Any number of hounds were used to hunt otter in ancient times. The Otterhound we know and love probably originated as a cross of other breeds in the 1700's and 1800's.
The earliest mention of hounds used to hunt otter was about 1200 A. D. with the pack of King John of England, but his father Henry II probably hunted otter as early as 1170. One of the sources for these early otter hounds may have been Norman hounds - the St. Hubert or Talbot - brought to England after the Norman invasion in 1066. The St. Hubert or Talbot may be the foundation of the breed that came to be known as the Southern Hound. The alleged use of otter hounds was to rid the village ponds of marauding otters feeding on fish. A lot of the population was Catholic and ate fish on Fridays.
St. Hubert Hound
Chien Gris de St. Louis
The rough-coated chien gris de St. Louis hound was used in France from 1250 until about 1470. These hounds may have been very close in conformation to modern Otterhounds as we know them.
The earliest illustrations of hounds used to hunt the otter were in French documents of 1338 and 1378. These are among the earliest illustrations of any kind of hunting hound in France, but none were rough-coated, clearly. The hound closest to what came to be the Otterhound was the lymer, or lyme-hound, a rather large, heavily-built hound. The lymer was not a breed as such but was probably chosen for its "nose" from among the early Norman Hounds; they were used for tracking, not chasing game. At some point the St. Hubert was the preferred lymer due to its sensitive nose.
Limier leading raches from Livre de Chasse of Gaston Phebus of 1378
Packs of otter hounds were maintained by a long line of British monarchs from 1300 until 1685. Edward I appointed one John le Oterhunte as Huntsman of the royal pack of otter hounds. Edward II kept a pack of "twelve otter dogs and a couple of greyhounds" between 1307 and 1327. William Twici, Edward's Huntsman, wrote a treatise on hunting, The Art of Venery, that mentions otter hunting. Edward III, the first Prince of Wales, kept a pack of "water dogs" that hunted otters on the rivers in North Wales. Henry VI appointed William Melbourne (or Milborne) Valet of the Otterhounds in 1422. Edward IV appointed Thomas Hardegrove holder of the office called Oterhunte in 1461. Queen Elizabeth I was the first woman Master of a royal pack of otter hounds. And James I maintained a pack of otter hounds in the 1600's with one John Parry as Master. Charles II was the last King to maintain a pack of royal otterhounds.
The earliest literary mention of hounds used to hunt the otter was in the Master of Game of 1406-1413, translated and updated by Edward de Langely, the second Duke of York. It was taken from the French Livre de Chasse of Gaston Phebus of 1378.
Otter hunting from "Livre de Chasse" of Gaston Phebus of 1378
The period between 1410 and 1550 produced no appreciable works on hunting of any kind, either in France or England. The only mention of a type of hound similar to an early Otterhound would have been the Sagax described by Dr. Johannes Caius, court physician to Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I. But this general type was subdivided into three more distinct types, all of which had one or more characteristics of the modern Otterhound. Any of these hounds could have been used to hunt the otter.
Three variants of the Sagax hound from "Of English Dogges" by Johannes Caius
A tapestry illustrating a stag hunt by Maximilian I of Bavaria from the 1400's shows rough-coated hounds that appear very similar to modern Otterhounds.
Tapestry of stag hunt of Maximilian I of Bavaria
The earliest mention of a hound specifically used to hunt otter was in The Noble Art of Venery, or Hunting of 1575 by George Turberville, Queen Elizabeth's ambassador to Russia. The hound is described as a "bloudhounde." This was clearly a tracking hound.
In the 16th century there was probably no one dog - hound or otherwise that was known as an Otterhound. One of the earliest dogs described as the source of Otterhounds at this time was the smooth-coated white hound, the Talbot. The Talbot was traditionally a white hound that may hark back to one of the early hounds imported from Byzantium in the 1st millennium. However, it is unclear whether the Talbot may have contributed to the conformation of the modern rough-coated Otterhound.
White Hound of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewesbury 1384-1453
The earliest mention of a rough-coated hound used to hunt the otter was by Gervase Markham in his Country Contentments of 1611, a "shag-haired...grizzled hound."
