dark as possible, with a very intelligent, mild expression.
NECK--Long and clean. EARS--Small, well set on, and carried close
to the head. SHOULDERS--Oblique, running well into the back, with
plenty of depth of chest. BODY--Short and square, and well ribbed
up. STERN--Short and straight, and carried gaily, but not curled over
the back. FORE-LEGS--Straight, pasterns strong, feet small and round.
QUARTERS--Strong; stifles well bent. COAT--Dense black or liver, of
fine quality and texture. Flat, not wavy. WEIGHT--From 65 lb. to 80
lb. for dogs; bitches rather less.

* * * * *

As a rule the Retriever should be chosen for the intelligent look
of his face, and particular attention should be paid to the shape
of his head and to his eyes. His frame is important, of course, but
in the Retriever the mental qualities are of more significance than
bodily points.

There has been a tendency in recent years among Retriever breeders
to fall into the common error of exaggerating a particular point,
and of breeding dogs with a head far too fine and narrow--it is what
has been aptly called the alligator head--lacking in brain capacity
and power of jaw. A perfect head should be long and clean, but neither
weak nor snipy. The eye should be placed just halfway between the
occiput and the tip of the nose.

It is pleasing to add that to this beautiful breed the phrase
handsome is as handsome does applies in full measure. Not only is
the average Retriever of a companionable disposition, with delightful
intelligence that is always responsive, but he is a good and faithful
guard and a courageous protector of person and property. It has
already been said that the majority of the best-looking Retrievers
are also good working dogs, and it may here be added that many of
the most successful working dogs are sired by prize-winners in the
show ring.

Next: The Curly-coated Retriever

Previous: The Setters

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