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From Hunting Spaniels to the Origins of Retrievers: HDC Episode #7

From Hunting Spaniels to the Origins of Retrievers: HDC Episode #7

Painting of two duck hunters and a spaniel in a canoe

Exploring how spaniels and working dogs led to the early origins of the retrieving dog

We are in the midst of talking about the origins of hunting dogs; specifically, we are covering the history of flushing spaniels, retrievers, and hounds. In this episode, we pick up where we left off with some further discussion about spaniels.

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A running theme for Hunting Dog Confidential has been the idea that hunting dog breeds are a reflection of the culture from which they originated. Two spaniel breeds are particularly good examples of this idea: the Welsh springer spaniel and the Russian spaniel. Both breeds have a fascinating history as they followed cultural lines and not necessarily geopolitical borders. The movement of people –whether soldiers returning from war or merchants on trade routes– is largely responsible for the movement and intermixing of these early dogs. To trace their history is to trace the movement of humans across the continent and around the world.

Both the hunting spaniel and the pointing dog breeds are examples of questing dogs, meaning they leave their handler and independently search for game. This behavior was perfect for locating birds in a field, but it wasn’t ideal for a new kind of hunting that involved waiting for game to approach, or perhaps luring that game to the unseen hunter. Generations of purposeful breeding for the desire to run independently meant that these dogs simply weren’t suited for sitting patiently by the master’s side and awaiting a command to spring into action.

Hunters stalk ducks with the use of retrieving dogs
A hunter hides behind a stalking horse while a retriever waits patiently at his feet

Hunters looked for ways to infuse the hunting spaniels with the newly desired traits of patience and unquestioning obedience, which led them to working dogs. They found exactly what they were looking for aboard ships: hearty, capable dogs were living aboard merchant and fishing vessels that traveled back and forth between Europe and North America. These dogs were intelligent, willing to work, strong swimmers, and –perhaps most importantly– thrived in the confining environment of a boat at sea. Eventually, the retriever was born.

Tune in to hear more about the earliest origins of the retriever and the unusual hunting methods that eventually gave way to shooting waterfowl on the wing. As always, we thank you for listening and hope you’ll continue to share your feedback about this series. We can be reached at with your ideas, comments, and questions.

Giacomo Franco's illustration of hunting in the Venice lagoon

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Hunting Dog Confidential is presented by Eukanuba Premium Performance Dog Food

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