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

The first two are pre-Labrador retriever.

They are both St. John’s water dogs, which are the ancestors of all the British retriever breeds.  (Here’s the 1819 version, and the second dog is Billy from Stonehenge’s The Dog in Health and Disease. Billy could have been registered as a wavy-coated retriever.)

This chart shows how the Labrador retriever was developed from the St. John’s water dog landrace and then selectively bred into different types as time as progressed.

This is really the story of all purebred dogs once they enter the closed registry system.

They start out as rougher and more diverse, then they become more conformed and, paradoxically, more prone to fads within conformation breeding.

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The image above is of Albert.

Albert was a St. John’s water dog who was actually born in Newfoundland.

He was among the last of his breed. Well, he was among the last of the lines that were free of modern Labrador retriever blood.

And he had a famous owner.

This particular dog belonged to Farley Mowat, a well-known Canadian naturalist and author.

The above photo comes from Bay of Spirits, Mowat’s memoir about his time falling in love with Newfoundland– and then having a very bad falling out with it.

Albert is described as follows:

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 (pg. 303).

“La Poille” is on Newfoundland’s Sou’west Coast. It is normally spelled “La Poile,” and it is not very far from Burgeo, where Mowat lived from 1962 until about 1968.  Albert would later be featured in an episode of the the CBC series Telescope in 1970.

By then, the Mowats had taken to summering on Quebec’s Magdalen Isands, which are located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In the film, Albert and his mate– aptly named Vickie– are shown retrieving from the surf. Albert also receives a bizarre bedtime story from his master, which would give any dog nightmares!

Mowat tried to use Albert as a way of saving his breed.

Mowat believed the water dog of Newfoundland was closely related to the Portuguese water dog, a linkage that, thus far, hasn’t been revealed in any genetic studies.  Like many breed historians, Mowat tried to trace these water dogs through their poodle lineage, eventually arriving at herding dogs that were native to Central Asia. These linkages have not been confirmed in any genetic studies, but they are still pretty interesting.

In order to save the breed, Mowat tried breeding Albert to a Labrador, but because none of the puppies had the characteristic white spots, he abandoned the project.  There were only four pups in the litter, and both bitch pups died.   The two dog pups were given to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin.

These dogs were multipurpose hauling, hunting, and fishing dogs.

They are primary ancestor of all the retrievers, except the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, which may have a bit of this blood. However, it is mostly of collie extraction.  All the others, including the large Newfoundland dog and its variants, are derived from variation upon this landrace.

There still are black retriever-type dogs in Newfoundland, but these dogs heavily outcrossed to modern Labrador retriever lines, which were introduced from North America and the United Kingdom as “improved” hunting dogs.

When people say that Labrador retrievers come from Newfoundland, they aren’t exactly wrong. However, all the larger retrievers descend from this stock, and the modern Labrador retriever was developed in the United Kingdom in the 1880’s.

The dogs are derived from animals from Newfoundland, but the “improvement” happened in the United Kingdom and on Chesapeake Bay.

Albert is an idea of what a dog from this landrace looked like– at least what the last of his kind looked like.

One can create a dog that looks very much like him if one crosses a Labrador retriever with a border collie.

But the cross is  an imposter.

Albert’s kind was developed on the land and on the sea.

Natural and artificial selection honed his kind.

A dog derived from the cross of a border collie and a Labrador retriever never experienced those generations of selection.

It would just look the same.

Nothing more.




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Have you ever wondered what Lord Byron’s dog looked like?

You know, Boatswain, the “Newfoundland” dog that we know Byron so deeply cherished that when he died of rabies, the Romantic poet composed these lines, which are usually referred to as “Epitaph to a Dog” or “Inscription on the Monument to a Newfoundland Dog” :

Near this Spot

are deposited the Remains of one

who possessed Beauty without Vanity,

Strength without Insolence,

Courage without Ferosity,

and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.

This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery

if inscribed over human Ashes,

is but a just tribute to the Memory of


who was born in Newfoundland May 1803

and died at Newstead Nov. 18, 1808.

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,

Unknown by Glory, but upheld by Birth,

The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,

And storied urns record who rests below.

When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,

Not what he was, but what he should have been.

But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,

The first to welcome, foremost to defend,

Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,

Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,

Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,

Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –

While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,

And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,

Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –

Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust,

Degraded mass of animated dust!

Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,

Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!