One of the early hounds used in hunting the otter was the Southern Hound. There were apparently two different types by color: the black and white (and tan) and the black and tan. They were both apparently more or less smooth coated, and both could have had some blue ticking. They both probably came from a similar basic stock, but also with different mixes, thus the two different types judging from illustrations or paintings of them. Many authors have cited the Southern Hound as a source of the Otterhound, possibly mixed with other breeds such as the Lancashire (Old English) Harrier. Dr. John Henry Walsh ("Stonehenge"), a prominent writer and show judge, in 1872 attributed the rough coat of the Otterhound to the Welsh Harrier, and claimed that the Western Harrier was basically a rough-coated Southern Hound, while the Otterhound was a Southern Hound with a rough coat. However, cross-breeding was very common in those days and probably contributed much to the confusion over the source of various breeds.
Southern Hound from "Sportman's Cabinet" of Reinagle - 1804
Southern Hound (Old English Hound) Willis - 1831
The first pack of clearly identified otter hounds was the pack of Ralph Sadler of Hertfordshire, mentioned in Isaac Walton's The Compleat Angler (1653), which contained a description of an actual otter hunt. These hounds were very possibly Southern Hounds, but no illustrations exist.
Royal packs of otter hounds came to an end in 1685, or shortly thereafter, upon the death of Charles II. The sport was then taken up by the Country Squire. As the sport of fox hunting was becoming popular with the royal families, the country squire began to emulate the royal style and enthusiasm with their own small packs of foxhounds and lower-class hunters who were not so well-heeled began to emulate the country squires with small packs of otter hounds. Many of these otter hound packs could have been formed from the disbanded royal packs.
One of the earliest illustrations of hounds used to hunt the otter in England was in Richard Blome's The Gentleman's Recreation of 1686. They are clearly smooth hounds, possibly Southern Hounds.
Hunting ye Otter from the Gentleman's Recreation of Richard Blome - 1686.
Blome describes three main types of running hounds of this period: the Deep-mouthed or "Southern-mouthed" hound; the Fleet or Northern hound; and a mixture of the two. The first category seems to distinguish between the Southern Hound itself, which by now had become more or less a distinct breed, and the Bloodhound, the proto-typical deep-mouthed hound. One of Blome's illustrations shows a pack of piebald fleet hounds with a "Bloodhound" on a leash (lyam). This "lymehound" appears heavy, either black or of a very dark color, with a white muzzle and blaze, and very long, pendant ears. It is possible that the Southern Hound, as the all-purpose harrier, would have been used more for game, whereas the Bloodhound may have already been limited to man-tracking. It is also possible that the Southern Hound was much more suited to the water. But none of the hounds of this period appear to have been rough-coated.
In 1735 William Sommerville published his long poem on hunting entitled The Chase, which described among other things an otter hunt at some length. The hound clearly mentioned as the otter hound was the classic Talbot, but may be based more on legend than reality.
Some of the earliest detailed illustrations of hounds used to hunt the otter were those by Samuel Howitt. The hounds in one illustration are clearly black, white, and tan Southern Hounds. However, another illustration gives the appearance of a more or less rough-coated, fawn-colored hound, possibly a Welsh Hound, or Lancashire Harrier.
Southern Hounds, Samuel Howitt - 1798
Otterhound (Welsh?), Samuel Howitt - 1799
The early Welsh Hound was used in otter hunting in Wales from time immemorial; the version that is now extinct is extremely similar to the modern Otterhound. It was typically large, with a very sloped skull, rough-coated, and very light in color, blond or wheaten piebald.
Modern rough Welsh Hound circa 1930 from "Dogs in Britain" by Clifford Hubbard
One of the most influential early otter hound packs was that of Squire James Lomax of Lancashire whose offspring found their way into many English and Welsh packs. These Otterhounds were predominantly rough-coated and piebald and may have contained a good bit of the Lancashire or West Country Harrier. These Harriers were closely related to the Welsh Harrier and even the Southern Hound, as may be suggested by the illustration in Lomax's hunting diary.
Otterhounds from A Diary of Otterhunting by Squire James Lomax -1892
French hounds - the Griffon Vendeen, Griffon Nivernais, and Chien fauve de Bretagne - were introduced into England around the time of the first dog show in 1859; the rough Otterhound was first shown in 1861. The Griffon Nivernais derived from the Griffon de Bresse and was crossed with a wolf by Count Le Couteulx de Canteleu in the 1860's. Many of these wolf crosses were imported into England in the 1880's and cross-bred with Otterhounds. Any aggressiveness that appears now and then today probably derives from those genes. In 1869 two rough-coated French hounds of the red Britanny breed (chien fauve de Bretagne, or Fawn Breton) were purchased at the National Dog Show, Islington, England by a Master of Otterhounds, apparently intended for use in crossing with Otterhounds. The rough coat of the French hounds further enhanced whatever rough coat already existed in English Otterhounds.
