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

(Source for image)

The modern dogs of this type are primarily Labrador retriever in ancestry, but they likely have some of the old dog still in them.

Grand Bruit is where Richard Wolters encountered the last St. John’s water dogs that were free of modern Labrador retriever blood.


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This text comes from Indian New England Before the Mayflower (1980) by Howard S. Russell:

I would not be surprised if we found that some of these dogs– most likely the ones belonging to the Mi’kmaq who settled in Newfoundland in the 1760’s–were found to have contributed some genetic material to the St. John’s water dogs, and through them to the modern Newfoundlands, Landseers, Leonbergers, and the retrievers.

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Perhaps the longest running controversy in the dog fancy and in later dog histories is what the true Newfoundland dog actually was.

Several people, among them the Labrador retriever historian and retriever trainer Richard Wolters, have claimed that the large Newfoundland dog that became very common throughout Europe and North America during the nineteenth century was not the dog that the settlers and fishermen of Newfoundland kept for their own use on the sea and in the forests of the interior.

In this scenario, the big Newfoundland and the Landseer, which is recognized as a separate breed in the FCI countries, were developed for the pet trade from the smaller working dogs of Newfoundland, which we now call the St. John’s water dog. The big dogs were developed through cross-breeding with mastiffs of some sort and then selectively breeding for larger size.

This scenario is far from orthodox, and those who make this claim are generally in retrievers, not modern Newfoundlands. It is very common to come across a claim that the large Newfoundland descends from mastiffs that were brought to Newfoundland when the Norse established a colony there.

Of course, such a claim is very dubious. The big problem with this theory is that there are no dog breeds native to Newfoundland until after Columbus. There have been dogs that have been found at prehistoric archaelogical sites, but none of these dogs trace to the Beothuk people, who were the only people living in Newfoundland at the time when Europeans first arrived. If any Norse dogs remained, they would have had to have been kept by the Beothuk.  But they didn’t keep dogs.  There is some evidence that they had a relationship with wolves that bordered on semi-domestication (see Whitbourne’s account), but there is no evidence in the historical record or in the archaeological findings that these people kept dogs. Some have claimed that those wolves were like Inuit dogs of some sort, but there is no evidence of Inuit-type dogs on Newfoundland that were alive at the time of the Beothuk period. I think it’s just better to say that these were semi-domesticated wolves– and not dogs in the conventional sense.

There is some evidence of later European peoples bringing mastiffs to Newfoundland, but their purpose was more of the conventional mastiff guard dog. which was something that one would need in a wild frontier country.  Some of these mastiffs were likely of the bulldog-type, which means they could be used to catch game and control livestock. However, there is no mastiff native to Europe that is a water dog, and none are very good in cold water.

Further, a big dog like a mastiff or a modern Newfoundland is going to eat a lot of food, but most accounts of Newfoundland dogs suggest that they were fed scraps from the fishing plants and the remains of game that their owners shot in the interior.  And during the months when the dogs weren’t needed for fishing, they were allowed to roam and feed themselves.  Although these dogs proved to be capable sheep-killers, I doubt they were that good at hunting caribou, which were the only large ungulates native to Newfoundland until moose were introduced in 1904.  It would be very hard for a very large dog to maintain itself on such rations.

A giant dog might have a lot more power to pull and haul, but it also might not be able to thrive  in such conditions.

That’s why it seems logical that the giant Newfoundland was actually a creation of the nineteenth century pet trade and dog fancy.

However, there is next to no historical evidence to confirm the theory that the St. John’s was the original Newfoundland, but I did find something interesting. I came across this letter to The Country magazine that was published on 4 April 1876. The author, who is identified as “P,” is a retriever breeder who has kept a line of retrievers that descend from the “true old breed” that his grandfather brought over from St. John’s:

My attention has been called to a letter in your paper of March 30, from “Norman Nemo,” respecting Newfoundland dogs. Did “Norman Nemo” ever see a true-bred Newfoundland dog? I have been in St. John’s much, and know it is difficult in that place to get one of the original breed of dogs. The dogs we call Newfoundland dogs are no more like the true old breed of Newfoundland than an English thoroughbred horse is to his Eastern ancestor. The original Newfoundland dog was a dog about the size of an ordinary setter; his head was very broad across the forehead; small sharp ears close to the head; muzzle short; nose small and sharp; good strong teeth; body compact; coat smooth and thick, almost always black, sometimes a shade of brindle; strong legs, and feet large, long, and flat, and when walking spread—in fact, anything but a handsome dog. All the native dogs (if I may use the term) of North America have the same type. The Indian dogs are small, and have the same formation of head.