By nature vile, ennobled but by name,

Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame

Ye, who perchance behold this simple urn,

Pass on – it honors none you wish to mourn.

To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;

I never knew but one – and here he lies.

Now, virtually every Newfoundland dog owner and breed historian knows these lines.

Everyone with a Newfoundland likes to imagine that their giant dogs have some connection to one owned by one of the greatest poets in the history of the English language.

But you know what?

Byron had a painting of Boatswain commission.  I may have to warn certain Newfoundland dog owners, about the only thing he had in common with modern Newfoundland is that he was a well-muscled dog and that  he was black and white like an Irish-marked Landseer. This painting was done by Clifton Thomson in 1808, just months before poor Boatswain contracted rabies and died.

Other than that, he was essentially a St. John’s water dog with prick ears. He could have passed for a very robust border collie.

Prick-ears could be the result of cropping. I honestly cannot tell from the painting whether he was naturally prick-eared or not.  The other ear that is pointed away from the viewer of the painting in such a way that it may have been semi-pricked.

St. John’s water dogs had small ears, and it would not have been unusual for some of them to have had prick or semi-prick ears.

Boatswain was also a smooth-coated dog, which is nothing like a modern Newfoundland dog at all.

It’s very difficult to get an assessment of his size, but my guess is that he wasn’t much larger than a Labrador retriever– just like a St. John’s water dog.

The only hint of his size that I can find is this painting of him, which was obviously hadn’t seen him. In that painting, he’s not a giant dog at all. He is very much like slightly larger black and white golden retriever.

So when you read breed histories and see people trying to adhere their dogs to some historical animal, one should be a bit skeptical.

I’ve noticed that one never can find painting of Boatswain on any sites about Newfoundland dogs. They almost always put paintings of Landseer Newfoundlands that Landseer himself painted.

This painting of Boatswain doesn’t comport with what people think a Newfoundland dog should look like, so it’s ignored.

But they do seem to like that epitaph.

Whether the dog was exactly like theirs is immaterial.

See related post:

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This is Lassie, one of the last two St. John’s water dogs. He was living at Grand Bruit, Newfoundland, when Richard Wolters took this photo. At the time, he was 13 years old, and the only other St. John’s water dog running about was his brother, who was 15. In theory, they could have been bred to modern Labrador retrievers and then selected for St. John’s water dog traits, but in the end, the modern Labrador absorbed the original strain. With the end of the outport system in Newfoundland, the dog lots their native habitat and use. Today, there are dogs that have some of this ancestry in Newfoundland, but they are mostly modern Labrador in ancestry.

This photo appears in The Labrador Retriever: The History…the People…Revisited (1981).

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Richard Wolters recounts the story a few St. John’s water dogs that were crossed into the strains that became the modern Labrador retriever in his The Labrador Retriever: The History…the People…Revisited (1981). I have some issues with Wolters’s historical scholarship and analysis, but the stories in the book are worth reading.

In the early 1900’s, the Buccleuch-Malmesbury strain of smooth-coated retriever, which came to be known as the Labrador retriever, was becoming quite inbred, and there was a move to get new blood from St. John’s water dogs in Newfoundland. One of my issues with Wolters is that failed to recognize that the water dog was quite different from the Labrador, and thus, he added to the myth that this breed had been developed in Newfoundland. The modern Labrador retriever is derived from St. John’s water dogs from Newfoundland– as are all the other retrievers that were developed in Britain. They are as much Canadian as the Labrador retriever.

The only retriever that doesn’t have St. John’s water dog at its base is the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, which is very closely related to the collie family.

The modern Labrador retriever begins with the combining of the Malmesbury and Buccleuch line, which were derived from smooth-coated St. John’s water dogs. I believe the bulk of the evidence, which has unfortunately been ignored in much of the Labrador retriever scholarship, is that the wavy-coated retrievers, the ancestors of the golden and flat-coated retrievers, were developed from St. John’s water dogs with long hair. Lambert de Boilieu wrote that mid-nineteenth century Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were eager to send the long-coated dogs that popped up in their litters to England, where they likely found work as retrievers.

Wolters, of course ignores this, and puts the Labrador retriever in a kind bizarre context, where it is the only retriever that ever existed or was of any worth.

