Top 10 Retrievers

A closer look at the diversity of America's favorite duck dogs

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Photo © Joe Pope

By Gary Koehler

Of all the unanswered questions about the history of waterfowl hunting, the most intriguing mystery involves retrievers. When, how, and where, exactly, did today's duck dogs first arrive on the waterfowling scene? Scholars have spent years researching the origins of just about every sporting breed in existence. And many plausible theories and timelines explaining breed evolution have been provided. But the fact of the matter is, with only a few exceptions, no one can be sure of specific retriever ancestry.

What is known is that our hunting forefathers tried mightily to develop dogs that best fit their personal sporting needs. Theirs was often a mix-and-match breeding exercise that included canines ranging from collies to bloodhounds. The goal was to create dogs with certain physical traits that would make them better suited to retrieving waterfowl. Breed standards recognized today were for the most part nonexistent more than a century ago. Overall, however, these pioneer dog breeders did a wonderful job of providing a wide variety of capable retrievers. Each breed has its own strengths, weaknesses, defining characteristics, and steadfast supporters.

While retriever origins remain relatively obscure, at least a couple of now-extinct breeds-the St. John's water dog and the Tweed water spaniel-figure prominently in the backgrounds of some duck dogs. The Newfoundland provided swimming prowess. Hounds and spaniels were incorporated for their scenting skills. Setters, it has been written, were at one time natural retrievers. And poodles, which predate firearms, likely influenced curly-coated breeds. These dogs, and others, are all part of the retriever riddle. One thing is certain, however. No matter how or where you hunt waterfowl, you can find a retriever to meet your needs.

Here's an exploration of 10 of the most popular retriever breeds (in no particular order), their histories, and the respective attributes that make them valued hunting partners and family pets.

Labrador Retriever

Who can argue with the success of the Labrador retriever, which has been the most popular dog in the United States for a record-breaking 23 years in a row? There is a reason for this nation's fondness for Labs. In addition to being proven waterfowl and upland game hunters, they make great family dogs. At the heart of the matter is the Lab's friendly disposition and loving demeanor. Those traits are highly valued. Then there's the intelligence quotient. Labs are quick learners, and they seldom have a problem remembering the location of downed birds. Strong swimmers, they revel in water work, can handle tough conditions, and display intense drive. It's little wonder that this dog's ancestors were used to help fishermen retrieve nets, ropes, floats, and sometimes fish. The breed originated in the 1800s in Newfoundland, but the first Labrador kennels were established in England in the 1830s by the Fifth Duke of Buccleuch and the Second Earl of Malmesbury. The St. John's water dog was a direct ancestor of today's Lab, which was first recognized as a distinct breed in 1917 by the American Kennel Club.

Chesapeake Bay Retriever

Big, strong, and powerful, the Chesapeake Bay retriever was developed for a single purpose: to retrieve waterfowl. During the market hunting era, Chessies were often required to pick up more than 100 ducks a day, and then spend their downtime guarding their owner's boat and gear. Or so legend has it. The guard dog story may be apocryphal, but never doubt the Chessie's ability as a retriever. Its double coat allows this hardy dog to endure the most brutal waterfowling conditions, which is not surprising considering that the dog was bred to hunt diving ducks on the big waters off Maryland's Eastern Shore. Several breeds, including the Newfoundland, Irish water spaniel, bloodhound, and others, were combined to create what was once considered the ultimate waterfowl dog. Though extremely loyal to its owner, the Chessie can be aloof among strangers. And despite its toughness, the dog is generally soft on the inside and does not respond well to heavy-handed training. Chesapeakes are intelligent, but they can also be frustratingly stubborn and a bit difficult to handle, especially for first-time retriever owners.

Golden Retriever

Sir Dudley Marjoribanks, aka Lord Tweedmouth, knew what he was doing when he developed the golden retriever, and he was one of the few breeders who kept detailed records of his breeding program. The Scottish baron mixed and matched a number of sporting dogs-including the wavy-coated retriever, Tweed water spaniel, setters, and a bloodhound-to create this handsome and functional retriever. His efforts certainly paid off. The venerable golden retriever has ranked among the most popular breeds in the United States for years. In addition to being an accomplished hunter, the golden is known for its intelligence, obedient demeanor, and friendly disposition. The breed has a beautiful water-repellent coat of varying colors, which it sheds prodigiously. Many goldens are bred specifically for the show ring and may have little interest in retrieving waterfowl. Duck gunners must therefore be sure that the dog they are acquiring is from a hunting line.

American Water Spaniel

Duck gunners who commonly use small boats such as canoes and similar watercraft know all too well that a big retriever can turn a routine outing into an adventure. Things can get pretty tippy when a big dog shifts its weight in a small craft. Enter the American water spaniel, which was developed as a compact yet versatile gun dog. Derived from ancestry that likely included the English water spaniel, Irish water spaniel, and curly-coated retriever, the American water spaniel was refined in the Upper Midwest. Specifically, credit Wisconsin's Wolf and Fox River Valley region for creating a duck dog built to hunt from a boat. A fine waterfowl dog, this breed is also at home in the uplands and is noted for its physical toughness. The dog's weight can range between 25 and 45 pounds, with males being on the heavier end of the scale.