The Newfoundland dog was used for dragging sledges by the fishermen on tho ooast, taking tho cod fish from the shore to the curing houses. They were wonderfully hardy, preferring to sleep out of doors all seasons and live on the offal from the cod. My grandfather was quartered at St. John’s many years ago; he brought home a Newfoundland bitch, of the true breed. He bought her from an old fisherman, who told him there wero very few of the original breed left even then. There was nothing very remarkable about Flora; she was, I recollect, rather cross, but was an excellent water dog, and retrieved well. Nothing would induoe her to sleep indoors, neither would she be tied up; in fact, like the white bear in the Zoo, she seemed to delight in ice and snow. We bred from her, and I have by my side now one of her breed, a very grand dog, indeed, the improved English Newfoundland. I have also a dog I got in St. John’s when last there; but all doge bought in Newfoundland are not Newfoundland dogs. The people there have improved their breed also.

Your correspondent, “Norman Nemo,” seems to have a great dislike to educated dogs. He would prefer “a handsome dog to the more highly educated dog, or one that proved himself most clever or tricky.” Well, I suppose if “Norman Nemo” goes in for dogs that are only bred for the show bench, he is right: but what is the use of these prize dogs? I have been a dog breeder and owner all my life, and admire a handsome dog as much as “Norman Nemo,” but I would not keep a dog an hour merely because he was good-looking. I endeavour to obtain the breed o£ dog—whether retriever, setter, pointer, or hound—that is moat easily educated; in fact, that will take to their work almost without education. If they are dull, lazy, and give trouble— no matter how good-looking they are—I get rid of the brutes. They are not worth their keep, unless for the show bench, and I do not go in for that sort of thing, though I am sure I have dogs that would please even “Norman Nemo,” but they are educated. The dog now by my side—a descendant from Flora—is uncommonly tricky. I hardly ever lose a bird either on land or water. I have known him follow a winged black cock [black grouse] through thick under-brush and heather for more than a mile, and bring it without hurting a feather. He takes after his northern ancestors in his love of water and his disregard to cold, but he has improved upon the old lady’s temper.

I must apologise for writing so long a letter, but when on a doggy subject I hardly know where to stop. I could fill a good sized book with dog stories—incidents that have come under my own eye—and perhaps I may some day tip you a yarn or two.

So the original old breed of Newfoundland was like a St. John’s water dog, not like a shaggy mastiff with the temperament of a retriever.

The notion that these dogs were of native ancestry should be taken with a grain of salt, but the natives of New England did have dogs that were of some use as retrievers, as did the Mi’kmaq, who eventually settled in Newfoundland at the insistence of the French. There is an account of Indians in New England using dogs to retrieve ducks from their canoes. This account makes no mention of the exact people who are using the dogs, but they could have been the Abenaki. The Abenaki and the Mi’kmaq are both Algonquin peoples who were also part of the Wabanaki Confederacy. Wabanaki refers to a large area of the northeastern part of North America in both the United States and Canada that was home to these Algonquin peoples.

The account describing the indigenous retrievers of eastern North America goes as follows:

Once the harvests of the field were safely in, the Indian [men], old and young, could turn to hunting, since the flesh animals and fowl would then spoil less readily. Morning and evening were the times for ducks and geese. Following well-known flyways, these birds settled at night in river meadows and salt marshes or rested at ease on smooth water. The hunters would drift in quietly in canoes, light torches to cause sudden confusion among the birds, and knock them down with clubs or paddles. Then a specially trained canoe dog, sitting in the bow,  would jump into the water and retrieve the game.

Howard S. Russell Indian New England Before the Mayflower(1980) p. 178-179. *I edited one word to make it sound a little less ethnocentric.

It is possible that this sort of dog is in the St. John’s water dog’s ancestry, but I also think that it is primarily derived from European stock, which included curs, water dogs, and guard dogs from several European countries, including Portugal. (Wolters discounted any Portuguese ancestry in the dogs, but I think this is in error. He felt that Portugal and English sailors and fishermen never would have met each other because they fished different parts of Newfoundland, but Portugal and England were never enemies. They were fellow Europeans, and in such a harsh environment, they had to have relied upon each other at some point. It is likely they engaged in friendly trade with each other, as ships from foreign nations do when not at war.)

I did however come across this photo of a Native American dog from either Eastern Canada or New England retrieving a rabbit. It looks like a black coyote, but it has a very Labradorish expression in its eyes. If it had possessed drop ears that were a bit smaller in size, I think we would be calling this animal an early Labrador retriever or a St. John’s water dog. It is built very similarly to the St. John’s breed, but it is just a touch smaller.

