Posts Tagged ‘Newfoundland dog’

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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This is a description of a curly-coated and a wavy-coated retriever in The Dogs of the British Islands: Being a Series of Articles and Letters by Various Contributors, Reprinted from the “Field” Newspaper (1872)  by John Henry Walsh (“Stonehenge”):

Windham, the property of Mr. Gorse, is a good example of the wavycoated dog; and Jet, in the possession of the same gentleman, is, perhaps, the best specimen of a curly-coated one ever exhibited to the public. The flatcoated dog gained the first prize in Birmingham three years in succession, besides numerous first prizes at other shows. He has frequently been passed over for Jet, or Jet has been put aside for him. His powers of scent are excellent, and we understand him to be broken well, but he is rather hardmouthed, and this fault we hold to be hereditary. Jet, on the other hand, carries alive, and having carried a live pigeon for any length of time, will let it fly from his mouth at a given signal. He is a good water-dog, and a very genial companion. He has won as many, perhaps more, prizes than any dog shown. In 1865 he took the first prizes at Bradford, Brighton, and Leeds, and received the first prize and gold medal at Paris (pg. 90).

The size of the two dogs is given following this description. Windham, the wavy coat, is listed as having a height  at the withers that is 2 feet, 3 inches (27 inches) and a weight of 84.75 pounds. Jet’s height is listed as 2 feet, one inch (25 inches), and his weight is listed as 77 pounds.

Windham looks a lot like the larger wavy-coats that were popular in the early days of the fancy– big and Newfoundlandish. His description also points to a somewhat larger dog than the modern flat-coated retriever. The depiction of the two dogs is not proportional. Windham appears to be a smaller dog than Jet, but that size is not reflected in the description of their size.

The description of Jet points to a slightly smaller animal than the modern curly-coated retriever. It is also notable that his working characteristics are superior to Windham, who was a  hard-mouthed wavy. Most of these older accounts claim that the curly was inferior to the wavy or flat-coated retriever. The wavy-coat did take off because it was generally perceived to be a better working or trial animal, but it also was the favored breed of Sewallis Shirley, the founding president of the Kennel Club. Having that sort of patronage within the early days of the fancy certainly helped this breed become firmly established in Britain from the mid-nineteenth century until the early twentieth century as the prototypical “English retriever.”

Class and politics likely played a role in the rise of the flat-coated/wavy-coated retriever. The curly didn’t have the right people advocating for it, and the notion that it had spent some of its development as the “poacher’s retriever” didn’t endear it to the shooting sportsmen of the landed classes.


Also of note in this Stonehenge edition is a description of the St. John’s water dog:

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

Two important parts of this description are of interest:

The first is that the St. John’s water dog (which some accounts called “Labradors’) very clearly came in a smooth-coated or feathered varieties. “Flat-coated” and “short-coated” clearly do not mean the same thing in this context. The feathered St. John’s water dog likely became more common among the first of these dogs imported to Newfoundland.  The fisherman of Newfoundland preferred the smooth-coated dogs of this breed to work on their ships, and any long-haired puppies that were produced in these litters would have been among those most likely to be sent to England for sale.

The other point of interest is the discussion of brindle or “tabby”  as being indicative of the “Labrador origin.”

Brindle could have come from brindle cur dogs that were brought to Newfoundland, or they could come from the brindle Cão de Castro Laboreiro, a Portuguese farm dog that may have accompanied fisherman from that country to Newfoundland. This dog is somewhat similar in appearance to a brindle Labrador retriever, and it may explain why certain retriever breeds, such as curlies and Chessies, have reputations as great watch dogs.

Perhaps the word  use of the word “Labrador” for dogs of this type comes from a misunderstanding of the word “Laboreiro.” After all, the place called Labrador was included in the colony of Newfoundland, even though it is clearly on the North American mainland. When Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, it was just called “Newfoundland.” However, an amendment to Canada’s constitution in 2001 officially changed its name to Newfoundland and Labrador.

But the water dogs that came from the region were all from the island of Newfoundland. The only indigenous dogs to Labrador are a sled dog breed called a “Labrador husky” (not a Labrador retriever/husky mix) and various Native American dogs, such as this “canoe dog.”

Whatever its origins, brindle still pops up in modern Chesapeake bay retrievers and Labradors. It is also likely that golden retrievers mask brindle markings with their e/e genotype. (See this account of a litter of golden retriever/Malinois mixes to see the brindles.)

