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Archive for the ‘St. John’s Water Dog’ Category

Nep

This is an early retriever. My guess is that Nep was a St. John’s water dog with feathering, an early version of what we’d later call the wavy-coated retriever or the flat-coated retriever. The name “Nep” is short for Neptune, a very common name for St. John’s water dogs and other Newfoundland dogs from the time period.

Look at how he marks the “blackcock.”

Blackcock is another word for the male black grouse. Hens of the species are called “greyhen,” because they are gray.

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It just comes in gold only:

Golden retrievers retain much of the genetic and phenotypic diversity that existed in the early British retriever breed called a wavy-coated retrievers. Some of these dogs were nothing more than pure long-haired St. John’s water dogs that had been sent to England as ship’s mascots and for sale as “exotic pets.”  The recessive long-haired type that appeared in the St. John’s breed was not preferred, so they were eager to ship them off to England and America. The British did cross their long-haired dogs with setters and other things.

In the early days of retrievers in the UK, it was common for smooth-coated and long-haired puppies to appear in litters of wavy-coated retriever. The smooths were not always called Labradors. Indeed, the term “Labrador” could also refer to a wavy-coated retriever that was free of the setter influence.

The flat-coated retriever has had most of the wave bred out of its coat, which is why it’s called the flat-coated retriever.

But the golden retriever breed retains much of its ancestor’s type. It still has the dense undercoat of the long-haired St. John’s water dog, which was purged from the gene pool through exportation in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century.

Although it’s technically a new breed, it’s really an old-fashioned dog.

 

 

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Kala is a modern water dog in Newfoundand. Source for image.

Kala is a modern water dog in Newfoundand. Source for image.

A few days ago, a reader posted this blog post in the Blog Reader’s Group.

It talks about black water dogs in Newfoundland, but instead of calling them St. John’s water dogs, as I do, it is referred to as a Cape Shore water dog.

After a careful search on the Googles, I found that a Cape Shore water dog is also called an “eider dog,” probably because they used to retrieve shot eiders and other sea birds.

And of course, that is what the St. John’s water dog was used for in addition to being the fisherman’s dog.

From that blog post, we see that this breed is found on Newfoundland and on the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, the last vestiges of France’s North American empire, and there is a strong relationship between the Basques and these dogs.

I don’t know if the dogs in Spain that are featured are actually of an endemic Spanish water dog breed or if they are derived from Spanish imports of St. John’s water dogs from back in their heyday.

I think these dogs actually are St. John’s water dogs, though they probably have more than a bit of modern Labrador retriever ancestry. Labrador retrievers are, of course, derived from the St. John’s water dogs as are all the other retrievers but the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, which mostly of spaniel and collie extraction.

I think part of the problem in recognizing these dogs for what they are comes from two problems:

One is nomenclature.  The dog was called the St. John’s water dog, because that is where they were imported from. However, the breed was spread all over Newfoundland and Labrador and on St. Pierre and Miquelon. Its last redoubts as a “pure” strain– that is, unmixed with Labrador retriever blood–were in isolated outports (“fishing villages”) on Newfoundland’s Sou’west Coast.

But there are so many different names for this dog:  Newfoundland, wavy-coated retriever, lesser Newfoundland, true Newfoundland, black water dog, Labrador dog, small Labrador, and St. John’s dog (minus the “water”).

When you read histories of retrievers, you always see mention of Newfoundlands and Labradors, and when you see depictions of the dogs, some look like the big Newfoundland dog, which I think is almost entirely a creation of the British pet market, and dogs that look somewhat like black golden retriever or black Labradors with white markings on them.

If we could agree on the name for this dog, I think would be much clearer whether we should regard this landrace as extinct.

Yes.  This type of Newfoundland dog is a landrace,  and that brings us to the second problem.  Most dog authorities, including the great Richard Wolters, who wrote a history of Labrador retrievers, believe the last two St. Johns water dogs were two male dog that were living at Grand Bruit in the 1970s. These two dogs were said to be free of any Labrador retriever ancestry, but there definitely were dogs around that had mixed with their British descendant.

