Posts Tagged ‘Newfoundland dog’

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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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 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.

Like a big, black golden retriever. Or a flat-coat on steroids.


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John James Audubon painted this illustration of a "great white heron." Plato, his "retrieving Newfoundland," fetched the first specimens of this species that Audubon encountered. However, this species is no longer considered valid. Great white herons are a white subspecies of the great blue heron that is endemic to South Florida.

Today is John James Audubon’s 226th birthday. If you use Google today, the site’s logo celebrates Audubon’s legacy.

Audubon is known for his wonderful paintings and books about the wildlife of North America. He was among  the first to fully and accurately catalog our native birds both his writing and his art.

One of the most respected conservation societies is named in his honor– The National Audubon Society.


Now for some biased Audubon lore:  Audubon was a retrieverman.

His most notable dog was a “Newfoundland’ named Plato.

The dog had been given to him by a physician,  for it was well-established that Aududon would need a retriever on his forays. To get such anatomically correct depictions of birds, Audubon shot his subjects.

The dog was of great use in Florida, hauling out scores of cayenne terns. However, he is probably best known for fetching two young great white herons, one of which was not particularly thrilled with being carried by a retriever:

On the 24th of April, 1832, I landed on Indian Key in Florida, and immediately after formed an acquaintance with Mr. Egan. He it was who first gave me notice of the species which forms the subject of this article, and of which I cannot find any description. The next day after that of my arrival, when I was prevented from accompanying him by my anxiety to finish a drawing, he came in with two young birds alive, and another lying dead in a nest, which he had cut off from a mangrove. You may imagine how delighted I was, when at the very first glance I felt assured that they were different from any that I had previously seen. The two living birds were of a beautiful white, slightly tinged with cream-colour, remarkably fat and strong for their age, which the worthy pilot said could not be more than three weeks. The dead bird was quite putrid and much smaller. It looked as if it had accidentally been trampled to death by the parent birds ten or twelve days before, the body being almost flat and covered with filth. The nest with the two live birds was placed in the yard. The young Herons seemed quite unconcerned when a person approached them, although on displaying one’s hand to them, they at once endeavoured to strike it with their bill. My Newfoundland dog, a well-trained and most sagacious animal, was whistled for and came up; on which the birds rose partially on their legs, ruffled all their feathers, spread their wings, opened their bills, and clicked their mandibles in great anger, but without attempting to leave the nest. I ordered the dog to go near them, but not to hurt them. They waited until he went within striking distance, when the largest suddenly hit him with its bill, and hung to his nose. Plato, however, took it all in good part, and merely brought the bird towards me, when I seized it by the wings, which made it let go its hold. It walked off as proudly as any of its tribe, and I was delighted to find it possessed of so much courage. These birds were left under the charge of Mrs. Egan, until I returned from my various excursions to the different islands along the coast ( pg. 110-111).

Plato would also guide Audubon and his party through a vicious Florida storm:

Early one morning I hired a boat and two men, with the view of returning to St Augustine by a short cut. Our baggage being placed on board, I bade adieu to the officers, and off we started. About four in the afternoon we arrived at the short cut, forty miles distant from our point of departure, and where we had expected to procure a waggon, but were disappointed. So we laid our things on the bank, and, leaving one of my assistants to look after them, I set out, accompanied by the other, and my Newfoundland dog. We had eighteen miles to go ; and as the sun was only two hours high, we struck off at a good rate. Presently we entered a pine barren. The country was as level as a floor ; our path, although narrow, was well beaten, having been used by the Seminole Indians for ages, and the weather was calm and beautiful. Now and then a rivulet occurred, from which we quenched our thirst, while the magnolias and other flowering plants on its banks relieved the dull uniformity of the woods. When the path separated into two branches, both seemingly leading the same way, I would follow one, while my companion took the other, and unless we met again in a short time, one of us would go across the intervening forest.