Some texts refer to this animal as a “retrieving wolf,” but it is not a wolf at all. It’s a retrieving Native American dog.

No genetic studies have ever revealed any indigenous ancestry in the retrievers or the big Newfoundland dog. However, it may be revealed someday that they do have a little indigenous ancestry, something I would also expect to find in curs and feists.

But it does seem to me much more logical that the St. John’s water dog, the proto-retriever, was actually the original Newfoundland dog.

However, it also means that when we see the word “Newfoundland” used to describe a dog in the eighteenth century and the earlier parts of the nineteenth century– especially in North America, we need to caution ourselves about assuming that the dog they were referring to was the giant Newfoundland. It very well might have been, but it is much more likely that it would have been something more like a Labrador retriever.

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The image above come from Newfoundland and Its Untrodden Ways (1907) by John Guille Millais, an English artist, naturalist, and travel writer. He was an ardent conservationist and was instrumental in founding the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire, which now is Fauna & Flora International.

Millais examined many different aspects of Newfoundland’s culture and natural history in this book, but he possessed a very strong British aversion to free-roaming dogs, seeing them as a major hindrance to developed a wool and mutton industry.

One of the first things that would have to be done would be the shooting of ownerless dogs, and stringent laws would have to be enacted that the owners of dogs must keep their dogs in check and under proper supervision. A man who allows his dog to stray should be heavily fined. At present these half-wild “Labrador” dogs roam the country in spring and autumn, searching for anything they can kill. Once a dog has killed a sheep, it is very cunning, and will not murder in its own neighbourhood, but travels far afield to commit regular depredations (pg. 146-147 )

The custom in Newfoundland was to allow the dogs to roam freely when they weren’t needed for work on the fishing boats. At the time Millais was exploring Newfoundland.  At the time Millais was visiting Newfoundland (the autumn of 1900), the dogs really weren’t needed to haul and set nets and lines. The fishery was more or less mechanized. However, the dogs still were needed to haul loads, especially lumber, and they were of great utility in retrieving ducks and sea birds.  They were also used to hunt rock and willow ptarmigan and spruce grouse in the island’s interior.  They were also good for retrieving shot seals, and they also could be used to hunt snowshoe hares, which were introduced to the island in the 1870’s.

In Labrador, they were used for all the above tasks, but they were also used as sled dogs– often cross-bred with the indigenous hauling  breed, which we now call the Labrador husky.

The dogs were the product of a people fully dependent upon the natural world for survival. They needed the dogs for a wide variety of tasks. The notion that one should try to control one’s dogs at all time made little sense to people who were accustomed to letting them roam and learn about nature on their own.

Because Millais was writing about the dogs during his visit in 1900, we can also see exactly how effective the Sheep Protection Act of 1885 actually was. This is the act that is often said to be the main force behind making the St. John’s water dog extinct, for it allowed different  municipalities in Newfoundland to levy high dog taxes and even ban dog ownership outright. However, the municipality had to have some interest in promoting sheep production in the first place, and in the outports, the dogs continued to be kept as they always had been. And it was that way until the 1970’s, when the last “pure” St. John’s water dogs died.  Contingents of free-roaming black water dogs still exist in some parts of Newfoundland, but these are almost entirely modern Labrador retriever in ancestry.

As much as Millais complained about them as sheep predators, he did have some good things to say about their excellence in the water and as hauling dogs:

The dogs, which seem to be well nigh amphibious, rush barking through the pools, and at low water search the shores for discarded cod-heads.

The best dogs are of the “Labrador” type. In winter they are used for hauling logs—one dog will haul 2 or 3 cwt. Seldom more than two are used together. The pure Newfoundland dogs are curly, and are a little higher on the leg than are the Labradors (pg. 145).

I have never heard of this distinction anywhere else in the literature, but because these outport communities were quite isolated– as were virtually all settlements in Newfoundland and Labrador– it seems to me likely that each community would produce a slightly different type of their working dogs.

There is no mention of long-haired dogs, which I think were largely exported to Britain and the United States, to found the retriever and large Newfoundland breeds.  And there is no mention of giant Newfoundlands on the island. The only distinctions between the dogs are of leg length and coat type– not size.

There may have been giant dogs on Newfoundland at one time, and it is well-known that the modern large Newfoundland is a powerful animal.  However, one gets a bit of diminishing returns when a dog hits that size. Yes, the big Newfoundland can haul more massive loads, but a dog of that size overheats more easily. Even in Newfoundland, it can get warm enough to make a dog overheat. Further, a giant dog eats a lot of food. If one reads any history of dogs in Newfoundland, the dogs ate mostly cast off meat and fish. A giant dog would have a hard time finding enough nutrition to fully thrive in those conditions. It also wouldn’t be so nice to have such a large dog on a fishing boat, where conditions are quite cramped.