Grand Griffon Vendeens-1858
Griffon Nivernais - 1897
Chien fauve de Bretagne - 1858
J.C. Carrick of Carlisle Otter Hunt with Otterhounds - 1873
Another significant influence on the development of the Otterhound was the classic black and tan grizzle developed by J. C. Carrick of Carlisle, Cumbria. All of the winners at shows in Britain from 1861 until 1873 were either Carlisle Otterhounds, former Carlisle Otterhounds, or bred from Carlisle Otterhounds.
The Carlisle pack for the 1878 season contained no less than 5 Kennel Club champions: Booser......... Bowler – Glory (Luther) 9 years old Charmer .......... Wellington – Mr. Hill’s Countess.......... 4 years old. Lucifer .......... Lucifer - Careless ........... 2 years old Lottery ........... Lucifer – Careless .......... 2 years old Swimmer .......... Lucifer – Careless .......... 2 years old
The Carlisle pack was one of the sources sought by Wilson Davidson of the Dumfriesshire Otter Hunt in his efforts to improve the DOH pack in 1900 - 1910.
The Dumfriesshire Otter Hunt (DOH) was formed in 1889 by D. J. Bell-Irving, Col. F. Joynson, Mr. Wilson Davidson, Major McKie, Capt. Irving, Mr. Lenny and Mr. Dickson, with a pack of mostly foxhounds. In 1897, Col. Joynson imported from France a Grand Griffon Vendeen bitch Frivole. She produced several litters with the DOH and was then passed on to Edwin Brough, who bred her to Baxter, a pure-bred Bloodhound by Barak out of Ch. Brocade in 1901. The resulting offspring included a rough-coated black and tan male called Boatman, who was given back to the DOH for hunting otter. He was owned by Mr. F. Rayne and was supposedly bred from so extensively that every modern Otterhound traces back to him in several different lines
Griffon Vendeen "Frivole" -circa 1897
Otterhound "Boatman" circa 1900
The only official records of his being used at stud, however, are the following:
1904, when William Thompson of the Wharfedale Otterhounds bred Boatman to a pure-bred Bloodhound bitch of Haly's and produced WOH Hulof.
1907, when the Marquis Conyngham's Otter Hunt bred Boatman to a pure-bred Otterhound bitch, MCOH Dora (DOH Solway x DOHDoubtful). Three dogs and one bitch were the resulting progeny.
In 1907, WOH Hulof produced two litters for the Wharfedale, a "B" litter and an "H" litter. From the "B" litter, WOH Bluebell'07, WOH Brenda'07 and WOH Boozer'07 were subsequently bred from. The two dogs in the "H" litter, WOH Hermit'07 and WOH Herod'07, were not. The subsequent issue from Bluebell, Brenda and Boozer are behind just about every hound in the Kendal and District Otter Hunt (KDOH), as Capt. William Thompson offered his entire pack to the newly-formed KDOH in 1921. As Master of the Wharfedale, Capt. Thompson had also used in his breeding program hounds from Lady Mary Hamilton's pack, which she had inherited in 1905 from her step-father, R. Carnaby Forster, and which were direct descendents of the Count de Canteleu's Griffons Nivernais which had come to England in the 1880s. William Thompson's breeding program to establish type lasted 22 years and was continued by the KDOH right up to 1977. Thus, the development of the Otterhound we see today is in large measure due to the efforts of the Bell-Irving family (4 generations, over 95 years) and Capt. William Thompson (who died in 1925, aged 48).
Lady Mary Hamilton Otterhounds
Wharfedale Otterhounds of William Thompson -1903
The DOH, under the direction of Wilson Davidson, thereafter embarked on a program to improve the pack by recruiting Otterhounds from the top packs of the day: Lord Bandon, W.C. Yates, T.L. Wilkinson, the Carlisle, Kendal and District, West Cumberland, Sir Henry Bromley, Edmund Buckley, and others.
