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.

1 comment:

Retrieverman said...

The St. John's breed is also at the base of the wavy-coated retriever and the curly-coated retriever, which means that it's also the ancestor of the golden and flat-coated retrievers. The big Newfoundland is actually a giant retriever.

I'm a bit skeptical about Mowat on this score. Most authorities on the Beothuk claim that they had no dogs. My guess is the source he refers to is someone who saw some wandering Mi'kmaq on the Newfoundland Coast. The Mi'maq had black dogs with prick ears that would retrieve geese, ducks, and sea birds for them. They might be an ancestor of the St. John's water dog.

I know many strains of Mountain Cur that are said to be part "Indian dog." My guess is that if any of these dogs have that ancestry, it's pretty low, but it still could be there. I know that Chihuahuas and Xoloitzcuinltis (Mexican hairless dogs) are now almost entirely European dogs. The Xolo's hairless trait first appeared in Mexico 4,000 years ago, but because it's a dominant trait, it is very easily passed onto dog stock that may have very little indigenous ancestry.

Mowat later expounded on his theories about Newfoundland and created a pseudo history of Newfoundland in which it was settled by a pre-Indo-European people from Scotland's Northern Isles during the Middle Ages. He implies that the black water dogs are derived from their stock. His book is very much pseudo-history. His biggest problem is the assumption that the Picts were pre-Indo-European, but we now know they were probably Brythonic or Gallic Celts, definite Indo-Europeans.

The natives along the Peruvian coast had dogs that worked very much like St. John's water dogs. They would help their human companions set nets. This idea of using dogs for this purpose may have been widespread across the America. It certainly was in Europe.

Chesapeakes probably resemble the original St. John's water dogs in temperament more so than any of the other descendants. Col. Peter Hawker was one of the first people to mention this breed in England, which he used as a working retriever.

In addition to the dogs being described as great retrievers from the land and water, he describes them as being fierce fighters and great guard dogs. Labradors, goldens, and flat-coats are terrible guard dogs, because they have been selected to be social to lots of people and other dogs. You had to have that to be able to attend shoots that include many people and strange dogs. Curly-coated retrievers were the first of the British retrievers derived from the St. John's dogs, and their temperaments are very similar to Chesapeakes. Which is interesting. The curly-coated retriever may have never played a role in the development of the Chessie, because the breed has never been common in the United States. It was considered too aggressive to be a good trial dog in England, so it was largely ignored over here. But the fact that the two breeds have retained this protective and very independent streak, I think suggests that they are closer to the dogs Col. Hawker knew.

BTW, I am not saying that Chessies or curlies are super aggressive compared to all dogs. They just are much more protective and independent than the average Labrador, golden, or flat-coat.