Posts Tagged ‘St. John’s dog’


This is Lassie, one of the last two St. John’s water dogs. He was living at Grand Bruit, Newfoundland, when Richard Wolters took this photo. At the time, he was 13 years old, and the only other St. John’s water dog running about was his brother, who was 15. In theory, they could have been bred to modern Labrador retrievers and then selected for St. John’s water dog traits, but in the end, the modern Labrador absorbed the original strain. With the end of the outport system in Newfoundland, the dog lots their native habitat and use. Today, there are dogs that have some of this ancestry in Newfoundland, but they are mostly modern Labrador in ancestry.

This photo appears in The Labrador Retriever: The History…the People…Revisited (1981).

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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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(Source for image)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If they do, then they are truly special dogs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we’ll never get it back.

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

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

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

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

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

And it no longer exists in its original form.

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

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

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

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