As you may know, one of my favorite authors is Farley Mowat. I normally hate romantic stories of any sort, but I like Mowat’s writing. Thus, I picked up Bay of Spirits, a memoir about his courtship of his second wife along the rugged coast of Newfoundland, with more interest in Newfoundland than the actual central love story. I was reading along until I came across a mention of a dog:
Perhaps the most momentous event that winter was the aquisition of Albert, a young water dog from La Poille. As big as a Labrador retriever, he was a sway-backed creature, black as ebony except for his white chest, and equipped with webbed feet, the tail of an otter, and the attitude of a lord of the realm. He quickly became an integral member of our little family both ashore and afloat, where he demonstrated he was a proper seadog: sure-footed, ready for anything, and afraid of nothing.
Farley Mowat, Bay of Spirits: A Love Story p. 303.
If one takes a look at Albert’s photograph, which appears on that page, it is obvious that he was a St. John’s water dog. Indeed, when he was purchased in the 1960’s, his kind was beginning to die out. The breed was not nearly as numerous as it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Newfoundland government decided to promote sheep grazing and wool production in an attempt to diversify the economy in the 1880’s. In 1885, the Newfoundland Sheep Protection Act went into effect. This act placed a high tax on all dogs living on dogs living there. After all, dogs are major hazard to anyone raising sheep, and reducing dog numbers is an important way to promote sheep farming.
Of course, this act was terrible for the water dogs. The dogs were now an economic liability for the fisherman, and they soon began to disappear. Those that survived were very often sent to the mother country, where they contributed to founding the modern Labrador retriever. However, that option soon dwindled as Britian imposed a quarantine on imported dogs. However, the Labrador bloodline was augmented with imports from Newfoundland as late as the 1940’s.
Why someone as enthralled with Newfoundland’s history as Farley Mowat didn’t try to save the water dog is a good question. It’s obvious from his writing that he loved Albert very much, and in Sea of Slaughter and The Farfarers: Before the Norse, the dogs are mentioned as being very much a part of Newfoundland’s “native fauna.”
The dogs went extinct in the early 80’s. Richard Wolters found the last two dogs, both brothers and of advanced years, on the island. They were 13 and 15 respectively, and they were last of their kind. Why someone didn’t breed them to Labradors or other retrievers to try to save them is beyond me. If I had found the last two St. John’s water dogs, I’d have them both bred to Labrador bitches. To me, this animal would have been too important to let go extinct. It is from this animal that all of our beloved retrievers descend.
This is one of those animals that we should have had more foresight to preserve. However, I regard the St. John’s water dog as a landrace, not a breed. It only survived as a working animal. I would hate it if the dog survived only so it could be paraded around as a cartoon version of itself in the show ring. If that were the only future for the St. John’s water dog, maybe extinction wasn’t such a bad thing.
The importation of this dog was a major boon to the development of retrievers, and their contribution cannot ever be underestimated. Their blood courses through the veins of my golden retrievers, providing them their aquatic natures and their webbed feet. When I read Mowat’s work, I can see him walking along a beach on the Newfoundland coast tossing a stick for Albert to retrieve, just as I once did with my working-type golden on those thickly forested wild ridges of my West Virginia youth. And maybe in that one sense I am connected to this writer’s work through our love of this old retrieving water dog. His love coming from experience with the real thing, and mine coming from a red-golden descendant.
Some footage of Albert exists, although it’s only of his hindquarters and tail:
Update: Farley Mowat did try to save the St. John’s water dog. Albert was bred to a Labrador. Four puppies were born. Two dog puppies survived. One went to Prime Minister Trudeau and the other went to Premier Kosygin.