But Wolters did pick up on stories of imported St. John’s water dogs, and the dog in the photo above had a very interesting story behind it.  In the early 1900’s, some dogs that saluki people would called COO (country of origin) dogs were brought from Newfoundland to Scotland and England and then were bred into the Labrador retriever strains. He first writes about a dog that was imported directly from Newfoundland, then he describes a water dog who was born in a rather unusual place:

The other dog was Stranger, which was bought in 1908  by W. Steuart Mensies in Norway. He saw the dog on the quay in Trondhjem [Trondheim]. He was told the mother had been brought over from North America in whelp. He bought the dog and had it shipped to England where it spent six months in quarantine before it could be used at stud. He, too, had a rough coat and was untrained. It’s said that he could find game but would stand over it until it was picked up by someone (pg. 56-57).

From the photo, his “rough coat” could have referred to him having a long coat. It was clearly longer than one normally sees on a Labrador retriever and somewhat wavy. The tail appears to be very bushy.

Labrador retrievers didn’t become very popular in Norway until after the Second Word War, but evidently, there was a least one litter of St. John’s water dogs born there in early part of the twentieth century. Stranger wound up contributing a bit to the modern Labrador retriever breed.  What happened to his mother and littermates is anyone’s guess.




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This portrait by Edmund Havell was painted around the year 1840.

It is called “William Stratton, Head Keeper to Sir John Cope of Bramshill Park, Hampshire.”

The original copy no longer exists.

For some reason, it was displayed at the British Embassy in Tripoli.

Earlier this year, when Libya was in throes of a bitter civil war.  The United States, Britain, France, and Italy were engaged in supporting the rebels against Col. Gaddafi with air strikes. In  a demonstration of their rage against the West, Gaddafi’s supporters stormed and looted the British embassy. They took the fine works of art out of the embassy, and it is believed that they were burned.

The Sir John Cope who employed William Stratton as his keeper was not the famous military commander who lost to the Jacobites at Prestonpans in 1745.  This Sir John Cope assume the title in 1812, but he was part of the same Cope family that had owned Bramshill Park since 1700.

The dog is of great interest to retriever history, for here we have an unequivocal example of a red brindle retriever.

Brindle still pops up in Labrador and Chesapeake Bay retrievers today, and it is masked by the e/e mutation in golden retrievers. The only way one can see it in golden retrievers is if a golden with a e/e masking brindle is bred to another breed. (Like these golden retriever/Malinois crosses.) Most golden retrievers are e/e masking dominant black, but black and tan, brindle, and sable can be masked.

This particular dog strongly resembles a Cão de Castro Laboreiro. It is often suggested that the St. John’s water dog or early Labrador is partially derived from this dog. Stonehenge wrote that brindling on an English retriever would be indicative of its “Labrador” heritage:

An English retriever, whether smooth or curly-coated, should be black or black-and-tan, or black with tabby or brindled legs, the brindled legs being indicative of the Labrador origin. We give the preference, from experience, to the flat-coated or short-coated small St. John’s or Labrador breed. These breeds we believe to be identical. The small St. John’s has marvellous intelligence, a great aptitude for learning to carry, a soft mouth, great strength, and he is a good swimmer. If there is any cross at all in this breed it should be the setter cross (pg. 89).

(Note that there is a definite reference to the St. John’s breed having long hair. “Flat-coated” means long haired in retriever parlance.)

Charles Eley in his The History of Retrievers (1921) wrote  that with wavy/flat-coated retrievers that “[t]he early specimens had frequently shown tan and brindle.”

In those accounts, the retrievers were only brindle at tan points or on the legs.

This dog is entirely red brindle.

This brindle dog could have been called a Newfoundland, a Labrador,  a St. John’s water dog or St. John’s dog, or a wavy-coated retriever, depending upon the context. Because the painting dates to about 1840, it more than likely would have been called Labrador or Newfoundland.

These dogs were developed from stock that belonged to various people living in Newfoundland. One should never discount that the mainstay of English, British, and Irish settlers brought dogs from those countries. However, there were several nations that fished off Newfoundland– most notably, the Portuguese.   Most people know that the Portuguese were among the first Europeans to visit the island, and the place called Labrador was actually land that the Portuguese crown granted to a sailor who explored this part of the world in the fifteenth century.

Fishing off the Grand Banks was a stable of the Portuguese economy well into the twentieth century.

The tendency in many official retriever histories was to ignore the possibility that Iberian breeds could have played a role in the founding of the St. John’s water dog. Richard Wolters dismissed the possibility that the Portuguese water dog could have played some role in developing the St. John’s breed, simply because the official concession on the Grand Banks gave the Portuguese different fishing grounds from the British and Irish fishermen.