The sun went down behind a cloud, and the south-east breeze that sprung up at this moment, sounded dolefully among the tall pines. Along the eastern horizon lay a bed of black vapour, which gradually rose, and soon covered the heavens. The air felt hot and oppressive, and we knew that a tempest was approaching. Plato was now our guide, the white spots on his skin being the only objects that we could discern amid the darkness, and as if aware of his utility in this respect, he kept a short way before us on the trail. Had we imagined ourselves more than a few miles from the town, we would have made a camp, and remained under its shelter for the night; but conceiving that the distance could not be great, we resolved to trudge along.

Large drops began to fall from the murky mass overhead -, thick, inpenetrable darkness surrounded us, and to my dismay, the dog refused to proceed. Groping with my hands on the ground, I discovered that several trails branched out at the spot where he lay down; and when I had selected one, he went on. Vivid flashes of lightning streamed across the heavens, the wind increased to a gale, and the rain poured down upon us like a torrent. The water soon rose on the level ground so as almost to cover our feet, and we slowly advanced, fronting the tempest. Here and there a tall pine on fire presented a magnificent spectacle, illumining the trees around it, and surrounded with a halo of dim light, abruptly bordered with the deep black of the night. At one time we passed through a tangled thicket of low trees, at another crossed a stream flushed by the heavy rain, and again proceeded over the open barrens.

How long we thus, half-lost, groped our way, is more than I can tell you ; but at length the tempest passed over, and suddenly the clear sky became spangled with stars. Soon after we smelt the salt-marshes, and walking directly towards them, like pointers advancing on a covey of partridges, we at last to our great joy descried the light of the beacon near St Augustine. My dog began to run briskly around, having met with ground on which he had hunted before, and taking a direct course, led us to the great causeway that crosses the marshes at the back of the town. We refreshed ourselves with the produce of the first orange treethat we met with, and in half an hour more arrived at our hotel. Drenched with rain, steaming with perspiration, and covered to the knees with mud, you may imagine what figures we cut in the eyes of the good people whom we found snugly enjoying themselves in the sitting room. Next morning, Major Gates, who had received me with much kindness, sent a waggon with mules and two trusty soldiers for my companion and luggage ( pg. 294-295).

Although Plato is described as a black and white Newfoundland dog. I think it is more likely that he had been a more of St. John’s type dog. It is not that the larger Newfoundlands weren’t excellent retrievers.  The typical nineteenth century dog of the large Newfoundland type was white with black markings, not black with a white spots. The St. John’s breed was usually black with some white markings.

Further, Audubon describes the Newfoundland dog coat when discusses the opossum’s adaptations to the cold in his Missouri River Journals (1843). Opossums are only sparsely furred, but they possess a layer of fat for insulation. Audubon clearly states that the same can be said for the “Newfoundland dog”:

The Newfoundland dog manifests a similar propensity. Having a constitution as hardy as that of the most northern animals, it stands the coldest weather, and does not hibernate, although its covering of fur and hair may be said to be comparatively scanty even during winter. The defect, however, seems to be compensated by a skin of considerable thickness, and a general subcutaneous layer of fat (pg. 501).

Although the coat on a St. John’s water dog was quite dense, it could be described as sparse. I don’t think one could logically make that claim for any of the larger Newfoundland dogs.

One must remember that in the nineteenth century, the line between Newfoundland and retriever was somewhat nebulous. So it is both accurate to call Plato a Newfoundland and  a retriever. “Retriever” was just a function, not a breed and many dogs Newfoundland ancestry fit the job.

In his earlier days, Audubon also had a dog that was called a retriever. The dog was a bitch, but she was listed at “Dash–a slut.” Slut is an archaic word that just means bitch, and she would accompany Audubon down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, fetching shot birds for his paintings.

I cannot say exactly what kind of retriever she was. She may have been nothing more than an improved setter or a cross between a setter and “Newfoundland.” She may have been a water spaniel or water spaniel cross.

Whatever she was, both Plato and Dash were absolute necessities for a shooting naturalist who wanted to collect specimens that could later be used to create the most anatomically correct depictions of their species the world had yet seen.

They were valued in their service in cataloging the North America’s amazing avian fauna. Although they don’t make much mention in Audubon’s writings and he never took the trouble to paint them, it is obvious that he appreciated them very much.

He described Plato as “a well-trained and most sagacious animal,” which is what all retrievers, regardless of their time period or breed, should be.