I think the bulk of the evidence suggests that the giant Newfoundland dog was really a creation of Europe and the United States. There may have been some larger dog on the island with long-hair, but these likely weren’t significantly larger than St. John’s water dog type. From these dogs the giant Newfoundland was developed.

Of course, all of this is debatable, and it has been quite hotly contested since the early nineteenth century.  “What is the ‘true’ Newfoundland dog?’ is a question that has resulted in many, many arguments. And none of it is settled. Keep in mind that much of what we know about these dogs comes from Europeans who never saw these dogs in Newfoundland, and their perspectives might be quite inaccurate.

But the St. John’s water dog or “Labrador” was a truly rugged creature.

By the accidents of history, it lived as dogs had for millennia. The humans who owned these dogs were primarily hunters, trappers, and fishermen. Some did a little small farming. Some kept some sheep and cattle. Many more kept chickens.  But wild nature was the primary source for their sustenance, and they needed a dog that could be as well-versed in nature’s savagery as they were in taking commands.  Hunting man domesticated the dog, and these dogs lived with hunting man.  Unlike many other dogs in the same cultural situation, these people were Westerners whose native tongue was English.  They were mostly refugees from an industrial and late mercantile society, who had come to this wild country in the northwestern Atlantic to live as free men.

Large-scale agriculture was something they largely shunned.

They didn’t need collies or farm dogs.

They needed dogs that could hunt and swim.

And that’s what the St. John’s water dog became.

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The following anecdote comes from Hutchinson’s Dog Breaking (1869).  The its veracity should be taking with a grain of salt, for it sound suspiciously like a violation of Morgan’s canon. However, it is an interesting story, for we do know that St. John’s water dogs often ate fish offal. They were also left to roam when they weren’t being used, and there are many accounts of them fishing along Newfoundland and Labrador’s shores, lakes, and streams.

The story goes like this:

At certain seasons of the year the streams in some parts of North America, not far from the coast, are filled with fish to an extent you could scarcely believe, unless you had witnessed it—and now comes the Munchausen story. A real Newfoundland [meaning St. John’s water dog], belonging to a farmer who lived near one of those streams, used, at such times, to keep the house well supplied with fish. He thus managed it:— He was perfectly black, with the exception of a white fore foot, and for hours together he would remain almost immoveable on a small rock which projected into the stream, keeping his white foot hanging over the edge as a lure to the fish.  He remained so stationary that it acted as a very attractive bait; and whenever curiosity attempted any unwary fish to approach him too close, the dog plunged in, seized his victim, and carried him off to the foot of a neighboring tree; and, on a successful day, he would catch a great number (pg. 267-268).

I think that is possible that a dog could figure out how to lure fish. However, it is also possible that this dog was just a very good stalker. Maybe the white foot was in the water just because that foot was dominant. The white foot may have been a lure, or maybe the black dog was just very hard for the fish to see.

My guess is that this dog learned how to stalk fish in Newfoundland, where being as still as possible on the shore was the only way to be successful.

We really don’t know what was happening here. The tendency to be quite anthropomorphic was fairly common in those days, but one should understand that Hutchinson wrote the book on training hunting dogs, especially retrievers.

So maybe this dog actually did figure out that his white foot was a lure, and Hutchinson reported it correctly.  Of course, it may have been a second-hand account, and Hutchinson may have never seen to dog stalk fish from the shore.

I think it was just a coincidence that the dog’s foot happened to be in the water when it stalked fish.

This dog was just a good fish stalker.

And to roam free and feed oneself on Newfoundland, one had to be a good hunter. That would probably was the reason why this dog was so good at taking fish from the shore.


This dog clearly appears to have been a St. John’s water dog. It is difficult to tell what kind of coat it had, but it appears to have had a longer coat than the later examples of his breed.


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(Source for image)

Grand Bruit was a very outport on Newfoundland’s south coast where Richard Wolters, the Labrador retriever historian, also encountered the last remaining dogs of this type at roughly the same time this dog was photographed.

The two dogs he encountered were two males, aged 13 and 15 years. The 13-year-old, named Lassie for some odd reason, is probably the most famous of his breed. If one does a Google Images search of St. John’s water dogs, one comes across several images of Lassie and his brother.  They had very little white on them– just some white on their chests and toes.

The dog in the photo above is Irish marked. That was actually not uncommon in the St. John’s breed. Some of the literature actually discusses the “tuxedo markings” that were common in this breed, which should more accurately be called a landrace.