The problem with this dismissal is that from at least the eighteenth century, English and Irish settlers were living in Newfoundland– in defiance of a law passed in parliament that forbid permanent settlement on the island. Many of these people were pressed into service with the British navy– freed from jails and workhouses, where they may have been sent for poaching on the great hunting estates.  These sailors– almost all of them men– lived in defiance of the law, and they called themselves “the Masterless Men.”

These Masterless Men likely wouldn’t have paid any attention to any maritime laws, and they likely occasionally relied upon the Portuguese and sailors from other nations to gain access to new goods.

I don’t see why such people would not have been able to procure Portuguese water dogs, which act very much like retrievers and worked on the Portuguese fleets in almost the exact same fashion as the St. John’s water once did.

I also don’t see why the  Cão de Castro Laboreiro or something very similar to it couldn’t have been brought over with the Portuguese.

Cão de Castro Laboreiro is a rustic farm dog from northern Portugal.  It is from the village of Castro Laborerio, which it was developed to guard cattle and other livestock from wolves. It can handle cold conditions quite well.

There is a very similar brindle dog on the Azores,  Cão de Fila de  São Miguel. It’s normally cropped and docked and looks quite fierce, but when undocked, it is very similar. It has a different mtDNA sequence, but since we’re talking about dogs that may have come from the same generalized landrace– and dog from the Azores represents an insular population– it might be possible that these dogs are more closely related than the mtDNA analysis might suggest.

Cão de Castro Laboreiro. This dog is very similar to the retriever in the painting by Edmund Havell. They also come in yellow, and the yellow ones really look like Labradors.

My guess is the rough cattle dog-type from northern Portugal would have been an asset in Newfoundland, which was full of black and polar bears (which were called “water bears.”) Breed this sort of dog with some working English cur dogs, water spaniels, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and English water dogs (poodle-type dogs), and the odd retrieving Native American dog from the mainland. Then allow a rigorous selection from that melange of canines for function and for ability, and you likely get the formula that gave us the St. John’s water dog.

It is even possible that the name “Labrador” that is used to refer to these dogs comes from a misunderstanding of the Portuguese word “Laboreiro.” The St. John’s breed was developed on the island of Newfoundland and then was taken to Labrador.   It was not actually developed in Labrador at all.

And the actually modern Labrador retriever, which is always said to be the oldest of retrievers, came into its current form somewhat more recently than the strains of retriever that became golden retrievers. They were developed into their current form in Britain–mainly by the Dukes of Buccleuch in Scotland. Labrador retriever as we know it today is no more Canadian than the other large retrievers are. They all descend from the St. John’s water dog, but the modern Labrador is not the same thing as the St. John’s water dog. (The Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever actually is Canadian, but it’s not primarily derived from the St. John’s water dog as the others are. It’s actually primarily collie.)

The real problem that some people have with the  Cão de Castro Laboreiro being an ancestor of retrievers is the temperament of the  Cão is much sharper than any of the retrievers.

But that assumes that all retrievers are as docile as Labrador and golden retrievers and that their ancestors were just as nice. It’s true that the St. John’s water dogs that survived on Newfoundland into the twentieth century were very nice friendly dogs.

But they weren’t always this way. Col. Peter Hawker was British sportsman who was the first person to write about using the St. John’s water dog as a retriever in the United Kingdom.  In his Instructions to Young Sportsmen (1824), he describes the temperament of the dogs very differently from what one might expect:

Newfoundland [St. John’s water] dogs are so expert and savage, when fighting, that they generally contrive to seize some vital part, and often do a serious injury to their antagonist. I should, therefore, mention, that the only way to get them immediately off is to put a rope, or handkerchief, round their necks, and keep tightening it, by which means their breath will be gone, and they will be instantly choked from their hold (pg. 256).

That’s a very different temperament from what is normally expected of a retriever.

Over time, these dogs were bred to be much more docile. However, two dogs of this ancestry retain their more aggressive natures. Shooting estates required dogs that were friendlier and more docile, as did the development of retriever trials.

And these two retrievers are likely the earliest offshoots of the St. John’s water dog– the Chesapeake Bay retriever and the curly. These two dogs are known for having a somewhat sharper edge than the other retrievers, although they are not nearly as extreme as the Cão de Castro Laboreiro.