Well-trained and sagacious.

The naturalist’s dog.

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(source for image)

From New England Magazine (January 1834):

On the 11th of August, we departed for Newfoundland, not unwillingly leaving this country of stones, though it had given us gratification and instruction. We were often confined to the cabin, by rain, and we had few books. But, luckily for us, Mr. Audubon himself was a volume not to be exhausted. He is full of anecdote and originality.

We anchored next at the head of St. George’s Bay, in Newfoundland, where there is quite a settlement of fishermen,—for such seems the occupation of all the islanders. There was on the bay, also, an Indian camp. They were of the Mickmac tribe, and filthy and indolent to an extreme. They are averse to all exercise. They hunt only on the pressure of hunger, and they had their little provision in camp, the head of a caribou,—or American rein-deer. This part of Newfoundland had much of the character of Labrador. The soil, however, was more productive, and we found wild roses and tall pines, though there were many dwarf trees. We found here the fruit called, from similarity of taste, the baked apple. In form, it is like a thimbleberry, and the taste is exactly what its name denotes. The most beautiful plant we saw, was a species or two of kalmia.

The inhabitants retire in winter into the country, where, in the woods and sheltered places, they have comfortable log-houses. Many of them are quite intelligent, though the most of them thought their climate preferable to any other; but I am too experienced in the ways of the world, ever to speak ill of a man’s dog or climate. Of the two, I would sooner venture to speak disrespectfully of the climate in this region. Of the dogs, we obtained seven; one of which, while with us, dived five fathoms, and brought up a seal that had been shot, larger than herself (pg 381).

This account is from a person who accompanied John James Audubon on his second trip to Labrador. The dogs in the account are likely St. John’s water dogs, for the St. George’s Bay (“Bay St. George”) is on the western side of Newfoundland, which is where the dogs were relatively common well into the twentieth century.

This seal was likely a harbor seal. I somehow doubt that a dog of any size could haul out a massive gray seal, which also could be found in great numbers on Newfoundland’s west coast.

These seals were hunted for their meat and for the oil that could be made from their blubber. In a time when whale blubber was quite valuable, fatty marine mammals of all sorts were rendered down to train. Even polar bears could be a source of this oil, and they certainly weren’t going to let a fat seal get away.

The seal likely was wounded and dived to escape its hunters.

I do not know if the dog actually followed the seal down that far. It may be a bit of an exaggeration, but many modern retrievers do dive— just not that far down.

Maybe this particular dog had a penchant for seal retrieving, and she learned how to dive very far down in search of her quarry.

However, this seal was likely only wounded, and even the best water dog can’t swim as well as seal. The fact that this seal was wounded also would have made it fairly dangerous activity. She wouldn’t be retrieving an angry Canada goose; she’d be retrieving something with teeth.

This account is further testament to the toughness of these old water curs. This dog probably enjoyed the challenge of catching that old wounded seal every bit as much as her modern retriever cousins enjoy fetching tennis balls and birds.

Tough old water cur.

These creatures of legend:

This water cur was sent down to fetch back a sea monster.

And she happily did so.

The canine version of Beowulf grappling with Grendel’s mother.

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This dog is Billy, and he is mentioned in Stonehenge’s  The Dog in Health and Disease (1859). Stonehenge (John Henry Walsh) believed that his very curly coat showed that he had some setter or spaniel in him, which is possible. He was owned by Bill George, the famous (or infamous) dog dealer, who is best known for developing the old baiting bulldog into a pet and show dog. Billy could have been a cross between a long-haired St. John’s water dog or wavy-coated retriever and a curly-coated retriever, a cross that would have happened fairly often before these dogs began to standardize.

Another depiction of a long-haired St. John’s water dog is this “St. John’s Labrador.”

I cannot find the original source for this image, but this particular dog has a straight, flat-coat, which is quite profuse. The dog appears to have a more substantial coat than Billy. He is also built more like a modern Labrador or a short-haired St. John’s water dog.

Of course, these dogs both could be thought of as wavy-coated retrievers, which were the ancestor of the modern flat-coats and golden retrievers.  They were very common in Britain in the middle to later part of the nineteenth century.