How that brindle got there is still a question, but it may be that this relatively obscure breed of Portuguese farm dog is part of the answer. Because brindle is a dominant trait (although it is recessive to dominant black), it would not take very many dogs of this type to establish this trait within the population of water curs of Newfoundland.



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Painting by William Barraud.

Wikipedia says that this dog is  “sheepdog.”

I don’t think so. Horses do vary in size quite a bit, but cats do not. If one compares the size of that cat to the size of the black and white dog, you can see that this dog is quite large.

Working collie-type sheepdogs were never that large. Queen Victoria’s collies clearly were not.

The horse is a black hunter, a common horse for the landed gentry to ride. In 1837, collies and their kin were not popular pets for the more affluent classes. They were the dogs of the rural working class.

But Newfoundland dogs definitely were. In the early nineteenth century, anybody who was anybody had a Newfoundland dog of some sort. Some were worked as retrievers, but many were kept as “sagacious” family pets.

Finally, most of the larger Newfoundlands in Britain were black and white in color. Some of them were Irish-marked, like this dog clearly is. Irish markings are the classic border collie spotting, but they are not exclusive to herding breeds.

So this dog is a nineteenth century Newfoundland dog.

And Wikipedia is wrong.

Or the art historian who identified this dog as “sheepdog” is wrong.

But it’s wrong.

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This photo comes from a Dutch book called Our Domestic Animals: Their habits, Intelligence and Usefulness (1907). The author–Gros de Voogt–was an admirer of Lord Baden-Powell and helped get the concept of scouting established in the Netherlands.

This particular book is fairly remarkable work. It is unapologetically anthropomorphic, and it goes against some of the scientific conventions at the time, which were strongly against any projection of human emotion or reason onto animals. That is still a fine concept, but one can err in trying to keep anthropomorphism under control. Sometimes animals behave like us because they are like us.

The dogs in the depiction are working water rescue dogs that were kept by the city of Paris to keep people from drowning the Seine. De Voogt writes that these dogs are Newfoundland dogs.

And I’m not going to argue with that assertion. Newfoundlands historically varied in type, even at this time.

The dog on the right has a curled tail and somewhat curly hair. Its ears are semi-erect, but its face says “Labrador retriever.” it reminds me of a super-sized version of the Frisian water dog, the Wetterhoun.

The dog on the left looks like a slightly larger version of a wavy-coated or flat-coated retriever. Instead of being the large Newfoundland, it could be a cross between that large breed and the St. John’s water dog. It appears to be a bit smaller than the dog on the right.

If both of these dogs are Newfoundlands, then they are definitely of the unimproved, non-show type. It was this type of dog that most closely resembled the dogs of Newfoundland. They were bred for function from a diverse collection of dogs from many European countries.  It was only in Europe that they became standardized.

However, it is also likely that the Parisian police crossed their Newfoundlands with lots of other dogs, just to see what they could get. Perhaps they had been burned using the kennel-bred Landseers and Newfoundland, and they wanted to try dogs that had a bit of hybrid ancestry.

Whatever they were, they were big dogs, but not giants.

These working-type Newfoundlands are very different from what might expect when we think of that breed, but they are definitely part of the history of that breed.

The more I think about, the more I think that the dog on the left is actually a long-haired St. John’s water dog, not a Newfoundland. It is very retriever-like. The French own the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon archipelago, which are just off the coast of Newfoundland. Farley Mowat, the Canadian author who tried to save the breed, first encountered one of these dogs at St. Pierre. A St. John’s water dog from St. Pierre could have easily made it to France, where it could be used for any variety of tasks.

Water rescue would have been a natural choice.

Of course, neither of these dogs could pass for even a Labrador or flat-coated retriever of their time.

Still, there are interesting hints implied by these dogs to the common ancestry that is shared between retrievers and Newfoundlands.

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Some modern Newfoundlands have retrieving instinct and can be taught to do retrieving from water:


It would not take much training to get this dog to retrieve to hand.

This breed and the related St. John’s water dog were used in the foundation of the modern retrievers, although one must remember that they were typically using Greater Newfoundlands that were smaller than average as retrievers.

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This depiction of a Newfoundland appears on page 168 of Edward Jesse’s Anecdotes of Dogs (1858).

It says “The Newfoundland Dog (Original Breed),” and the author claims that from this dog that both the St.John’s breed and the common dogs called Newfoundlands in England are derived.

The identity of the “original” Newfoundland is one big debate that can consume hours and hours of time and energy. The debate usually goes nowhere.

And it has ever since Newfoundlands became a fancy pet breed.

