Archive for the ‘Newfoundland’ Category

I don’t have the date of this photo, but it would be in the late part of the nineteenth century or the very early part of the twentieth century. The photo is by a George Jaeger. If someone has any information about this photographer, I’d be quite interested.

This dog is definitely a retriever-like Newfoundland dog, which were common in the United States during the time period. When you read of “Newfoundlands” doing remarkable things in the nineteenth century, a lot of them were more like large wavy-coated retrievers than the giant Newfoundlands we see in the show ring:

girl with Newfoundland dog Philadelphia

Photo courtesy of Nara U.

This dog looks like a large black golden retriever, which just shows you how conservative we’ve actually been in choosing which dogs we have made popular. This retriever-crazed era is just simply history repeating itself.  The retrievers, with the exception of the toller, are just modifications on these old Newfoundland dogs.

At the time, Newfoundlands were being challenged for popularity by St. Bernards, which traditionally looked more like Greater Swiss mountain dogs, and they were always popularly portrayed with a flask of brandy on their collars. This Newfoundland is wearing a decorative flask, which wealthy people would use to adorn their St. Bernards. I guess the owners thought their Newfoundland needed one for the photo!

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Unlike the somewhat problematic aquatic ape theory, what I’m about to propose really isn’t that controversial at all.

The acquatic ape theory (more correctly called “the aquatic ape hypothesis”) argues that it was living in and near the water that forced humans to evolve bipedalism and is also used to explain why we have fat under our skin and like to swim. It’s even used as a possible reason why we have little fur left on our bodies, and it also claims that humans are unique among primates in our ability to hold our breaths under water, which isn’t actually true.

This hypothesis contends that humans were on our way to becoming marine mammals, and that this has made all the difference.

I don’t buy it.

But I do think something like this has happened with another animal that we currently don’t regard as being a “marine mammal.”

I’m talking about retrievers.

Now, we usually don’t think of them as being marine mammals. They are, after all, just a subset of domestic dogs, which are themselves a subspecies of the common wolf, Canis lupus familiaris.

But unlike other dogs and wolves, the retriever is somewhat better adapted to swimming and diving than other dogs.

All dogs have connective tissue between their toes, but in retrievers, this connective tissue is a bit more extensive, which certainly gives them some advantage in swimming. All dogs are web-footed, but retrievers are more web-footed than others.

Many Labrador retrievers and some golden retrievers also have a tendency to put on quite a bit of fat. This is usually attributed to the dogs being derived from St. John’s water dogs that had to have voracious appetites to survive on Newfoundland during the winter when they weren’t used on the fishing fleet.

But such a tendency toward obesity doesn’t exist in arctic breeds, including those from Labrador and Greenland, which were similarly left to roam and forage when not being used for work. These dogs have healthy appetites. but you very rarely hear of a fat one.

But in Labrador retrievers, being fat is almost a breed characteristic. In the UK breed ring, the Kennel Club has had to crack down on people showing fat Labradors in the ring, for there are a great many dog judges in that country who think that a Lab shows ‘good bone’ when he’s shaped like a jiggling barrel.

This tendency towards being fat, though, does have an advantage for a dog that spends a lot of time in cold water. Fat insulates. It is also quite buoyant.

One can see that nature would have selected for St. John ‘s water that would have been more likely to have put on fat as a way of being able to handle swimming long distances in cold water. The fat would make the dog float more, and the animal would be able to keep its head above water with less effort.  And the fat would insulate it a bit more.

And although both of these features would be marginally advantageous, they would still have real consequences with a working water dog.

Before the St. John’s water dog developed, the European water dog was poodle-type animal. It had a very thick coat that protected the animal from the worst of the cold, but the coat also had a tendency to collect water. It was also a source of drag that slowed the animal down when it swam.

The clips we see in Portuguese water dogs and poodles stem from attempts to reduce drag while still keeping the protective coat.

The St. John’s water dog was different from all these European water dogs in that it had a smooth coat.

It was actually selected for this coat; any dogs that were born with feathering were shipped off to Europe.

A smooth coat has certain advantageous for a marine mammal.

After all, have you ever seen a seal with poodle fur?

What about a long-haired otter?

These animals have very close coats because this makes the animal move more efficiently through the water.

To have a water dog with an otter’s coat would have meant that clipping was no longer necessary.  The dense undercoat and the fat would have provided enough protection against the cold water, and the smooth coat required no maintenance. And the dog could swim longer and harder in very cold water for much longer.

The St. John’s water dog was dog on its way to becoming a marine mammal.

Indeed, if we now count polar bears a marine mammals, maybe we should classify this extinct breed of dog as one, too.

There are accounts of these dogs swimming for days at sea, which might be exaggerations, and stories of them diving many feet to retrieve shot seals.  There are even some fellows who use the dogs to pursue shot porpoises with varying degrees of success. They were also use to retrieve shot waterfowl and sea birds from those very same seas, which is sort of the same work their descendants do today.

But they were most famous for retrieving fish off of lines. In the old days, the English fishermen from the West Country would come to Newfoundland to fish with hooked lines. They plied the waters in small dories, and they would send their dogs to help haul in the lines. In those days, the fishhooks often were not barbed, and when the dog came upon the hooked fish, there was a good chance that it could escape. A good dog could catch the cod if it managed to work its way off the hook at the last minute, which is not an easy task!

Most retrievers and the modern Newfoundland and Landseer breeds derive from this water dog.  Some strains are very well-adapted to swimming in cold water. Others less so.