Now, this brindle color could have come from a variety of places. There are lots of brindle dogs from England that could have been crossed in.

However, the similarities between the Cão de Castro Laboreiro and the retriever standing with William Stratton are quite striking.

Of course, we do need a DNA analysis to find out if this possibility is more than a striking resemblance.

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This is a Lakota woman and her travois dog.

This photo was taken on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

I don’t know the date on which this was taken, but her dog is not a traditional travois dog.

It appears to be heavily derived from the Newfoundland/St. John’s water dog type.

These dogs were brought into the interior of North America by fur traders, and the Native Americans adopted them as working animals.

They bred with the indigenous dog, and because they were more resistant to disease and were not shot because settlers mistook them wolves or coyotes, they largely replaced the travois dog type.

This dog looks almost like a golden retriever that has been hooked up to a travois.

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Painting by John Ferneley Sr (1823).

This dog looks like a large St. John’s water dog or a very large wavy-coated retriever.

This type of Newfoundland started out as nothing more than an “improvement” on the St. John’s water dog that made if more palatable to the British dog buying public.

Retrievers and Newfoundlands are derived from the same root stock, and the initial difference between the two was trifling.

The big difference is that sportsmen who wanted a retriever began to breed smaller and more agile dog– often crossing their dogs of this stock with water spaniels, collies, and setters.

The people who wanted a pet Newfoundland bred for a larger and larger dog. By the middle part of the nineteenth century, virtually all Newfoundlands available in England on the pet market were big black and white dogs. There were predominantly solid colored dogs around, but a huge chunk of these were in the stock being selectively bred for retrievers.

The dog at the base of the retriever/Newfoundland family is what is sometimes called a St. John’s water dog. It was a working dog in Newfoundland that was about the same size as a Labrador or golden retriever.

But this dog was a landrace that was derived from several different dog stocks. There is some debate as to what these dogs looked like, but the general consensus is the pet Newfoundland in England was very different from the working dog of Newfoundland.

The Newfoundlanders eventually came to breed only smooth-coated dogs, and the last “pure” representatives of that landrace were all smooth-coated and almost entirely black in color. There may have been rather large dogs in Newfoundland, but I doubt that true giant dogs ever existed there– until the pet Newfoundland was re-imported as an “improved” European breed.

In essence, the giant Newfoundland is a creation of the demands of the pet market as much as the giant Labrador retrievers of today are.

I am not doubting whether the St. John’s water dog was used to haul loads in the interior. I am fairly certain that the robust bodies of many Labrador and golden retrievers and of historical wavy and flat-coated retrievers are reflection of this utility as a hauling dog.

But a giant dog would not have been of much use in a society that was primarily focused upon fishing, hunting, and trapping for survival. Big dogs eat a lot, and they have real issues with their joints as they mature.  Such an animal couldn’t be used for hauling until it was several years old, and it would not have been of much use for the amount of food it consumed.

I would treat this Newfoundland as a sort of missing link between the St. John’s water dog and “the improved” pet Newfoundland.


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George Cartwright with his greyhound in Labrador. They have bagged a melanistic red fox.

One probably doesn’t think of the ancestors of retrievers hunting things like polar bears and wolves, but in their native land, the ancestral retrievers were used to hunt these animals. One wonders exactly how common it was for these dogs hunt such dangerous animals, but we do know that the people who lived on Newfoundland and in Labrador during these days would have to deal with large predators on a regular basis.

These two accounts come from Captain George Cartwright’s journal.   These accounts come from the early 1770’s, and one should not assume that the Newfoundlands mentioned here are the big, shaggy Newfoundlands we know now.  Richard Wolters was the first person to figure out that the original Newfoundland dog was more like retriever– a dog that is usually referred to as the St. John’s water dog. This dog is the primary ancestor of all the retrievers–with the exception of the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever– and the large Newfoundland dog.

Cartwright was an explorer and fur trader who operated in Newfoundland and then in Labrador. These accounts of his tenure in Labrador, where hunted and trapped with a Newfoundland dog and a greyhound. Yes.  A greyhound– the perfect breed to take into a subarctic climate!