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From Charles Henry Lane’s All About Dogs – A Book For Doggy People (1900):

There are few of the non-sporting breeds which have received more notice in the newspapers than the Newfoundland dog, being so often associated with saving of life on the sea coasts, or on the banks of some of our rivers, and I think there are few, if any, dogs so really and naturally fond of the water, and being possessed of strength and courage, they are often able to render valuable aid. At one time I feared they were becoming almost extinct, and I think the many and very beautiful specimens we now see at our shows, are mainly due to my old friend, Mr. Edwin Nichols, of Kensington, who took up the breed very warmly some years ago, and became one of the most shining lights in the Newfoundland world. I remember, his ideas of the points to be sought after were as follows: – Head to be broad and massive, with a flat skull and somewhat square muzzle; ears small, in proportion to size of the animal, and lying close to the head; coat straight, dense and capable of resisting water; tail carried gaily, but not curled over the back. Colours: black, black and white, or bronze. Average weights, one hundred pounds for dogs and eighty-five pounds for bitches. General appearance that of a dignified, thoughtful, and thoroughly reliable guard, companion, or friend, with a great deal of character (pg. 154-155).

Now, dogs of 85 to 100 pounds are still quite large, but the biggest male Newfoundlands of today are sometimes twice as heavy as the average bitch of 100 years ago. The breed standard says the biggest males should be 150 pounds, which is 50% larger than the average male dog of the breed that lived during Lane’s time.

Here is a 1903 photo of a Newfoundland retrieving a gull in 1903 in New York State.

In terms of proportion, the gull would have to be nearly the size of a goose for the Newfoundland in the picture to be the same size as he Newfoundlands we know today.

George Armstrong Custer “captured” a dog from a Confederate regiment during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. He was photographed with the dog. Custer may have been many things, but he was definitely a dog lover.

Some sources list this dog as a farm shepherd or proto-English shepherd dog. However, it is quite large, and has the distinctive markings we associate with contemporary Landseer Newfoundlands. Newfoundland dogs were quite popular as pets and working dogs throughout North America and Europe. They were the Labrador retrievers of their day, so it would make sense that Confederate unit would have one as a mascot.

Sir Edwin Landseer, the man we associate with the Landseer coloration in Newfoundlands, painted this dog retrieving a woodcock. It is a Newfoundland dog,  but knowing that a European woodcock is about the size of a domestic pigeon, we can tell it is not a giant breed.

It is more likely that Seaman, the Newfoundland who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition in the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Coast, was more along the lines of these dogs than the giant dogs we associate with Newfoundlands of today. However, many statues of Seaman depict him as being exactly like the Newfoundland we know today.

The 150-pound Newfoundland dog probably never existed on the island. It is more likely an invention of Europeans –and perhaps Americans–breeding it to mastiffs and then selecting for greater size. The breed lost popularity by early decades of the twentieth century, and both world wars caused its population to drop dramatically on both sides of the Atlantic. It has been rebuilt on a remnant population that survived both the popularity bust and the wars– which were all very large dogs.

Although it is certainly true that the greater Newfoundland was larger than the retrievers and the St. John’s water dog, it was not twice their size. Today’s Labrador retrievers are supposed to weigh no more than 8o pounds, which is just a little over half the size of the biggest male Newfoundlands. However, I have written about a Landseer Newfoundland in North Dakota that weighs 180 pounds and stands 36  inches at the shoulder. That dog is over twice the size of an average bitch 100 years ago.

It is amazing how much dog breeds have changed in the past hundred years. Increased size is something that tends to happen with many large “family dogs.” We have seen it with collies and German shepherd dogs. And we are now seeing it with the Labrador retriever, some of which now closely resemble Newfoundlands in every respect but their coats.

The “My Lab is bigger than yours” syndrome isn’t new at all. I suppose people do not realize what a strain it is for a dog to be a giant. Nutrition has to be just right or the muscles and bones don’t develop properly, and the heart must be able to pump all of that blood through the circulatory system of a much larger animal. Larger dogs also have a harder time cooling themselves, simply because larger animals radiate less heat per unit of mass than smaller ones do.  This adaptation would be great if all Newfoundlands or giant Labs lived n the arctic, but it means that the animals suffer more in the hottest days of the summer in much of the United States. It also increases the risk of heatstroke.

The tendency of fanciers to breed larger dogs has consequences. Although the dogs look more impressive, there are real risks involved in breeding them larger and larger.  The Newfoundland was developed as a large working breed, but once it became established as a pet, it was selected for greater and greater size.






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