History of the Lagotto

Thought to be the most ancient and the possible ancestor of all the water dogs, the Lagotto is a small to medium sized dog distinguished by his curly, water resistant coat. Lagotto is a Venetian/Romagnan dialect word meaning “duck dog” and the noted Romagnolo authority on the breed Gilberto Grandi describes them as “the Italian equivalent of the Irish Water Spaniel.”

Since Etruscan times (7th Century BC) a little breed of duck retriever has existed as a distinct type of dog in the vast marshlands of Romagna in north-eastern Italy. For centuries he helped his peasant masters hunt waterfowl but when large scale draining of the marshland started towards the end of the nineteenth century, the age old function of the Lagotto started to change. The vast flocks of waterfowl disappeared and the Romagnolo increasingly used their dogs for searching for the much prized and very valuable underground tuber known as truffle.

The agility of the Lagotto to hunt inaccessible places allied to his phenomenal scenting ability soon resulted in him being crossed with other breeds to impart to them his hunting abilities and his amenable character. Thus the high level of homogeneity (the result of centuries of inbreeding in the marshes) became progressively diluted and whilst the numbers of Lagotto increased so did differences in their appearance. In spite of being such an ancient breed by the early nineteen seventies it was estimated that there were barely a dozen pure bred Lagotto remaining in Romagna.

Fortunately before the breed disappeared entirely a group of Romagnolo comprising breeders, veterinarians and dog lovers decided to rescue their only indigenous breed from extinction. For over twenty years they educated and advised Lagotto owners and painstakingly recorded morphological details of hundreds of Lagotto. Gradually the breed was purified and restored to its homogeneous type albeit with the emphasis on the new role of the Lagotto as a truffle searcher. In 1993 the dedication of the Romagnolo to their ancient little duck hunter turned truffle searcher was rewarded when ENCI (The Italian Kennel Club) granted the Lagotto official recognition. FCI (the International body which governs pedigree dogs in all countries but the USA and UK) recognised the Lagotto in October 1995 and added Romagnolo to his name to indicate his origins.

Perfect swimmerToday the Lagotto is unique as he is the only pure bred dog in the world recognised as a specialised truffle searcher. However he retains all the characteristics of a water retriever, Lagotto are perfect swimmers being an exceptionally hardy little dog able to work long hours immersed in icy water. He is aided by webbing between his toes and a double coat which covers his entire body. Even the inside flaps of his ears are covered in thick hair to prevent water entering his inner ear when diving after duck. Limited facilities exist for duck shooting in Italy nowadays and only a few Lagotto are still used for their traditional purpose as waterfowlers however the foundation breeding pair imported by Ann Kemp & Gael Stenton into the UK in March 1997 came from the Mandriole kennels on the edge of the marshland, north of Ravenna. Lagotto from this kennel are still worked as duck retrievers from the traditional flat bottomed marsh punts.

The spread of the breed to countries where truffling does not exist immediately raised the question of the working function of the Lagotto in countries other than Switzerland & Italy. The Romagnolo consider the retention of the working capabilities of the Lagotto as being of paramount importance, thus with the founding of the World Union of Lagotto in Italy in October 1998 came the decision endorsed by the Italian Breed Club that the function of the Lagotto Romagnolo in countries where there is no history of truffling is to remain as he has been since time immemorial - a Water Retriever.

Gael Stenton

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