All retrievers descend from these dogs, although the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever likely has a bit less of this ancestry than the others do. With the exception of the toller, the other retrievers count this dog as their primary ancestor, as does the big Newfoundland dog and its close relatives, the FCI Landseer and the Leonberger.

The “black water dogs” of Newfoundland were ubiquitous among the outport communities, which were settlements where the fishermen lived. These were often inaccessible, except by boat, and the fishermen used their dogs for a variety of task besides setting and hauling nets and lines on the fishing grounds of the Grand Banks. The dogs were also used to haul carts and sled and to retrieve shot ducks and sea birds. They were also used in the uplands of Newfoundland’s interior to flush and retrieve ptarmigan.

The dogs were also used in wilds of Labrador and were occasionally cross-bred with the indigenous hauling husky-type dog for use as a sled dog.

It is amazing that this rugged water cur would have such a profound impact upon the dog world. Its descendants have become among the world’s most widely distributed domestic dogs. Not only is the modern Labrador retriever the most common purebred dog in the world right now, the big Newfoundland was the first mass-produced large family dog. In the late eighteenth century and through much of the nineteenth century, the Newfoundland dog was the dog that every up and coming family had to have. With a growing middle class as a result of the dual forces of greater democratization and increased wealth through the Industrial Revolution, the Newfoundland dog became amazingly popular.

But its popularity is nothing compared to the Labrador retriever of today.

The Labrador is so widespread that it has largely replaced its ancestor in its native land. There are plenty of black water dogs in Newfoundland today. These dogs are allowed to roam freely in small towns and in the remaining outports. The bulk of these dogs are of modern Labrador retriever blood, but because many of them are not registered, they might still have a bit of the old St. John’s breed in them.

It is often said that the main reason the breed went extinct is because of Newfoundland’s Sheep Protection Act of 1885. That certainly may have played a factor.

But I think a bigger cause of the extinction was the simple decline of the outport communities, which began when Newfoundland joined the Confederation in 1949. There was a big push by the Smallwood government to industrialize Newfoundland, and in order to have an industrial workforce at hand, the small fishing communities were gradually closed.

When Farley Mowat lived in Newfoundland during the 1960’s, the outports were still around, and there were plenty of black water dogs around. He writes about them in several of his works, most notably in Bay of Spirits. Mowat eventually took in one of these dogs, which he named Albert, which he then bred to a dog that was primarily of Labrador extraction, named Victoria (get it?).  In the outports, the local contingent of water dogs were the main welcoming committee, and virtually all the outports had them, save one named Grey River. When Mowat and his wife visited Grey River, it had no dogs, which Mowat thought was very strange. They happened to have Albert with them, and the children of the village were so mesmerized by Albert that they didn’t know what to think of him.  It was so isolated from the other outports that these children had never seen a dog before. ( There is actually very strange story about why Grey River had no dogs, but that will have to wait for another post.)

The other thing that did the St. John’s water dog in was the simple success of its descendant, the Labrador retriever. Labrador retrievers spread throughout Newfoundland after joining Canada, and Labradors largely replaced the old water dogs– or absorbed them, which is most likely.

The old St. John’s water dog breed is gone, but its genes live on in the retrievers and the big Newfoundland dog.  Perhaps some of the black Labrador types that live in Newfoundland have some of these dogs a bit closer in their ancestry than other dogs in the greater retriever family.

If they do, then they are truly special dogs.

I think it may have been an error in the later days of this breed to assume that if a dog had Labrador retriever in it that it was somehow tainted. The truth is that Farley Mowat did breed his “pure” dog to dog of Labrador ancestry, but when he didn’t get enough white markings on the puppies, he stopped breeding for them.  The truth is that an outcross program could have been used to augment the St. John’s water dog’s genetic diversity and then through more careful selection, the St. John’s water dog phenotype could have been better preserved.

And because the dogs actually lived in Newfoundland, they could still been subject to the selection pressures of climate and utility that truly made the St. John’s water dog what it was.

But when Newfoundland’s government so strongly rejected the sea in that era, saving an artifact of the maritime era probably wasn’t what people were thinking about. After all, it was only when Richard Wolters wrote his book on the Labrador retriever’s origins that the greater public had an understanding of what these dogs actually were. Stonehenge and others from the nineteenth century knew what these dogs were, but no one really thought that it might be a good idea to preserve them. In that era, the goal was to “improve them” into retrievers and pet Newfoundland dogs.

These dogs were a product of the culture and environment of the Newfoundland outport.