I define a landrace as dog that exists as a clearly defined type with in defined purpose and cultural context. However, it differs from a breed in that breeds have closed registries with a very narrowly defined set of physical characteristics.  A golden retriever is a breed, but the water dog from which it descends never was.

So if we call the St. John’s water dog a landrace, then all the dogs who are mixtures of St. John’s water dog and Labrador retriever are still St. John’s water dogs.

They just aren’t free of the globalized Labrador retriever blood.

And because it’s a landrace, I don’t think we should get all worked up about these dogs potentially having a bit of Labrador retriever in them, and if we are willing to admit that it is okay that that these dogs aren’t extinct.

Now if any readers from Newfoundland know anything more about this sort of dog, I would be happy if you passed this along.

I don’t think we are getting what this dog actually is because the nomenclature is not lining up. This is the famed Newfoundland dog that everyone wrote about all these years.

Of course, we need DNA samples.

These old outport dogs have been ignored for too long.  I think they may have a lot to tell us.

 

 

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Red and white retriever

This painting is by Edward Armfield (1817 – 1896), and the bird it is retrieving is a gray partridge, which in North America has the unfortunate name of “Hungarian partridge,” even though it is almost always called the “English partridge” in the United Kingdom. (Some Americans call it a “Hun,” a term that, as German-America, find pretty offensive. We don’t turn Belgian babies into soap!)

The dog looks to be of St. John’s water dog extraction. It has the robust build of that breed, and like many that were imported into the UK during the early nineteenth century, it has feathering.

Of course, the dog likely isn’t of “pure breeding.”

Through much of the nineteenth century, retrievers were the gentry’s equivalent of the poacher’s lurcher. Each shooting nobleman bred retrievers by crossing different types of dog. As we’ve seen, this tradition heavily conflicted with the British dog fancy that came later, which demanded that every retriever be a black dog.

This dog is particularly interesting because it’s red and white. It doesn’t appear to be a liver and white dog at all. The red coloration is the same that appears on golden retrievers and Irish setters. However, it’s also a particolor, which is unlike any golden retriever living today.

But if this dog had been bred to solid black dogs, the recessive red coloration would be carried, and the chances are good that one of its descendants would have been a solid red or gold dog.

I don’t know any specifics about this retriever. I don’t know its name or where it lived. All I know is that it’s a British retriever from the early to middle nineteenth century. If anyone knows any more details, please pass them along.

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Unlike the somewhat problematic aquatic ape theory, what I’m about to propose really isn’t that controversial at all.

The acquatic ape theory (more correctly called “the aquatic ape hypothesis”) argues that it was living in and near the water that forced humans to evolve bipedalism and is also used to explain why we have fat under our skin and like to swim. It’s even used as a possible reason why we have little fur left on our bodies, and it also claims that humans are unique among primates in our ability to hold our breaths under water, which isn’t actually true.

This hypothesis contends that humans were on our way to becoming marine mammals, and that this has made all the difference.

I don’t buy it.

But I do think something like this has happened with another animal that we currently don’t regard as being a “marine mammal.”

I’m talking about retrievers.

Now, we usually don’t think of them as being marine mammals. They are, after all, just a subset of domestic dogs, which are themselves a subspecies of the common wolf, Canis lupus familiaris.

But unlike other dogs and wolves, the retriever is somewhat better adapted to swimming and diving than other dogs.

All dogs have connective tissue between their toes, but in retrievers, this connective tissue is a bit more extensive, which certainly gives them some advantage in swimming. All dogs are web-footed, but retrievers are more web-footed than others.

Many Labrador retrievers and some golden retrievers also have a tendency to put on quite a bit of fat. This is usually attributed to the dogs being derived from St. John’s water dogs that had to have voracious appetites to survive on Newfoundland during the winter when they weren’t used on the fishing fleet.

But such a tendency toward obesity doesn’t exist in arctic breeds, including those from Labrador and Greenland, which were similarly left to roam and forage when not being used for work. These dogs have healthy appetites. but you very rarely hear of a fat one.

