Posts Tagged ‘Newfoundland’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

The original copy no longer exists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This dog is entirely red brindle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Painting by John Ferneley Sr (1823).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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.

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


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