Here is Cartwright’s account of some “Newfoundland” dogs being used to pursue a wolf that was caught in a trap and managed to escape with the trap still attached to its foot:

Monday, April 8, 1771. At ten o’clock Milmouth came from the Lodge to remain with me. Soon afterwards two of the sealers called to inform me that they had killed a wolf at the East end of this island, which had got into one of their traps upon White-Fox Island [Tilcey Island, Labrador] this morning. He travelled at such a rate with the trap upon one of his fore feet, that they had much difficulty to overtake him, though assisted by a couple of stout Newfoundland dogs; for the wolf so intimidated the dogs, by frequently snapping at them as he ran, that they were afraid to attack him. I went with them to take a view of the beast, and a large old dog he was, but very poor; for he had been impelled by hunger to haunt about the sealers’ house for some time past, to eat the seals’ bones which had been left half picked by their dogs. Milmouth and I were employed all the rest of the day in cutting boughs to sewel the harbour, in order to cause the deer to come close to a point of Eyre Island, where I intend to watch for them (pg.74).

This wolf had been scavenging the seal carcasses that were cast off to feed the many working dogs on the Labrador coast.  This wolf was quite in poor condition, but it still gave the dogs quite a bit of trouble.

Wolf hunting probably would have always been an incidental activity for the water dogs. Their main utility was in hunting ducks, sea birds, and ptarmigan.

However, it was on a duck hunt that Cartwright saw some Newfoundland dogs take on even more formidable prey than a wolf.  It was while duck hunting with two Newfoundlands and his greyhound that Cartwright and his party came across a “white-bear.”

Wednes., May 8, 1776. At three o’clock this morning I took John Hayes, his crew, Jack, the greyhound, and two Newfoundland dogs with me, intending to launch the skiff into the water, and go a duck shooting. As they were hauling her along, I went forward to Pumbly Point, from whence I discovered a white-bear [polar bear] lying on the ice near Huntingdon Island; we left the skiff, and all hands went towards him, but finding the ice extremely weak in the middle of the channel we stopped. I then sent one man round to drive him towards us: in the mean time the bear went into a pool of water which was open near the island, and the man got on the other side and fired at him; but as he did not come out so soon as I expected, I sent the rest of the people back for the skiff, intending to launch it into the water to him. He soon after got upon the ice, and came close up to me. I could have sent a ball through him; but as I wished to have some sport first, I slipped the greyhound at him, but he would not close with him till the Newfoundland dogs came up; we then had a fine battle, and they stopped him until I got close up. As I was laying down one gun, that I might fire at him with the other, I observed the ice which I was upon, to be so very weak that it bent under me; and I was at the same time surrounded with small holes, through which the water boiled up, by the motion of the ice, caused by my weight. As I knew the water there was twenty-five fathoms deep, with a strong tide, my attention was diverted, from attempting to take away the life of a bear, to the safety of my own; and while I was extricating myself from the danger which threatened me, the bear bit all the dogs most severely, and made good his retreat into the open water, which was at some distance lower down (pg. 199-200).

Hunting such dangerous quarry as polar bears and wolves would have meant that the St. John’s water dogs were very tough animals.

The water dogs of Newfoundland were truly multipurpose animals.

They had to be.  The people needed dogs that were capable of working in the cold water as setters and haulers of nets and as retrievers of hooked fish.  They also needed dogs that were capable of hunting birds and other game in the interior, and dogs that could retrieve sea birds and ducks from the water.  They also needed dogs that could haul sleds and carts that were loaded down with fish, furs, lumber, and other raw materials.

This ancestral Newfoundland or St. John’s water dog was a local adaptation of the rough cur dog that was so common among the English working class.   This same cur was also adapted to fit different regions of the United States, and the actual dog upon which Old Yeller was based was actually some regional variant of the American cur– most likely what we have come to call a black-mouthed cur.

It is a little strange to think of the ancestors of golden and Labrador retrievers baying up polar bears and chasing down wolves.

But they are descendants of a much rougher dog.

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This painting is by an unknown artist, and it dates to around 1820.

The exact location is also unknown, but it could be within the Mi’kmaq homelands in the Maritimes or in Newfoundland, where some of them migrated in the eighteenth century.

They are shooting geese from canoes, and you can see one dog in a canoe and another dog swimming to retrieve a downed goose.

These dogs could have played some role in the development of the St. John’s water dog or the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever.

Granted, no genetic studies have revealed any indigenous ancestry in either of these breeds, but the indigenous people of the region did use dogs to hunt geese and other waterfowl in the fashion. They like originally used bows and arrows, or they may have stalked the birds in the late evening and early morning when they were settled in the water.



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