Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Chesapeake Bay retriever [final]

A reader named Matthew Phillips contacted me with a question about the origins of the Chesapeake Bay retriever, specifically whether it had any Native American dog heritage.  I would run his query, but there are technical difficulties.  I would answer him privately, but he left no email address.  He apparently has already queried retrieverman, who is the authority on these breed histories.  There is a legend that Catahoula leopard dogs have Native American dogs in their ancestry, and similar arguments are sometimes made about various of the curs.  The Chesapeake Bay retriever is at base a St. Johns water dog, I believe, a cur from that island where the basic dog was cleaved into two or, if you count the Chesapeake, three dogs—Labradors, Newfoundlands, and Chesapeakes.  That's my notion, but there are many people who would disagree.

Farley Mowat in Sea of Slaughter (1984) argues the the black St. Johns water dog was the dog of the Beothuk, the native people of Newfoundland, and that it was different from mainland dogs.    The Beothuk were killed off, but their black dog survived as the St. Johns water cur, which essentially was a mixed breed of the sort that came to exist in America where European dog with local dogs and apparently wolves.  Although it was a dog with input from many sources, it bred to a broad type.

So if we follow Farley Mowat, we would conclude that the Chesapeake is derived in part from Native American dogs.  But Mowat is a lone rider on this question, it appears, and, according to retrieverman even backtracked on it.  It important to remember that English and European settlers brought their own dogs and had little interest in Native American dogs, which they considered wolflike unrefined savages, like their human companions.  They killed both.  That is not to say that some mixing didn't occur; it is to say that the dominate lineages, even for Catahoulas, are European.

The official breed history says the Chesapeake is descended from two Newfoundland dogs bound for England in 1807. The Newfoundland was apparently the St. Johns water dog, said to be from England, crossed in the 17th century with one of the large mountain dogs, although I suspect it was initially just a large, slightly curly version of the St. Johns dog.   The claim of English decent was, I suspect, an attempt to claim that the Labrador and Newfoundland were at base good English dogs.

Landraces, or autochthonous breeds, aside—they are types of dogs that have formed in particular areas or regions, to which they are adapted--there are two primary ways to create a breed—consolidation of a particular type from a more variable landrace and crossbreeding of different dogs to create a composite then consolidated through inbreeding to fix the desired traits.  In both cases the gene pool is severely narrowed. Although admixture brings an initial burst of variability, it is quickly bred out once the desired form is achieved.  The Carolina dog is consolidated from a more general type.  As far as I know, no genetic evidence suggests that it or any of the other putative Native American dogs live up to expectations.  But the surveys are not complete, and that allows anyone to claim just about anything.  Suffice it to say, that the Chesapeake is a distinctive and distinctly American breed.  The St. Johns water dog, if it still exists, should be protected.

The dog is ancient.  The genetic sorting of breeds has shown that some of them have not mixed with other breeds for a long time, and for that reasons researchers have called them 'ancient breeds.'  It is, I think, an unfortunate choice of words. What that means in terms of behavior is a much discussed question with no easy answers, no matter what some experts suggest.  In any event, the Chesapeake is a mix of Chesapeake Bay water dogs, all probably of European descent.