As those outports have declined through the decades, the dog’s chances of surviving became remote, and then were dashed through haphazard cross-breeding, likely absorption, and eventual replacement by the “new and improved” Labrador retriever.

The dog is more or less a metaphor for the outports. When these fishing settlements began to disappear, the dog’s days were numbered.

A creature formed in the hunting and fishing culture became out of place as that culture disappeared.

We might try to recreate this breed using Labrador retrievers, Portuguese water dogs, and whatever else.

But we’ll never get it back.

Just as we’ll never breed back the aurochs using domestic cattle breeds or the tarpan horse using domestic horse breeds, the St. John’s water dog can never be recreated.

We might get a strain of dogs that looks the part, but it will be a shallow imitation.

To recreate that dog, you need the outports, the fishing boats, the stormy seas, the howling gales, the heavy lines and nets, and the frigid winter winds.  These forces forged the St. John’s water dog through the centuries that these dogs helped the early fishermen and the later settlers.

We have no idea where St. John’s water dog came from. We have some educated guesses– and some pretty good debates.

But all we know is that it was the working dog of Newfoundland. It is the ancestor of the retrievers and the big Newfoundland.

And it no longer exists in its original form.

But although its origins are a bit of mystery, the reasons for its extinction are not hard to understand.

Landraces exist only so long as they have “land.” In this case, the land was the outport communities and their hunting and fishing culture.

Extinction of the outport was the extinction of the St. John’s water dog.

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Yes. They do.

(Source for all photos in this post)

Yes. The purebred dog in that last identification query is a Labrador.

And you may have seen a dog like this one on this blog before.

Remember, Ch. Zelstone?

Zelstone was born in 1880, and he became a very important sire in the old wavy and flat-coated retriever breed from which both golden retrievers and modern flat-coats descend. Tracer, his son and full brother to Ch. Moonstone, was bred into the strain of yellow wavy-coated retrievers at Guisachan. Moonstone, when bred back to his mother produced a red-gold puppy, which meant that Zelstone carried the recessive red color.

Zelstone’s ancestry ran right through Henry Farquharson’s kennels— and he was mostly of St. John’s water dog ancestry. Farquharson was a major importer of dogs from Newfoundland, and although most of his dogs were of the larger type, he evidently had some of the smaller St. John’s type. It is likely that some of these were long-haired dogs. Lambert de Boillieu, a trader working Labrador during the 1850’s, mentions that long-haired dogs were of no use to the fishermen and hunters of Newfoundland and Labrador, and they were eager to have them sent off to Britain:

The dogs sent to England, with rough shaggy coats, are useless on the coast; the true-bred and serviceable dog having smooth, short hair, very close and compact to the body. I sent to England a fine specimen of these, but unfortunately the vessel which bore it had the misfortune to be wrecked on the north coast of Ireland, and all hands were lost (243-244).

The long-haired dogs likely comprised the vast majority of the dogs imported to Britain, where they were used to found the wavy-coated retriever. It is often said that the long-coats on these dogs derived from crossing the smooth-coated St. John’s water dog with the setter. However, this doesn’t theory hold up with much scrutiny. If one breeds a dog that is homozygous for the smooth-coat to a dog that is homozygous for the long-coat, you will get smooth-coated puppies. The vast majority of retrievers derived from St. John’s water dogs or “Labradors” in the British Isles during the nineteenth century were long-coated and were called “wavy-coated retrievers.” These dogs were sometimes crossed with setters or collies, but as a rule, they were almost always long-coated.

The Rev.  Thomas Pearce (“Idstone”) wrote inThe Dog (1872) that smooth-coated retrievers that were of this St. John’s water dog ancestry were quite rare in England, but it was possible to get puppies with both coats in litters. The smooths were always associated with imports from Newfoundland, but they were good workers:

The flat and shaggy, and the smooth-coated—I mean as short in the hair as a Mastiff—are sometimes found in one litter, and one of the best I ever saw was thus bred from Mr. Drax’s keeper’s old “Dinah” (imported), the father being also from Labrador. “Jack” acknowledged no owner but Mr. Drax, and died in his service at Charborough Park. During the time he was in the squire’s service he must have carried more game than any team, or half-a-dozen teams, could draw, since every year he went the circuit of Mr. Drax’s manors and estates, and the two were as much heralds of each other in Kent, Dorset, or Yorkshire, as Wells and “Fisherman” when a Queen’s Plate was to be run for. Beaters gave him a wide berth, for he was not to be induced to give up game to them, and woe betide any of the number, whom he knew by their dress—a white gaberdine with a red cross in it—if they approached to familiarity, or intercepted him whilst he tracked his game liked a Bloodhound, and stooped to his line amongst the underwood, or tried to knock over crippled game after he had viewed it and was racing it down.

