Know Your Retriever

| July 2, 2014 | 0 Comments
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Photo By: @alliegirl63

It is believed that early dogs were first bred for the purposes of guarding their human “pack” and helping in the hunt of various animals necessary for food at a time when agriculture was a fairly recent and exclusive technology. The use of the dog as a hunting partner added an almost super-human element to the task. Dogs’ eyes process what they see more quickly than ours and their ears allow them to hear sounds four times further away, and twice as high pitched, as ours can. The part of their brain that controls smell is forty times the size of ours, their noses possess three hundred million sent glands, while the human nose only harbors a mere five million in comparison. This means your dog can hear the pulsing of quartz crystal within a clock and smell events that took place in a particular spot months after they occurred. By honing and harnessing these abilities, humans acquired an inexpendable ally, crucial to the fulfillment of their needs – even to the present day.

Retrievers are a more recent development in the long tradition of the human-canine hunting relationship. All modern day retriever breeds – Chesapeake Bay, Golden, Flat Coated, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling, and Labrador, retrievers – share the common ancestor of the now extinct St. John’s water dog. The Newfoundland dog is also a descendant of this breed, which is why “Newfies” often seem to resemble large and furry Black Labs. The St. John’s dog was a breed that naturally arose in early nineteenth century Newfoundland, Canada, from a synthesis of western European working breeds. The retrievers we know and love today were the product of mid-nineteenth century breeders in Canada, America, Scotland, and England who desired to develop hunting dogs for gentleman fowl hunters, by mixing the St. John’s water dog with British hunting breeds. It is their breeding for the hunt that is the purpose for your retriever bearing physical traits, which appear closer to their wolf ancestors than resembling those of herding breeds; aside from inheriting the wolf’s erect ears.

Photo by: @shiraydrako

Photo by: @shiraydrako

The retrievers and other gun dog breeds have phenotypically retained an intermediary state of paedomorphism – the retention of traits, present in adults, which were previously only exhibited in the young of the species. This is a result of human efforts to breed dogs that will cooperate in pack hunting, like their wild ancestors, however to not participate in the actual attack on the prey. Therefore, behaviors suited to facilitate human hunters arose from the endeavor to breed a dog that would remain in the role of a junior pack member. For example, this breeding caused the much desired “pointing” and “retrieving” behaviors, in that the dogs’ natural instincts are to freeze when they spot prey and seize dead or wounded prey to return to the “pack”; however, they provide these services without proceeding to stalk or kill the prey themselves as a mature wolf pack member would do.

Traits specific to retrievers such as webbed paws, high intelligence, soft mouths and oily coats make them strong water dogs and flushing breeds. Thus, your retriever is particularly proficient in the hunting of waterfowl as well as upland birds, such as pheasants and grouse. Primarily, since the late nineteenth century, retrievers have been bred for the purpose of non-slip retrieval – meaning that they are steady to both shot and fall, rendering the use of a “slip lead” unnecessary.

Thank you @dhchapin for your photo contribution!

Thank you @dhchapin for your photo contribution!

Aside from their abilities to serve us in the field, the very same traits that make your retriever an able gun dog have by default made them loving and caring companions in the home. Their keen intellect and capacity for learning, coupled with an eager desire to obey and please, have made the retriever breeds some of the most popular dogs – as both family members and service dogs. You are your retriever’s world and whether you want them to assist the impaired, provide therapy to those in need, flush and retrieve wild game, sniff out persons in need of rescue, or simply be your best friend, your retriever can perform and excel in any or all of these tasks. The bond between you and your dog runs deep. The celebratory yips and wagging, as well as the empathetic licks and nuzzling we receive, are exemplary of the unique friendship our dogs feel towards us. However, though this relationship seems unique, it is one that has been shared between our species since over ten thousand years before the invention of the wheel and has endured to the present day – when our bond seems ever stronger.

Thank you to everyone who helped contribute pictures for this article! We appreciate your submissions!







Category : Feature Story

Sean Zabihi

About the Author ()

From the age of four I have been drawn to dogs, all dogs, but particularly the retriever breeds. My first canine family member was a Black English Lab called Sadie. However currently I have been fortunate to share the past five years with a wonderful Yellow Lab named Daisy – whose sweet temperament and unconditional love has been a source of joy to me, and all those who meet her. In 2013, I graduated from the University of Washington with honors in English and History. My background in these fields greatly exercised my passion to read and write about the cultures, histories, and scientific phenomena of the world and its inhabitants – both two legged and four legged.

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