The founding of the Kendal and District Otter Hunt (KDOH) is complicated. The Wharfedale Otterhounds were founded in 1902 with hounds purchased from a Mr. Gunston of North Lancashire. To these were added a draft hound from the King's Otterhounds in Ireland and a bitch from the Dumfriesshire. Capt. William Thompson purchased the pack in 1911 and re-named it Mr. William Thompson's Otterhounds. He was hunting this country in 1920 as the WTOH, but because of illness, the pack was split in 1921. Half of the pack became known as the Kendal and District Otterhounds. The split pack was then re-joined at the end of the 1921 season and Master William Thompson remained in control until 1924, when his younger brother - Mr. Thomas Coates Thompson - replaced him as Master. William Thompson died in 1925. Sir Bromley Wilson took over in 1928 and remained Master until 1956. As noted above, the breeding program established by Capt. William Thompson about 1911 was continued up until 1977, being one of the seminal packs of Otterhounds that influenced the breed in the US.
WWI and WWII took a tremendous toll on Otterhounds in England and France. Many packs were put down, never to return. After the end of WWII, otter hunting was resumed but never achieved the popularity of former times. The classic black and tan grizzle Otterhound survived primarily in two main packs: the Dumfriesshire and the Kendal and District. Sadly, the sport of otter hunting was banned in England in 1978, and in Scotland in 1981. However, the breed has survived due to the efforts of a number of dedicated breeders.
Dumfriesshire Otterhounds -1937
Tommy Harrison with Kendal and District Otterhounds
In America otter hunting was never really adopted, but pure rough Otterhounds were imported and bred for over half a century with little or no outcrosses.
The sport of otter hunting appears to have been practiced in America for a brief period during the early 1800's. William Turnbull, later to become Master of the Bellingham Otterhounds in Northumberland, relates in his Recollections of an Otter Hunter of 1896 that he had emigrated to the United States in 1830, working as a cobbler in Shaker Prairie, Indiana. He subsequently met and befriended a fellow countryman, a Mr. Briggs, who lived on Otter Creek at the junction of the Wabash River. Briggs had been hunting in this locale with three couple of hounds of three-quarter Bloodhound cross in addition to three terriers he had brought from England. Although the hounds were apparently American with no connection to rough hounds in England, it is interesting to learn that the sport was not altogether unknown here.
Rough Otterhounds were first imported into this country as early as 1903 by Henry Steele Wardner. A legal professional in New York City and nearby locales, Wardner was the first breeder to officially register Otterhounds in the US, with kennels at Hartland Four Corners, Vermont. Records indicate that he exhibited Otterhounds at the AKC registered dog Show at Sullivan County Kennel Club Show, Claremont, New Hampshire in 1907. This was the first dog show where Otterhounds were shown. Hartland Spearman won first place, Hartland Minstrel won second, and Daphne of Hartland won third; Reserve Otterhounds shown were Hartland Moonshiner, Miranda of Annan, and Daisy of Danfries (probably a misspelling of Dumfries); Miranda and Daisy are clear evidence that Wardner had imported Otterhounds from the Dumfriesshire pack of Maj. J. Bell-Irving. Later, at the 1909 Westminster Show, Hartland Spokesman won first place, Hartland Marquess won second, and Hartland Mainstay won third; Hartland Sergeant was a Reserve. And at the 1910 Westminster Show, Hartland Statesman won first place, Hartland Marquess won second, and Hartland Spokesman won third; Hartland Mosstrooper was a Reserve. Hartland Statesman and Hartland Mosstrooper both appeared in the 1910 AKC Studbook.
Other early importers of Otterhounds were Dr. G. L. Knox of Danbury Conn., a breeder of Bloodhounds, and Mr. Manning Cleveland.
Hartland (Wardner) Otterhounds at the Vermont State Fair -1908
In the 1920's Mr. Leslie Handy of Cape Cod, MA, imported two dogs - Sauter and Dexter - as well as three bitches - Rachael, Barmaid, and Craft. Sauter was a Dumfriesshire Otterhound bred by Maj. J. Bell-Irving. According to Dr. Hugh Mouat, Handy intended to cross these Otterhounds with his foxhounds in order to improve their "nose" and made no further effort to breed Otterhounds.
