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.

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:—

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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.

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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.


The curly-coated Retriever is commonly believed to be of earlier origin than his flat-coated relative, and he is of less pure descent. He probably owes ancestral tribute to the Poodle. Such a cross may conceivably have been resorted to by the early Retriever breeders, and there was little to lose from a merely sporting point of view from this alien introduction, for the Poodle is well known to be by nature, if not by systematic training, an excellent water dog, capable of being taught anything that the canine mind can comprehend. During the early years of the nineteenth century the Poodle was fairly plentiful in England, and we had no other curly-coated dog of similar size and type apart from the Irish Water Spaniel, who may himself lay claim to Poodle relationship; while as to the Retriever, either curly or flat coated, he can in no sense be assigned to any country outside of Great Britain. The presumption is strong that the “gentleman from France” was largely instrumental in the manufacture of the variety, but whatever the origin of the curly-coated Retriever he is a beautiful dog, and one is gratified to note that the old prejudice against him, and the old indictment as to his hard mouth, are fast giving place to praise of his intelligence and admiration of his working abilities.

Speaking generally, it seems to be accepted that he is slightly inferior in nose to his flat-coated cousin, and not quite so easy to break, but there are many keepers and handlers who have discovered in individual specimens extraordinary merit in the field combined with great endurance. It is not certain that any great improvement has been effected in the variety during recent years, but there are particular dogs to-day who are decidedly better than any that existed a dozen years or more ago, when such celebrities as True, Old Sam, King Koffee, Ben Wonder, Doden Ben, Lad and Una, were prominent, and there is no doubt that the curly coats attained show form in advance of the flat-coated variety.

The coat of the curly Retriever plays a very important part in his value and personality. There are many kinds of coat, but the only true and proper one is the close-fitting “nigger curl,” of which each knot is solid and inseparable. A coat of this quality is not capable of improvement by any method of grooming, for the simple reason that its natural condition is in itself perfect. The little locks should be so close together as to be impervious to water, and all parts of the body should be evenly covered with them, including the tail and legs. A bad class of coat, and one which readily yields to the faker's art, is the thin open curl which by careful manipulation can be greatly improved. Another bad quality of coat is one in which, upon the withers and over the loins in particular, the curls do not tighten up naturally, but are large, loose, and soft to the feel. Regarding the dog as a whole, the following may be taken as an all-round description:—

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GENERAL APPEARANCE—That of a smart, active, clean-cut and alert dog, full of go and fire—a sportsman from stem to stern. HEAD—Long and not weedy in the muzzle, nor thick and coarse in the skull, but tapering down and finishing with a stout broad muzzle. SKULL—Should be flat and moderately broad between the ears, which are rather small, and well covered with hair. EARS—Should lie close to the side of the head, but not dead in their carriage. FACE—The face should be smooth, and any indication of a forelock should be penalised. EYE—The eye should in all cases be dark and not too deeply set. NECK—Well placed in the shoulders and nicely arched, of moderate length and yet powerful and free from throatiness. SHOULDERS—Well laid back and as free from massiveness as possible, though there is a decided tendency in this variety to such a fault. LEGS—Straight and well covered with coat. The bone should show quality and yet be fairly abundant. FEET—Compact and hound-like. BODY—Should show great power, with deep, well-rounded ribs. As little cut-up in the flank as possible. TAIL—Strong at the base, set on in a line with the back and tapering to a point, the size of the curls upon it diminishing gradually to the end. HIND-QUARTERS—Should show great development of muscle, with bent hocks, the lower leg being strong and the hind feet compact. Any suspicion of cow hocks should be heavily penalised. COLOUR—Mostly a dull black. Some liver-coloured dogs are seen with very good coats and bodies, but their heads are generally thick and coarse, and the colour of their eyes does not always match, as it should do, with the colour of the coat. A few dogs of this colour have achieved distinction on the show bench.

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Within recent years the original smooth-coated Labrador dog has taken its place as a recognised variety of the Retriever and become prominent both at exhibitions and as a worker. It is not probable that any have been imported into England for the past quarter of a century, but without the assistance of shows or imported blood they have survived marvellously. Thanks especially to the kennels of such breeders as the Dukes of Buccleuch and Hamilton, the Earl of Verulam, Lords Wimborne, Horne, and Malmesbury, the Hon. A. Holland Hibbert, Sir Savile Crossley, Mr. F. P. Barnett, Mr. C. Liddell, Mr. O. L. Mansel, and others equally enthusiastic.

To the Duke of Buccleuch's kennel we are probably more indebted in the last twenty years than to any other. Its foundation was laid in two bitches by a dog of the Duke of Hamilton's from a bitch of Lord Malmesbury's. At Drumlanrig, as well as on the Duke's other estates, they have been most particular in preserving the purity and working qualities of their strain. And the same may be said of the Hon. A. Holland Hibbert, whose principal dogs are not only typical in appearance, but broken to perfection. The Duchess of Hamilton's kennels have been responsible for some of the best field trial winners of the present day. As far as looks are concerned, one cannot say that the Labrador compares favourably with either the flat or the curly coated Retriever, but that is immaterial so long as he continues to work as he is doing at present.