Retrievers were bred primarily to retrieve birds or other prey and return them to the hunter without damage. They comprise the more popular breeds, such as Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever and the Flatcoat Retriever. There are many more dogs that are classified as retrievers, such as the Boykin Spaniel, the Curly-coated retriever, the Portuguese Water Dog and the Newfoundland, to name a few. However, these are not often seen either as hunting companions or at competition, and the Labrador and Golden Retriever are by far the most popular.
To be effective sporting dogs, retrievers need to have certain qualities which set them apart from other breeds which have not been bred for the purpose of retrieving game. The function of a retriever is to seek and retrieve “fallen” game when required to do so. He should sit quietly on line or in the blind, walk at heel or assume any station designated by his handler until sent to retrieve. When required, he should retrieve quickly and briskly without unduly disturbing too much ground, and should deliver tenderly to hand. He should then await further instruction. Accurate marking is of primary importance. A dog which marks the fall of the bird, uses the wind and takes direction from his handler when required to do so, is of great value.
In addition to these qualities, he should also be trained to be steady to wing and shot, to respond to direction and deliver to hand.
During the nineteenth century, there was an ongoing quest among the British gentry for the perfect hunting dog. As a result, most of today’s retrievers and many other hunting dogs have their roots in these early efforts. Many attempted this goal by acquiring and breeding good hunting dogs, using outcrosses to other breeds in an effort to bring in other desirable qualities. Sometimes this worked, more often it did not. That the exact origins of several of the retriever breeds is unclear is due to the somewhat haphazard or occasionally secretive methods used at the time. We will explore in greater detail some of these efforts.