Boykin Spaniel

A latecomer to the retrieving party, the Boykin spaniel did not appear on the sporting scene until the early 1900s. It is one of the few all-American retrievers, developed originally in South Carolina, where it has become the state's official dog. Boykins were bred to hunt not only waterfowl but also wild turkeys, which is surprising when you consider the breed's diminutive size. Weighing 40 pounds or less, the dogs are ideally suited for hunting out of small boats. Among the gun dogs that may have been crossbred to produce this breed are the Chesapeake Bay retriever, springer spaniel, American water spaniel, and cocker spaniel. Boykins feature a wavy, moderately curly coat and a well-developed chest. In addition to their work on water, they are also sometimes used by dove and quail gunners in the southern states.

Curly-Coated Retriever

One of the oldest water dogs, the curly-coated retriever was developed during the 1800s in England. Its ancestral background includes the 16th century English water spaniel, Irish water spaniel, and other retrieving spaniels. Such crossbreeding resulted in a dog with a dense, curly coat that protects it from the coldest water, which is a prerequisite for duck dogs in many parts of the country. Like a number of other retrievers, the curly-coat is an all-around gun dog that is comfortable pursuing upland game as well as waterfowl. Though labeled a relatively slow learner, it's an intelligent dog that does well once lessons are mastered, responding best to a gentle training approach. The curly-coat is said to be slow to mature and may be somewhat standoffish among strangers, but it's a loyal companion to its master and a proven watchdog. This breed has a unique, graceful look and is extremely agile. Curly-coats have long been the retriever of choice for waterfowlers in New Zealand and Australia. They were introduced in the United States in 1907.    

Irish Water Spaniel

By some accounts, the Irish water spaniel arrived in the United States around the time of the Civil War. This breed quickly became extraordinarily popular with the hunting public. By the early 1920s, there were more Irish water spaniels registered in the Field Dog Stud Book than any other retriever breed. Unlike many retrievers, the Irish water spaniel's development and refinement is well documented and can be traced rather easily to the mid-1800s in southern Ireland. Historical references to this breed date back to the 1600s. These early dogs may have been crossed with a number of other breeds, including Irish setters, the poodle, old Spanish pointer, Portuguese water dog, and the South Country water spaniel common to Ireland's southern region. Relatively long-legged, the Irish water spaniel proved to be extremely efficient while working inland sloughs and tidal marshes. In addition to being a strong swimmer, this retriever is intelligent and a quick learner.

Flat-Coated Retriever

Relatively rare, the flat-coated retriever is perhaps the most streamlined of the retriever breeds. Developed in the 1870s in England, this handsome dog was created via a mix of crossbreeding that likely included wavy-coated retrievers, water spaniels, the St. John's water dog, setters, and perhaps collies. Though popular in the United States and England in the early 1900s, the breed's numbers dwindled nearly to the point of extinction following World War II. Hunters' allegiance by that time had shifted to Labrador and golden retrievers. A lively dog, the flat-coated retriever is a capable hunter on and off the water. Separate "field" and "show" lines for this breed have not been developed. Though slow to mature, these dogs are very biddable and make good family pets.

Standard Poodle

Bite your tongue and put any and all derision on hold. Poodles were retrieving wild game long before firearms were even invented. This sporting breed is one of the oldest still in existence. Keep in mind that we're talking standard poodles here, not the miniature or toy versions. This largest of the poodle varieties traces its origins all the way back to the 1400s. The term "French poodle" is, by the way, a misnomer. The breed was undeniably refined in France, but only after being developed in Germany. The poodle's name in fact comes from the German word pudel, which is short for pudelhund. Poodles are true water dogs and rank only behind the border collie in terms of canine intelligence. Admittedly, they have a unique look. Their distinctive haircut, however, originally had practical applications. The thicker coat around the head and torso worked to keep the dog's internal organs warm in cold water and the shaved back end was designed so as not to impede the dog's swimming. While not regularly seen in today's duck blinds, poodles (all sizes included) were the most popular dog from the mid-1950s into the 1970s in the United States.

Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retriever

While the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever functions well as a traditional duck dog, its hunting role has varied historically. Tollers once served waterfowl hunters by running up and down the shoreline with the purpose of attracting curious waterfowl within gunning range. This breed was developed in Yarmouth County, at the southern tip of Nova Scotia, in the 1800s. It was originally known as the Little River duck dog and evolved from a number of crosses that included the St. John's water dog, setters, spaniels, collies, and others. The result was a relatively small retriever that seldom weighs more than 50 pounds. Tollers feature a water-repellent double coat, making them hardy in cold-water environments. This breed takes a special training hand and does not thrive when pressured or forced.