He was just like his rough brother ” Tom ” —or, in fact, like “Snow,” in all but length of coat . As they,” Snow” and “Tom,” came out of the lake when we were shooting teal and widgeon, drenched with half-frozen water, I have frequently been struck with the family likeness.

But the smooth-coated dog has a lighter eye—a pale hazel with an intensely black pupil, occasionally very like what is known as a “china” or “wall-eye.” Be that how it may, they are the best of all breeds for boating; they can stand all weathers, and though men unused to them call them butchers’ dogs [a common complaint was that St. John’s water dogs with smooth coats looked like bulldogs], I think them handsome, and I know that they are sensible, and that the punt and shore men, living by adroit use of the long stauncheon gun and “flat,” look upon them as a part of their household, and in some cases—to quote the words of one old sporting farmer, to a duke who wanted to buy his horse— “no man has money enough to buy them” (pg. 128-129).

Idstone believed that the setter was the primary ancestor of the wavy-coated retriever, but we now know that during the early days of this kind of retriever in the nineteenth century that they were primarily of St. John’s water dog ancestry.

The famous depiction of Paris and Melody from an edition “Stonehenge’s” Dogs of the British Islands. Paris was said to have been a pure “Labrador” or “St. John’s water dog.” He also had long hair. Melody was a setter cross, and she looks more like a setter than even the modern flat-coated retriever, which had some Irish setter crossed in at a later date to make them even more refined.

The modern flat-coated retriever also has more or less the setter’s coat, which lacks the very, very dense undercoat that is associated with golden and Labrador retrievers. Because of this coat type in modern flat-coats,  it is much more likely that the wavy-coated retrievers were primarily of St. John’s water dog ancestry– with only occasional outcrosses to setters.

When Stonehenge provided a depiction of a St. John’s Newfoundland or Labrador dog in an edition of The Dog in Health and Disease (1879), he chose to use an image of a long-haired one.

Now, the long-haired dogs would be instrumental in establishing the old wavy-coated retriever, which eventually became the golden retriever and the modern flat-coat. These were the dominant retrievers in the British Isles through the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.  The founding president of the Kennel Club, Sewallis Shirley, was a major patron of this retriever, and he and Dr. Bond Moore, who often called his dogs “Labradors,” were instrumental in establishing the old wavy/flat-coated retriever as defined breed.  These were all long-haired dogs, but because there were only two varieties of retriever, the curly and the wavy, there was some interbreeding between those two types. Smooth-coated retrievers were very uncommon at this time, which also strongly suggests that the founding population of St. John’s water dogs that were used to found the wavy-coated retrievers were of the shaggy-type that Lambert de Boilieu mentioned. If the founding dogs were smooth-coated as the later St. John’s water dogs were, then most of the retrievers that were derived from these dogs would have been smooths. But the bulk of the evidence shows that the British retriever in the nineteenth century was almost universally long-haired.

A modern long-haired Labrador retriever in profile. Its resemblance to the old wavy-coated retriever is uncanny.

One needs to understand that the dog that these texts call a “Labrador” isn’t necessarily the same as the breed called the “Labrador retriever.”  The modern Labrador retriever traces to the 1880’s, when the line of smooth-coated retrievers that was kept by the Dukes of Buccleuch was combined with that of the Earls of Malmesbury. This was the only British retriever to be selected for the dominant smooth coat. Modern Labrador retriever are almost universally smooth-coated dogs.

However, very rarely, a long-coated puppy is born. These dogs are extremely rare– much rarer than Labradors with tan poins or brindling.

The exact origin of these modern long-haired Labradors isn’t exactly clear.

They could have always been hidden within the smooth-coated St. John’s water dog bloodlines that eventually gave us the Labrador retriever, but if this were so, it probably would be more common in the breed than it is today. I think a much more likely source for this coat is cross-breeding. Labrador, golden, and flat-coated retrievers were considered varieties of a single breed, and interbreeding the varieties was very common. When the Labrador retriever needed fresh blood, it was occasionally bred to wavy or flat-coated retrievers, which may have included dogs we would call golden retrievers. The Dukes of Buccleuch and the Earls of Malmesbury tried to keep their dogs from being bred to long-haired retrievers, which is one reason why they were so eager to import more smooths from Newfoundland. However, other breeders certainly did outcross.

Long-haired Labrador retriever puppies.

Long-haired Labrador retrievers are a sort of atavism. The dogs look very much like the old wavy-coated retriever and the long-haired St. John’s water dogs, which were essentially the same breed. They also point to the simple reality that Labrador, golden, and flat-coated retrievers are much more closely related than one might assume.