But in Labrador retrievers, being fat is almost a breed characteristic. In the UK breed ring, the Kennel Club has had to crack down on people showing fat Labradors in the ring, for there are a great many dog judges in that country who think that a Lab shows ‘good bone’ when he’s shaped like a jiggling barrel.

This tendency towards being fat, though, does have an advantage for a dog that spends a lot of time in cold water. Fat insulates. It is also quite buoyant.

One can see that nature would have selected for St. John ‘s water that would have been more likely to have put on fat as a way of being able to handle swimming long distances in cold water. The fat would make the dog float more, and the animal would be able to keep its head above water with less effort.  And the fat would insulate it a bit more.

And although both of these features would be marginally advantageous, they would still have real consequences with a working water dog.

Before the St. John’s water dog developed, the European water dog was poodle-type animal. It had a very thick coat that protected the animal from the worst of the cold, but the coat also had a tendency to collect water. It was also a source of drag that slowed the animal down when it swam.

The clips we see in Portuguese water dogs and poodles stem from attempts to reduce drag while still keeping the protective coat.

The St. John’s water dog was different from all these European water dogs in that it had a smooth coat.

It was actually selected for this coat; any dogs that were born with feathering were shipped off to Europe.

A smooth coat has certain advantageous for a marine mammal.

After all, have you ever seen a seal with poodle fur?

What about a long-haired otter?

These animals have very close coats because this makes the animal move more efficiently through the water.

To have a water dog with an otter’s coat would have meant that clipping was no longer necessary.  The dense undercoat and the fat would have provided enough protection against the cold water, and the smooth coat required no maintenance. And the dog could swim longer and harder in very cold water for much longer.

The St. John’s water dog was dog on its way to becoming a marine mammal.

Indeed, if we now count polar bears a marine mammals, maybe we should classify this extinct breed of dog as one, too.

There are accounts of these dogs swimming for days at sea, which might be exaggerations, and stories of them diving many feet to retrieve shot seals.  There are even some fellows who use the dogs to pursue shot porpoises with varying degrees of success. They were also use to retrieve shot waterfowl and sea birds from those very same seas, which is sort of the same work their descendants do today.

But they were most famous for retrieving fish off of lines. In the old days, the English fishermen from the West Country would come to Newfoundland to fish with hooked lines. They plied the waters in small dories, and they would send their dogs to help haul in the lines. In those days, the fishhooks often were not barbed, and when the dog came upon the hooked fish, there was a good chance that it could escape. A good dog could catch the cod if it managed to work its way off the hook at the last minute, which is not an easy task!

Most retrievers and the modern Newfoundland and Landseer breeds derive from this water dog.  Some strains are very well-adapted to swimming in cold water. Others less so.

The retrievers of the United Kingdom were used primarily on shooting estates, where land-based game birds and lagomorphs were their main quarry.  Some were used to retrieve waterfowl, but the British retriever culture was primarily that of a land-based working dog. Over time, they bred for a smaller and lither working dog, which still shows up in the strains of golden retriever that are primarily bred for work. During the heyday of the working flat-coated retriever (of which the golden retriever is a surviving remnant), the majority of these dogs were 50-60-pound dogs with longer legs and gracile frames– quite different indeed from the somewhat robust water dogs of Newfoundland from which they descended.

If the particular shore-fishing culture of Newfoundland had been allowed to continue on for many, many centuries, it is likely that the the St. John’s water dog really would have begun to have evolved through both natural and artificial selection into a much more marine-adapted animal than it was. Perhaps the would have evolved even more webbing between their toes. Maybe they would have actually evolved a real layer of blubber beneath their skins for insulation.

At least one species of wild dog is semiaquatic. The short-eared dog of South America has been little studied, but in most analyses of its diet show that it eats a lot of fish. The short-eared dog has very webbed feet– even more so than modern retrievers do. Because they live in Amazonia, they have no need for fat for insulation, but it has been suggested that this webbing is an adaptation that helps the dog pursue a more aquatic existence than other South American wild dogs.

St. John’s water dogs were famous for their fishing abilities, and they were well-known for charging into the surf and coming out with a fish, a feat that one sometimes sees retrievers doing quite well. One could see that over time, that the St. John’s breed would have evolved even more in this direction than the short-eared dog has.

