History

Andrea Mantegna frescoThe Lagotto Romagnolo is an ancient breed of water dog and is considered to be one of the oldest of all water retrieving breeds in Europe.

Many centuries ago the people of Italy engaged in trade with the Orient and this facilitated the introduction of various types of dogs.  A small dog with a bristly crimped coat was first identified in Etruscan times, around the seventh century BC. Frescoes in the Etruscan necropolis of Spina (near modern day Ferrara) depict dogs of very similar look and function to the contemporary Lagotto Romagnolo. By the time water dogs appeared in other parts of Europe, they had already been on the Italian peninsula for centuries, especially in the wetlands and marshes of Romagna in north-eastern Italy.

Following the disappearance of the Etruscan civilisation, water dogs continued to flourish throughout Roman and medieval times, especially along the coast that runs from Ravenna in the south, through Comacchio and the Venetian lowlands to Friuli in the north. Descriptions and images of small curly-coated dogs are frequently found in literature and paintings from the 15th century onwards. Frescoes painted between 1465 and 1474, by Andrea Mantegna in the Bridal Chamber of the Ducal Palace at Mantua, depict a dog at the feet of the Marquis Ludovico Gonzaga, a dog that looks remarkably like today’s Lagotto Romagnolo.

In a portrait of Giovanni Francesco Barbieri and his sister, from around 1640, a dog takes centre stage between them, a dog that is exactly the same in appearance and conformation as the Lagotto Romagnolo of four centuries later.

Guercino LagottoOriginally, Lagotti were trained to drive waterfowl into nets that their peasant masters set up in the vast and plentiful Romagnese marshes. Thanks to its thick curly waterproof coat, and webbing between the toes, the Lagotto is a superb swimmer and was able to spend hours in the water in any weather conditions. Later, with the invention of gunpowder, the Lagotto became a retriever instead. The middle of the nineteenth century saw large scale draining of the lowlands of Romagna, changing the life of the people of the marsh, and that of their little dogs. As the vast flocks of waterfowl disappeared, the people of Romagna found another use for their little dogs. Because of their exceptional scenting ability, the Lagotto came to be used for sniffing out truffles,

Lagotto Romagnolo owners helped spread the dog beyond its traditional region. With this little dog’s ability to hunt in difficult places, willingness to enter thick brush, and exceptional scenting ability, people began breeding them with other dogs to gain their hunting ability and good temperament. This cross-breeding in the early twentieth century started to dilute the homogenous nature that had been bred into the line for more than 2500 years. As a result, the traditional Lagotto breed was facing an extinction of sorts.

Fortunately the truffle hunters of that period did not let the Lagotto Romagnolo fall by the wayside, and in the 1970s a group of Romagna based breeders, judges, veterinarians, and dog lovers decided to rescue Romagna’s only indigenous breed. They spent many years educating and advising Lagotto owners, and painstakingly recording morphological details of hundreds of Lagotti. Because of their efforts, the breed has been returned to its traditional form, albeit with an emphasis on their new role as truffle hunters.

The Club Italiano Lagotto was formed in Imola in 1988 to promote the best interests of the breed. In 1992 the Lagotto Romagnolo received official recognition from Italian Kennel Club (ENCI), followed by F.C.I recognition in 1995. The number of Lagotti in Italy in 1995 was estimated at 3500. The 1990s saw the breed expand rapidly into other countries such as Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K., France, Germany, the Netherlands, North America and Australia. With many of these new countries devoid of truffles, the original water retrieving qualities have resurfaced as the main function of the breed – a direction endorsed by the Italian Club, as it brings the re-establishment of the breed back full circle.

In order to enhance the dog’s concentration in the hunt for truffles, the retrieving instinct of the Lagotto Romagnolo was largely bred out in the nineteenth century in Italy. However some Lagotti are still used as retrieving dogs, and in many countries where there are no truffles, this retrieving quality has been kept or re-bred into those lines. The foundation breeding pair of Lagotto Romagnolo, imported into the U.K. in 1997, came from the Mandriole kennels on the edge of the marshlands north of Ravenna. Lagotto from this kennel are still worked as duck retrievers from the traditional flat bottomed marsh punts. Those Lagotti, through subsequent exports from the U.K. to Australia, can be found behind the pedigrees of many Lagotto Romagnolo here in New Zealand.