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Water Dog: Born to Hunt

Tracing the fascinating origins of the water dog
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  • photo by Diane Glassmeyer
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Water Dog Breeds
American Water Spaniel
Boykin Spaniel
Chesapeake Bay Retriever
Curly-Coated Retriever
Flat-Coated Retriever
Golden Retriever
Irish Water Spaniel
Labrador Retriever
Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retriever
Standard Poodle

For generations, retrievers have leapt into icy waters and bounded across flooded fields in pursuit of fallen ducks and geese. And waterfowlers have always loved retrievers for such heroics as well as for their unflinching loyalty. This affection has been a constant presence in waterfowling's history.

In England, training guides for duck dogs date back to the early 1600s. On the other side of the Atlantic, all types of hunting dogs accompanied their European masters to the New World.

As American waterfowling grew so did the number of dogs bred specifically to retrieve in the water. For example, fishing villages along Newfoundland's rocky shores became known for producing a hardy strain of water dogs. By the mid-1800s, Newfoundland's retrievers were in high demand for their intelligence and strong swimming ability.

As a result of this popularity, Newfoundland is the origin of several modern retrievers.

Today, the duck dogs are a distinct, yet diversified, group. The differences among them are the product of more than 200 years of selective breeding. This article looks back at the histories of 10 breeds that continue to serve waterfowlers as loyal companions and valuable partners.


American Water Spaniel

As a distinct breed, the American water spaniel became established sometime in the second half of the 19th century. Its early history is not well documented, and its ancestors could include the Irish water spaniel and curly-coated retriever. Yet, most historians agree hunters developed the breed in the region around the Fox and Wolf river valleys of east-central Wisconsin. 

American water spaniels are among the smallest duck dogs, standing only 15 to 18 inches high. Some attribute the dog's small stature to the notion that Wisconsin hunters wanted a dog that would take up little room in their boats. In time, the breed's popularity among waterfowlers earned it recognition as the state dog of Wisconsin.


Boykin Spaniel

The Boykin spaniel is the state dog of South Carolina and the newest member of the duck dog club. According to the Boykin Spaniel Society, the breed's roots can be traced to the first decade of the 20th century when Whitaker Boykin, of Boykin, S.C., received a dog from longtime hunting partner Alexander White. Boykin's new dog didn't have a fancy pedigree. In fact, it had been a stray. White had taken in the spaniel, named it "Dumpy," and recognized it had strong retrieving instincts.

Under Boykin's training, Dumpy learned to be a skilled duck retriever, and this one-time stray became the foundation stock for the Boykin spaniel. Over the next few decades, the Boykin was intentionally kept small so that it would better fit in the boats used by waterfowlers along South Carolina's Wateree River.


Chesapeake Bay Retriever

Despite being the state dog of Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay retriever has a history clouded by speculation and legend. Tradition claims the breed originated from two dogs–Sailor, a red male, and Canton, a black female.

In a letter dated 1845, George Law wrote that in 1807 he rescued young Sailor and Canton from a sinking ship that had left Newfoundland bound for England. Law then brought the pups to Baltimore and gave them to separate owners. Sailor was eventually purchased by Maryland's governor and settled on the Eastern Shore. Canton was owned by Dr. James Stewart and remained just south of Baltimore.

Known for their retrieving ability and toughness, these two dogs and their descendents were bred with a variety of other dogs, including Irish water spaniels, curly-coated and flat-coated retrievers, setters and even coonhounds. By the mid-1880s, a definite breed had been established, and the Chessie was the first retriever to be recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC).

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