But the Newfoundland fishing changed over time. Better hooks and mechanized fishing equipment made the dogs largely obsolete. The cod fishery has collapsed, as has the fishery for almost everything else. The outports of Newfoundland were shut down through resettlement schemes.

And the ancestral bloodlines of the St. John’s water dog became polluted with “improved” Labrador retriever blood from UK and the North American mainland. The last of the St. John’s water dogs with no Labrador retriever ancestry are believed to have died in the 1970’s.

In the US, Labrador retrievers are called “duck dogs,” but virtually no Labrador retriever that is being used as a hunting dog in the US today is used exclusively on waterfowl.  Most of them at least moonlight as flushers and retrievers land-based game birds, which usually have longer seasons and more liberal bag quotas.

The retriever has to be a spaniel a lot of the time.

In the UK, the retriever is still primarily used on land-based game, though they are still used in “wildfowling” (a nice word for duck hunting).

In no place is it required to be the same kind of water dog that its ancestors were.

The potential for it evolving into a canine marine mammal has long sense passed.

But it could have gone down this road.

The retrievers that exist today are gun dogs that have been built and selected out of this lineage.

And it’s really what makes them unique as working dogs.

Now, this all might sound a bit bizarre, but this summer, reader Mashka Petropolskaya sent me this master’s thesis on the behavior of Labrador retrievers in an aquatic environment.  The thesis was written by a student in the marine sciences program at the University of Porto in Portugal, and the thesis found that Labrador retrievers are unusually attracted to water and that access to water and swimming opportunities may be very important for the welfare of dogs in that breed.

Not all Labradors like the water, but there clearly is a tendency in retrievers to be interested in the water.

So maybe we really need to appreciate their “marine mammal”  tendencies more in order to provide them the best environment possible.

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Golden retriever playing with a Newfoundland pup:

Source.

Of course, the Newfoundland pup will be at least twice the size of the golden when it matures.

But both are descendants of that old water dog from Newfoundland.

The two breeds also have a common history in that both have become the family dog to have.

The golden retriever’s popularity has come in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Newfoundland was popular from the late eighteenth century through the late nineteenth century.

The old water dog of Newfoundland has been an enduring classic among modern dog lovers.

We just have fallen in love with different permuations at different times.

 

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Golden retrievers, like all modern retriever breeds originating in the British Isles, descend from dogs that assisted cod fishermen who fished on Newfoundland’s Grand Banks.

This breed, called the St. John’s water dog, the lesser Newfoundland, the Labrador, the lesser Labrador, or (more accurately) “the true Newfoundland,” was used to haul nets, set lines, and even catch fish off of hooks.

It’s not every day that one reads of a descendant of one of these dogs doing something that its ancestors would have done on a routine basis.

But such is the case with Becky.

Becky is a golden retriever from Leiston, Suffolk, in East Anglia.

Her owner was walking her at Minsmere Sluice.

Like many golden retrievers, she enjoys swimming in the surf and fetching objects from the water.

Her owner has seen her retriever driftwood and even jellyfish from the sea, but he was quite shocked to see her haul out a five-pound cod.

Becky’s ancestors underwent intensive selective breeding once they arrived from Newfoundland.

For decades, they were selected for heightened biddability and docility.

They were largely meant to be retrievers of land-based game, such as pheasants and partridges and hares and rabbits.

But even after all that selection, there are still plenty of retrievers that would relish the chance to be fishing dogs once again.

Becky is one of these dogs.

Her breed may be “improved” and “refined,” but the truth is there are plenty of them that are still rough around the edges, still wild enough to charge into frigid water and dive among the breaking waves.

Retrievers are good dogs because they are nice and smart.

But they are still rugged animals.

In their ideal state, they are dogs without exaggeration or much evidence of artifice.

They are dogs with certain marine mammal adaptations and a penchant for carrying things in their mouths.

They must never become something else.

If they do, they will cease to be retrievers.

They might as well be stuffed animals.

 

 

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