Nell the St. John’s water dog
December 19, 2008 by retrieverman
Nell was whelped in 1856 at the 5th Duke of Buccleuch’s estate in Scotland. He had founded his own strain of smooth-haired St. John’s water dogs in the 1830′s, but there had been imports of this breed going back to 1809, where the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury worked them as retrievers. The dogs are from the island of Newfoundland, where they evolved from a diverse lineage of water spaniels, water dogs, herding dogs, and livestock guardian dogs.
The dogs varied a great deal in type, especially those early imports. The bigger and always long-haired dogs of this type were common in Europe and the United States. These dogs would be crossed with bigger mastiff type dogs in Europe to make the Newfoundland dog (as we currently know it).
The word Newfoundland could be used to describe several different strains of dog. American strains of Newfoundland, for example, were not of the heavy type in nineteenth century. They were retriever-like and almost always were of the Landseer color variety. The dog below resembles a black and white golden retriever.
To make things even more confusing, the some of the big dogs were called Labradors, and some of the little ones were called Newfoundlands. Some of the smaller dogs had long hair as you can see in my post about Zelstone, who was a long-haired St. John’s water dog that is called a “Newfoundland” in The Complete English Shot, a “Labrador” in the Guisachan kennel records, and a flat-coat by his owner, Mr. Sewallis Shirley.
However, this short-haired strain was held very closely by the Earls of Malmesbury and the Dukes of Buccleuch. While the wavy/flat-coated breed was having its first run as the top retriever, these two lines were being developed separate from those dogs. These short-haired dogs were always preferred by the 2nd and 3rd Earls of Malmesbury. The 3rd Earl of Malmesbury declared to the 6th Duke of Buccleuch: “We always call mine Labrador dogs and I have kept the breed as pure as I could from the first I had from Poole [known] by their having a close coat which turns the water off like oil and, above all, a tail like an otter.”
In the 1880′s, the 6th Duke of Buccleuch was afraid that the short-haired St. John’s water dog was becoming extinct. He had considered the short-haired dogs to be the original form, as the quote from the Earl of Malmebury suggests. However, I have found various accounts of long-haired and smooth-haired forms of this dog, as well as different sizes. The truth is that the St. John’s water dog was a type, not a breed, and the size and coat varied. Different imported strains begat different types of dogs.
The 6th Duke of Buccleuch was able to obtain new blood from the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury, who was able to procure new breeding stock from Newfoundland. These dogs would be the ancestors of the modern Labrador retriever. The current Buccleuch estates maintains a Labrador breeding program, solely for working purposes.
Nell was an early descendant of these dogs. When this picture was taken, she was 12. She looks to be a healthy 12 year old. Richard Wolters claims that this is oldest picture of a Labrador, but I count this as one of the few photographs of the short-haired St. John’s water dog.
In 1885, a major blow was inflicted upon the St. John’s water dog in Newfoundland. The Sheep Protection Act placed a heavy tax on all dogs in Newfoundland. The fishermen’s dogs were soon no longer economically viable. Mechanized wenches were used to pull nets out of the ocean, and there was no need for a net retrieving dog. The fish trade between Britain and Newfoundland began decrease, and then Britain placed a quarantine on all imported dogs. These events provided the death knell for the St. John’s water dog.
In the late 1970′s or early 1980′s, Richard Wolters was able to find the last remaining St. John’s water dogs in a remote part of Newfoundland. He was specifically looking for the short-haired dogs that fit the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury’s description. He found two dogs of this type. Both were aged. One was 15, and the other was 13. And both were male. Like so many other good things, the ancestral bloodline of the retrievers died out in the 80′s.
Some of you might be wondering what the deal is with the choice of a short-haired dog for this sort of work. Well, if you go back to the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury’s quote, the short haired dogs really can cut through water. It’s why Labs today are such good water dogs. Goldens, even those with less feathering, are not able to move through the water in such a way. Think of a Lab’s coat as the canine equivalent to that of an otter or a seal.
The Germans in their development of the poodle created lots of hair on the dog to make it able to stay warm in the water. To make it streamlined, the dogs were clipped. The same goes with the Portuguese water dog.
The short, dense hair that was common in the St. John’s water dog was an advance in creating a water dog that had a coat that was both manageable and streamlined for the practical sportsman or fisherman and also keep the dog warm in the water.