Today we continue our series with Regency author and dog expert Judith Laik on dogs of the nineteenth century. If you have an opportunity to watch the Westminster Kennel Club dog show in February, you might see Judith’s daughter. Jennifer Laik’s CH Colebrae After Midnight could win the Best of Variety Rough category and be the Collie representative in the Herding Group!
Using dogs to search for and retrieve game birds was another popular form of hunting during the nineteenth century. Only aristocrats and landed gentry had the right to the game in the forests, and those with land suitable for shooting on their estates guarded their lands, and the wildlife to be found on them, zealously.
Many types of birds were considered good fare for the tables of the rich, and dogs were developed to specialize in particular kinds, eventually becoming different breeds. Spaniels were developed early, by the late 1600s, and then further evolved into land and water spaniels. The land spaniels “flushed,” or frightened, game birds such as partridge and pheasant out of dense brush so the hunters could shoot them “on the wing.” Water spaniels breeds were used to retrieve waterfowl from ponds and streams. Pointers and setters helped to find the game by pointing at them. The stood in a steady pose, nose toward the birds, one front paw lifted, and their tail straight out. Their steadiness on point was a chief attribute they were bred for.
Unlike the scent hounds such as Foxhounds and Beagles, which smelled the ground to discover their prey, the “sporting” breeds scented the air to find game. Many of the sporting breeds today look very much like they did in the nineteenth century. The exception is the retriever breeds, which were a work in progress during most of the century.
However, if the dogs were used to help hunt waterfowl, even if they weren’t called retrievers, going after downed birds in the water and bringing them back to their masters was a key part of their job. The water spaniels, such as the Irish Water Spaniel, as well as early retriever specimens, were used for this type of hunting.
Shooting could be done by a solitary man with a dog, or, as one often reads in novels, a shooting party, usually houseguests at a country estate, goes out together, each man with his own gun and with several dogs accompanying the party.
And although an active, athletic dog such as the sporting dogs needed a great deal of exercise and therefore weren’t as likely to be kept as a household companion, their close bond with their owners still defined many of these dogs. Much more than in fox hunting, a dog and its master were a closely bonded pair, knowing almost by intuition what the other was communicating.
A third type of hunting, which was not as popular by the nineteenth century but still did take place, was coursing. In coursing, various breeds of hounds were used to chase down game animals. The hunter might be on foot or horseback, depending on the quarry. In earlier times, when wolves still existed in Britain and deer were more plentiful, hounds which “sighted” the objects of the hunt, chased, and brought the animals down were familiar assistants to the aristocracy, and even to monarchs. Queen Elizabeth I was known to be an avid huntswoman. But those days were mostly past by the nineteenth century. Still, dogs such as Harriers and Beagles were often used to hunt hares and other game.
Harriers and Beagles strongly resemble their larger Foxhound cousins, and, like them, are ground scenters. Most of the breeds historically used for coursing were sighthounds, hunting their prey by sight, such as the Irish Wolfhound and Scottish Deerhound. These ancient breeds, because of the decimation of their genetically programmed prey and hard times in their countries of origin, had become quite rare during the nineteenth century. Ownership of a Scottish Deerhound by Queen Victoria helped rescue the breed. Victoria’s attachment to several breeds helped assure their popularity with the general public. And that’s the subject for another article!