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The original image of this dog is from a painting by A. Cooper. It was entitled “Tar, a Celebrated Retriever, the Property of Charles Brett, Esq.”

I have not been able to find anything about this Mr. Charles Brett, other than he was located at West Hill House in Fareham in Hampshire. It lies in between Portsmouth and Southamptom, which are major port cities.

It is not very far from Poole, which is in the neighboring county of Dorset.

Poole, of course, was the home port of virtually every English ship that fished the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

It was a major port of entry for St. John’s water dogs into England, and it would be expected that we would find a dog like this one in a neighboring county. Or perhaps the dog arrived in either Portsmouth or Southampton as a direct import from Newfoundland.

Most sources suggest that this dog is a flat-coated or wavy-coated retriever– and they actually wouldn’t be wrong. The division between St. John’s water dogs and wavy/flat-coated retrievers and what became Labrador retrievers was quite nebulous.

However, I think it might be reasonable to suggest that Tar was actually a lightly feathered St. John’s water dog from imported stock. His size and build are very similar to what we’d expect from a male of that breed. Judging from the mallard drake at his feet, I would estimate him to be roughly the size of a typical Labrador retriever dog, though maybe just slightly larger– in the 85 pound range. He also possesses white toes and a white chest– both traits that were commonly in the St. John’s breed. He also has a slightly roached back– a trait one sometimes sees in Chesapeake Bay retrievers and curlies. It has been selected against in golden, Labrador, and flat-coated retrievers, but it would be reasonable that the St. John’s breed would have this trait. Perhaps it gave the dogs a bit better swimming posture by allowing the back legs to go a bit deeper in the water and permitting the head to rise a bit more out of the water– thereby allowing the dog a better chance of seeing or smelling that which it was sent to retrieve.

His name is Tar. That could refer to his color, but it also could refer to “Jack Tar,” a common name for a British sailor.  It  is synonymous with the word “seaman,” and giving this dog this particular name might have been a reference to a seaman’s dog.

I cannot find any information on this Mr. Charles Brett, Esquire, of Fareham. My guess is he was involved in some sort of import or export business, for this region was (and still is) a major sea port. He was obviously well to do to have been able to afford a retriever, and the term “esquire” meant that he was of some rank.

I just can’t find out who he was. If you have any info, please pass it along.

But I think Tar was a St. John’s water dog, either recently imported or derived from recent imports.

Of course, he could have been called a “Newfoundland,” a “Labrador,” or a “wavy-coated retriever,” and every one of those distinctions would have been correct.

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This picture comes from Grenfell:  Knight-Errant of the North by Fullerton Waldo (1924). The book is an account of Wilfred Grenfell in Labrador. Grenfell was a physician who practiced with The Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, and part of his service took him to the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland and also to Labrador. To reach his patients in remote locations during the winter, Grenfell had a sled team.

The dogs that comprised his team were mostly “Labrador huskies” and what appear to be crosses between that dog and the St. John’s water dog, which was a fine hauling dog in its own right.

At least one of these dogs appears to have been totally of this ancestry. The dog, who was named Jack, can be seen pulling in the foreground of the image above.

Jack is described as follows:

“Jack,” a black dog with the looks and the ways of a retriever, had “Moody’s” [a husky cross] good habit of going straight on without turning to see who followed, and he was put in the position of trust nearest the sledge. He liked to run with his nose close to the ground, and nothing that the trail or the snow-crust could tell any wise “husky” dog was a secret to the busy nose of this gentle-natured fellow.

It is mentioned that Jack was used as retriever to Grenfell’s gun during the seasons he wasn’t used as a sled dog:

He was so small that he was not taken very seriously for his hauling power—but when it came to hunting, he was there with all four paws, and he was used as retriever when Dr. Grenfell went out with a gun.

Jack would use his water dog skills to guide the team after they got mired in some melting mush and had to swim out before they all drowned.

Here is a better photo of Jack. He is lying down int he foreground, looking very Labradorish. One can see that the other dogs are mostly of a kind of husky/Labrador cross.

St. John’s water dogs were used to haul loads in Newfoundland.  They probably weren’t as good at it as the husky-type dogs on the mainland were, but they were utilitarian dogs that had to be able to do lots of different things. One couldn’t keep a lot of specialized dogs, as the nobles in England and later their pretenders in the United States would later do.

The versatility of golden and Labrador retrievers comes from their old water dog ancestor. It was the multipurpose water cur of Newfoundland.

And that is who Jack truly was.


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The retriever isn’t a St. John’s water dog, but it is a close facsimile.



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