Many of the men who were associated with the early Handy hounds were more interested in hunting than showing. One of them, Jules McClelland, made an important contribution by importing some Otterhounds from Canada. He owned Dexter in 1927 and Craft n 1929 and was the breeder of Badger. He later imported Chorister in 1928 and a bitch, Red Duchess, bred by the renowned William Thompson. He used these hounds to breed a strain of "course-haired Beagles," which were known locally as the best rabbit hunting hounds people had ever witnessed. Dr. Mouat used some of his stock without realizing there was significant tri-color genes in this line.
Dr. Hugh Mouat, the "Father" of the Otterhound in America, was the most influential breeder and promoter of the Otterhound in America until recent times. He acquired his first Otterhound, Bessie Blue, in 1937 from one of the litters that had been dispersed from the early Handy litters. Over the years he produced 21 AKC champions and shared his hounds with numerous breeders.
Adriucha Countess - 1941
Adriucha Courageous - 1941
When Dr. Mouat discovered what appeared to be a blood disorder in the breed, he enlisted the help of Dr. Jean Dodds, who devised a test for the condition. And with the help of Dr. Mouat and most dedicated breeders, the condition was essentially removed from the breed within 20 years.
Looking back, the Otterhound is historically a mixed breed, which accounts for some of the variation in breedings today (in technical terms, it is not strongly-typed). When a purebred Otterhound is bred to a purebred Otterhound today, the result is a litter of purebred Otterhounds, although the characteristics in terms of coat, color, and behavior may vary somewhat. The breeds that went into the modern Otterhound are well-known, if not entirely familiar. Some of the breeds still exist today - the Griffon Vendeen, the Griffon Nivernais, the Chien fauve de Bretagne, the Bloodhound, and the Grand Bleu de Gascogne - but many of the source breeds are now extinct. However, all the literature on its history confirms that the Otterhound is still a "hound, through and through."
Grand Bleu De Gascogne
The Otterhound today is a large hound. Some of this size comes from the early tracking hounds in its pedigree in the Middle Ages, but also the large French hounds that were bred into the Otterhound during the 1800's. The introduction of the French hounds increased the height from about 24 inches to 26 inches or more at the withers.
The modern Otterhound typically sports a rough outer coat on top of a soft, fine undercoat. This combination may have been due to inter-breeding with water dogs, although this claim has never been proven. The specific water dog is not clear, perhaps the Barbet, but in fact the water dog most likely to be the candidate is probably no longer in existence.
Water Dog (Barbet?) from Sportsman's Cabinet, Reinagle - 1803
A long-standing myth about Otterhounds is that they acquired the webbed feet from one or more of the water dogs that may have been bred into the Otterhound over the years. However, this claim is not substantiated. The truth of the matter is that many large dog breeds have webbed feet to some degree. Nonetheless, the modern Otterhound with its webbed feet is ideally suited to swimming if it is introduced to water early in its up-bringing.
The keen nose of the Otterhound derives predominantly from the Bloodhound, which was bred into the Otterhound line now and again over many years. Otterhound breeders and pack Masters were always interested in improving the tracking ability of the Otterhound, its main purpose in hunting the otter.
The Otterhound historically, and even today, demonstrates a truly remarkable voice, very low, resonant, and melodious. These qualities were highly prized by otter hunters over the centuries. And one of the breeding goals was to breed into the Otterhound those hounds which had the most melodious voices - predominantly the Bloodhound. One of the quintessential qualities of the Otterhound in the late 1800's was that, when the Otterhound detected the scent of an otter on the trail, it would sit down on its haunches and begin to bay its long, low, melodious voice.
J.C. Carrick's Stanley - circa 1872
As the Otterhound developed in the late 1800's and early 1900's, three basic color patterns began to appear: black and tan/liver; fawn/wheaten; and tri-color. All three varieties may show grizzle, which is typically a mixture of black and white hairs in the coat. Occasional bluish highlights tend to appear; these bluish highlights may be due to various genetic predispositions in the breed. The term 'ticking' is not always accurate because the blue is not like ticking in other blue-ticked hounds.
The demeanor of the modern Otterhound is friendly, fun-loving, and often boisterous. These qualities hark back to the various breeds that went into the Otterhound over the centuries. One of the goals for breeding the modern Otterhound has been to promote this friendly disposition.
The Otterhound was originally bred for hunting and nothing but, although has adapted to the indoors and makes a good family pet. In fact, some of the Otterhounds bred in the Cumbria area of Britain in the late 1800's and early 1900's were kept indoors as pets rather than being relegated to outside kennels as pure hunting hounds.