CHAPTER XXIV. 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 young.

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 game.