One of the reasons why these long-haired dogs were so popular as retrievers is that Sewallis Shirley, the founding president of the Kennel Club, was a major patron of the breed.

The other reason is that these longer-haired dogs were the type of St. John’s water dog that were more easily procured in Britain. Long hair is a recessive trait to the smooth-haired St. John’s water dogs that were common in Newfoundland until the 1970’s.  None of these later dogs had long hair, but they seem to have been really common in England during the nineteenth century, where they were often registered as wavy-coated retrievers.

The reason why the long-haired dogs became common in England and disappeared from Newfoundland can be found in the writings of William Epps Cormack, the first European to walk across the interior of Newfoundland in 1822. He wrote of the settlers of Newfoundland using their smaller water dogs to hunt waterfowl and game birds, but they preferred to use the short-haired dogs for this task:

The dogs here are admirably trained as retrievers in fowling, and are otherwise useful. The smooth or short-haired dog is preferred, because in frosty weather the long-haired kind become encumbered with ice upon coming out of the water.

Any long-haired puppies that would have been born to the smooth-haired dogs would have been among those they would have exported to Britain, where they would have worked very nicely as working retrievers on shooting estates. In the more mild climate of the British Isles, the long coat would not have been so much of a problem.

The famous wavy/flat-coat Zelstone, who was born in 1880. If one traces his pedigree, one notes that his paternal grandmother and his maternal great grandfather were both owned by someone named Farquharson.

That Farquharson was Henry Richard Farquharson, an importer and breeder of Newfoundland dogs. He was an MP from Dorset, where the port city of Poole is located. Poole was a major port for the cod fishing fleet that worked the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland. At one point, Farquharson had 125 dogs of the “Newfoundland” type on his property, Eastbury House. Keeping up with so many dogs was a daunting task for his servants:

Henry Richard Farquharson was also a fanatical breeder of Newfoundland dogs. He had a pack of one hundred and twenty five, 50 bitches and 75 dogs. This pack had taken twenty five years to create. Two kennel lads had the job of exercising the dogs. They knew that they had to keep the bitches and dogs separate whilst exercising them. One day both groups accidently met on Chettle Down and the two kennel lads could not stop a fight starting. Forty-five dogs were either killed outright or had to be put down. It is said that the two kennel lads were almost killed as well – not by the dogs but by Farquharson who had a remarkably quick temper.

(Farquharson also played a role in the Jack the Ripper story, but I’m leaving that out for this post!)

Those ancestors of Zelstone that were said to be owned by Farquharson were likely long-haired St. John’s water dogs that looked like the ones mentioned in this post.

Most of these dogs would have been registered as wavy-coated retrievers or would have been referred to as such. They would have been put to work on shooting estates and would have been bred to setters to give them and a stronger tendency to air scent birds and other shot game.

I’ve noticed that in much of the literature on the Labrador retriever, there is a tendency to ignore these long-haired dogs. That’s because the modern Labrador is derived mostly from later imports from Newfoundland. These dogs arrived in the 1880’s, and they were mostly smooth-coated. The cod fishery was in decline, and many of the ship’s dogs were no longer useful. So even the much valued smooth-coated water curs were arriving from Newfoundland by this time. Because the short-haired dogs made up the population of these later dogs, it was assumed that they every single one of these dogs that ever existed possessed the smooth “otter” coat.

If all St. John’s water dogs were smooth-coated, the smooth-coated dogs would have dominated the entire British retriever gene pool in the middle and later parts of the nineteenth century. This simply isn’t what the historical record showsat all. Some of these dogs had to have had the feathered coat, and my understanding of Cormack’s account suggests the reason why the long-haired dogs became common in England and disappeared from Newfoundland.

The Newfoundlanders preferred smooth-coated dogs, and they were more than eager to export the feathered puppies to British dog dealers and shooting enthusiasts.

And the shooting enthusiasts were more than willing to buy them. Most sagacious animals. Gentlest retrievers with the softest mouths.

Just what the shooting sportsman needed. Long-haired water curs from Newfoundland.






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