The History of the Keeshond

by Jean Sharp-Bale

The Keeshond has a long and very interesting history and can be traced back throughout the ages. His story is part legend but mainly fact. I will start today with the legend of how Amsterdam was established.A Viking ship is said to have foundered on the Friesland coast near Stavoren and all hands were drowned except one, a Chieftain’s son. Accompanied by his dog, A Friesian fisherman named Wolfert, who was a Christian, rescued the invader and the two men and the dog set sail on Wolfert’s fishing boat. In the dead of night a fierce storm drove them south, deep into unknown waters, but they finally drifted to safety onto high ground. In gratitude for their deliverance. Wolfert and the Norseman built a small chapel, which they dedicated to St. Olav, Patron Saint of Mariners. Wolfert’s dog was witness to all this. Here the legend ends and straight history takes over.In the course of time, a small fishing village came into being on the spot where Wolferts boat is supposed to have landed – the spot where the Amstel River flowed into the inland sea. A series of great storms during the 13th century widened and deepened nearby waters until it became the Zuider Zee. A dam was built across the river and the little town came to be known as Amstelredam. No one could have guessed it would become the metropolis of Amsterdam.

The Great Seal
of Amsterdam
(Yale University Library)
Hover your mouse over the image for a closer look

The people of Amsterdam never forgot the legend or the dog. To carry a dog on a vessel was first considered a good omen and developed into a custom. In time the dog became part of the sea laws because it came to represent ownership. No one dared ransack a ship if a dog was on board.

The great seal of Amsterdam shows an ancient vessel with a dog on its deck. What breed was this dog? When we look at its face peering over the gunnels of the ship on the seal, there can be little doubt.

Since early times, most barges, farms and carts had a canine sentry, usually a Keeshond or whatever name he was given in the various countries. He was also a guard for flocks and sometimes used to hunt skunks. However, we must dispel the notion, often expressed even today, that the dog ever pulled barges. As an 18 inch high animal, how could he? Barges were cargo vessels with living quarters for the captain and his family, and the dogs lived on board as zealous guardians of their owners’ properties and playmates for their children.

“The Armed Kees”
A lampoon of the period, representing a Keeshond in uniform.

Historical events in the Netherlands in the late 1700s, combined with the breed’s popularity in that country, made the Keeshond internationally known in Europe. In about 1781, Holland was divided into two political factions: the Orangists (Conservatives) who supported the Prince of Orange as Governor of the Netherlands, and the rebellious patriots (or Keezen, as the pro-Orange men derisively referred to the people’s party members). Cornelius, de Gyselaar, who had one of these popular dogs as his constant companion, was a leader in the patriot’s revolt. Remembering that “Kees” a nickname in the Netherlands for Cornelis or Cornelius it seems significant in regard to a basis for the breed’s name that “Kees” de Gyselaar’s “hond” became the emblem of the Dutch party.

It is believed that after suppression of the patriot’s rebellion, many Kees were done away with for fear that possession of the dogs would indicate affiliation with the defeated rebels. Thus this beautiful and popular breed paradoxically became the victim of its own fame. Although some barge captains and farmers retained their dogs and kept informal stud records for their own use, it was more than a century later before the Keeshond again came to public attention. During World War 1, the breed in Germany suffered for lack of available food and was greatly reduced in numbers.

The fact that he is the most loyal companion helped towards his depletion. In both world wars he suffered: in the first through lack of food, and in the second he was used by the resistance for taking messages. When the Nazis realised this, they were shot when seen. In 1903 a Mrs. Patrick Morrel acquired her first Kees bitch from a Mrs. Potts. Much discussion and disagreement took place around this time as to whether it was a Wolf Spitz or an overweight Pom. In 1911 a Miss Beverley showed what she called a Kees dog at LKA. In 1916 CCs were withdrawn from overweight Poms and the breed was no longer heard of until its appearance as the Dutch Barge Dog in 1925.

Meanwhile a tour of Holland by a young English girl had laid the foundation for great and lasting enthusiasm for Kees in Great Britain. .As the founder of the breed in England, with a life-long dedication to Keeshonds, a Mrs Wingfield Digby of the famous van Zaandom Kennels, was yachting in Holland with her parents in 1905. Mrs Digby, then Miss Hamilton Fletcher, found the beautiful watchdogs seen on Dutch Barges so appealing that she bought two wolf-grey puppies from a gold-earringed skipper. These were called Barkles and Zaandam, and were followed by Schie, Edam, Dirk and Comelius. Later, more from Germany followed for the famous kennel at Sherborne Castle.

The first official Dutch Barge Dog was shown in 1923 and a specialist club was formed in 1925. In 1926 it was renamed The Keeshond Club. In 1928 CCs were allotted for Keeshonds. The Kennel Club called the plural of Keeshond, Keeshonds but the real plural is Keeshonden.

A Family Affair
by Debbie Hookway

The Keeshond is a hardy dog and needs no trimming. His coat is actually fur. It is odourless, sheds water, seldom mats and, contrary to appearance, is easily taken care of. Its density helps keep out insects and insulates against the cold and also the heat Colours such as black, white, red, beige were at one time seen but only wolf grey or shaded sable is acknowledged and accepted. They are one of the most affectionate and loveable of all dogs and have the distinction of being bred for centuries as a family companion and sensible watchdog. Also their barking skills were useful for navigating on the barges and their fondness for children make them perfect playmates. They can be too intelligent for their own good and this can quite often get them into trouble. It’s not unusual for them to work out how to open gates and doors! They love to please and were not bred for hunting or killing. It has been known for some to hunt when there are several living together. Pack instinct can take over and it’s not unknown for my girls to round up and the dogs to pick up a rabbit and the poor thing dies of fright. Their temperament surpasses any other breed I know.

The Keeshond is also a dog popular with nobility and Lady Diana Spencer grew up with one. Her sister, Lady Sarah, still has them today.

‘My Life with Keeshonden’ by Gwendolen Wingfield Digby
‘The Keeshond’ by Alice Gateacre

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