Dogs that saved People from Starvation

Irish Water Spaniel c 1870Irish Water Spaniel c 1870

Researching the history of today's pure dog breeds through books, historic paintings and other references of the 1800's is not easy! It requires coupling the social and political aspects of that time together, with reasons why various breeds developed the way they did. Whilst the wealthy and those who could read and write are well catered for, the history of many breeds ignores peasants and those who relied on their dogs to provide sufficient food to survive, especially in times of extreme hardship. My personal research leads me to believe the two breeds discussed here that developed on opposite sides of the globe, fall into this category.

The Irish Water Spaniel

Irish Water Spaniel 1929Irish Water Spaniel 1929

A relic from the past, the Irish Water Spaniel is not your conventional Gundog! Unique with his barrel shaped body giving him a characteristic roll when he trots, his large, spreading, hairy feet, his hairless 'rat tail',  and his oily, curly, rich dark liver coat, is the only remaining British Water Spaniel among today's pure breeds.

The Irish Water Spaniel really came into his own in the 1800's. He worked differently from conventional Spaniels and Retrievers of the wealthy that were selected and trained to be 'soft mouthed'. Instead, this hard-mouthed hunting dog not only found game, it would kill as well as retrieve wounded waterfowl and animals.

Irish Water SpanielIrish Water Spaniel

In the mid-1800's, the Irish potato famine saw almost one million die because their basic diet was potatoes. Those who survived would have no doubt used primitive methods of hunting to capture or maim waterfowl or game. So, although starving themselves, it was a definite asset to keep a hard-mouthed hunting dog that would also kill prey.

Irish Water SpanielIrish Water Spaniel

This dog had to survive the cold, wet conditions of the bogs and marshes. So he had to have an oily, waterproof coat that was sufficiently dense and curly to keep him warm. He also needed large feet and a powerful body capable of working in these appallingly muddy conditions. These physical characteristics, as well as the ability to make the unilateral decision to kill and retrieve wounded waterfowl and animals rather than allowing them to escape, would have helped many Irish people survive when their potato crops failed.

But not only did some Irish people survive. Probably the selective breeding of the physical characteristics of the Irish Water Spaniel at this time is why this breed survived when all other British Water Spaniels became extinct.

The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever

Nova Scotia Duck Tolling RetrieverNova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever

Meanwhile on the other side of the globe in Canada, there was political turmoil. In the 1700's the British attempted to remove all the French from Canada, deporting many to Louisiana (USA) or back to France. Those Frenchmen who escaped fled to the great salt-water marshes and islands of Nova Scotia. So in these remote locations, a tolling dog would have provided the French refugees with sufficient waterfowl to keep them alive during these hard times.

The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever resembles the Red Fox in both appearance and behaviour. Development of this trait specifically for use on waterfowl is specialized work which adds another dimension to that of conventional Retrievers. The process of enticing of ducks to swim towards the hunter where they could be caught is called 'Tolling'.

Nova Scotia Duck Tolling RetrieverNova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever

Tolling dogs have been bred to not only somewhat resemble Red Fox in appearance, they also mimic the behaviour of the ducks' natural predator. When a pair of Red Foxes spot a flock of ducks flying overhead or swimming too far away in water, one fox scampers up and down the shore line while the other hides in nearby undergrowth. So with one fox attracting curious ducks to paddle towards the shore, its mate springs and catches its meal.

Nova Scotia Duck Tolling RetrieversNova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers

So the Duck Tolling Retriever mimics a pair of Red Foxes, with the hunter encouraging a dog to run up and down the shoreline by throwing balls or sticks. This behaviour plus their physical attributes of their red colour and beautiful highly carried luxuriant tails, attracts the curious ducks to swim within range of the hunter. There the ducks are caught or the dogs sent out to retrieve any wounded birds.

It was the development of these traits by the French refugees that made the Tolling Retriever the official dog of the Province of Nova Scotia, in Canada.

So it is important for breeders and judges to select for and reward these two specialized dogs' unique features that helped a generation of poor people survive in hard times. For although their physical features represent relics from the past, it is these relics which make them unique within the Gundog Group.

References and Further Reading

Also published in Dog News Australia (Top Dog Media Pty Ltd Austral NSW) Issue 6, 2016 Page 10