Posts Tagged ‘Albert the St. John's water dog’

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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By short, I mean 25 minutes.

I’m sure the stats have changed, but this is called Ten Million Books.

It is sorrowfully moving to listen that passage about Mutt’s death read aloud. (The dog who portrays him is a springer/BC cross.)

Those black dogs with short hair are St. John’s water dogs– among the last of their breed.

I don’t know what the long-haired black dogs are.

This documentary is well worth watching.  In it, you learn many things– what subjective nonfiction is, why Mowat started writing about his childhood dog, and Mowat’s enchantment and later disenchantment with Newfoundland.

It’s worth your 25 minutes.

Trust me.

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All in one clip!

Albert’s vocalizations tell me that the yodel-moan that retrievers are known for comes from these dogs. I don’t know whether the other dog is a St. John’s water dog or a Labrador.

That’s the only footage of this breed I can find anywhere.

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st. john's water dog with long-hair

I knew it!

Farley Mowat did breed Albert.  Albert, it turns out, was a very rare find in Newfoundland of those days.

Mowat bred Albert to a Labrador, which is the closest thing to a St. John’s Labrador. He hoped the pups would have the big white spot on the chest that Albert possessed. Unfortunately, the pups were all solid black in color.

It also turns out that Farley Mowat was in contact with the early Portuguese water dog fanciers in North America. It turns out that Mowat had actually researched the breed’s origin all the way back to the Portuguese water dog through to that Russian (which I think is really Central Asian) herding dog landrace. He also traced the Portuguese Water dog’s origins through Turkey, which is why the dogs were called “Turkish dogs” in Spain and Portugal.

I wish Farley Mowat had pursued this more. He could have saved a Newfoundland icon, and it would have made a hell of a good book!

If Farley Mowat found one St. John’s water dog during that time period, there had to have been at least a couple of dozen of them in Newfoundland. That would be enough to recreate the breed using the more diverse retriever breeds as outcrosses. Even the Portuguese water dog and the poodle could have been used, for they are also part of this retriever/water dog family.

Now, if Mowat traced these dogs to Russia, then maybe a close relative is the strange “Russian retriever” that appears in Hugh Dalziel’s British Dogs. I thought this breed was a Russian water dog similar to the poodle. (There was a Russian poodle, but it was more gracile in its build and smaller in size.)

It’s a very interesting find. I wonder why Mowat didn’t pursue his attempt at breed preservation further. I think if he could have gotten several interested breeders together they would have save this breed from extinction, and then I could say the Labrador retriever and all other retrievers descends from a dog that still walks this earth, sniffing the earth and wagging its otter-like tail, and not some extinct animal from the annals of history.

Interestingly, the two dog pups in the litter Albert sired went to Prime Minister Trudeau and Soviet Premier Kosygin. Now, the latter I find interesting.

Former Russian president Vladimir Putin has a Labrador named Koni. Koni is descended froma  Labrador owned by Leonid Brezhnev. I don’t know if his dog descended from Kosygin’s Labrador, but it’s possible. And if she does, then she’s got a little Albert in her. (I don’t know how we’re suppose to take this, but Koni is rumored to be named after Condoleeza Rice.)

I would love it if Koni was a descendant of Albert.

One can only hope, although I don’t think it’s very likely.

So Farley Mowat may have tried to save the “black water dogs,” and there was definitely a story to tell.

See earlier post.

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