The retrievers of the United Kingdom were used primarily on shooting estates, where land-based game birds and lagomorphs were their main quarry.  Some were used to retrieve waterfowl, but the British retriever culture was primarily that of a land-based working dog. Over time, they bred for a smaller and lither working dog, which still shows up in the strains of golden retriever that are primarily bred for work. During the heyday of the working flat-coated retriever (of which the golden retriever is a surviving remnant), the majority of these dogs were 50-60-pound dogs with longer legs and gracile frames– quite different indeed from the somewhat robust water dogs of Newfoundland from which they descended.

If the particular shore-fishing culture of Newfoundland had been allowed to continue on for many, many centuries, it is likely that the the St. John’s water dog really would have begun to have evolved through both natural and artificial selection into a much more marine-adapted animal than it was. Perhaps the would have evolved even more webbing between their toes. Maybe they would have actually evolved a real layer of blubber beneath their skins for insulation.

At least one species of wild dog is semiaquatic. The short-eared dog of South America has been little studied, but in most analyses of its diet show that it eats a lot of fish. The short-eared dog has very webbed feet— even more so than modern retrievers do. Because they live in Amazonia, they have no need for fat for insulation, but it has been suggested that this webbing is an adaptation that helps the dog pursue a more aquatic existence than other South American wild dogs.

St. John’s water dogs were famous for their fishing abilities, and they were well-known for charging into the surf and coming out with a fish, a feat that one sometimes sees retrievers doing quite well. One could see that over time, that the St. John’s breed would have evolved even more in this direction than the short-eared dog has.

But the Newfoundland fishing changed over time. Better hooks and mechanized fishing equipment made the dogs largely obsolete. The cod fishery has collapsed, as has the fishery for almost everything else. The outports of Newfoundland were shut down through resettlement schemes.

And the ancestral bloodlines of the St. John’s water dog became polluted with “improved” Labrador retriever blood from UK and the North American mainland. The last of the St. John’s water dogs with no Labrador retriever ancestry are believed to have died in the 1970’s.

In the US, Labrador retrievers are called “duck dogs,” but virtually no Labrador retriever that is being used as a hunting dog in the US today is used exclusively on waterfowl.  Most of them at least moonlight as flushers and retrievers land-based game birds, which usually have longer seasons and more liberal bag quotas.

The retriever has to be a spaniel a lot of the time.

In the UK, the retriever is still primarily used on land-based game, though they are still used in “wildfowling” (a nice word for duck hunting).

In no place is it required to be the same kind of water dog that its ancestors were.

The potential for it evolving into a canine marine mammal has long sense passed.

But it could have gone down this road.

The retrievers that exist today are gun dogs that have been built and selected out of this lineage.

And it’s really what makes them unique as working dogs.

Now, this all might sound a bit bizarre, but this summer, reader Mashka Petropolskaya sent me this master’s thesis on the behavior of Labrador retrievers in an aquatic environment.  The thesis was written by a student in the marine sciences program at the University of Porto in Portugal, and the thesis found that Labrador retrievers are unusually attracted to water and that access to water and swimming opportunities may be very important for the welfare of dogs in that breed.

Not all Labradors like the water, but there clearly is a tendency in retrievers to be interested in the water.

So maybe we really need to appreciate their “marine mammal”  tendencies more in order to provide them the best environment possible.

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Golden retriever playing with a Newfoundland pup:


Of course, the Newfoundland pup will be at least twice the size of the golden when it matures.

But both are descendants of that old water dog from Newfoundland.

The two breeds also have a common history in that both have become the family dog to have.

The golden retriever’s popularity has come in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Newfoundland was popular from the late eighteenth century through the late nineteenth century.

The old water dog of Newfoundland has been an enduring classic among modern dog lovers.

We just have fallen in love with different permuations at different times.


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Tip was an imported “Labrador” whose descendants were top field trial flat-coated retrievers, Pitchford Marshal and Monk.

He was born in 1832 and was imported.

His coat, if one looks closely,  might have been feathered. I note a plumed tail, rather than the more typical brush tail of the St. John’s.

I could be wrong  about what I’m seeing (and I do NOT want to have a discussion about it).

It’s just very unusual that we see depictions of the ancestral St. John’s water dogs that went onto found strains of retriever. Normally, we find out through some unusual scholarship that a particular retriever was an import, but normally, this information isn’t provided.

This image comes from The Complete English Wing Shot (1907) by George T. Teasdale-Buckell.

And Teasdale-Buckell does provide depictions of his descendants, and they are clearly flat-coated retrievers, though much more robust than the current incarnation.

So he may have been a feathered dog.

One aspect of retriever history that has been overlooked is that St. John’s water dogs came in both smooth and feathered varieties. At least at one point, they did. The settlers were eager to get rid of the feathered dogs, so they very readily exported them, where they were used to found strains of retrievers. This explains why the long-haired wavy-coated retriever was the most common retriever in the British Isles through much of the nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, most of the research on retriever history that has examined these water dogs and their role in founding retrievers has been performed by Labrador retriever historians, and at least subconsciously, they have tended to ignore the feathered variety.  If they mention them at all, they assume they must have been crosses with collies, setters, or spaniels, but when one reads of feathered retriever-liked dogs actually being born in Newfoundland, this assumption doesn’t appear to have much validity.

It’s true the Newfoundlanders preferred smooth-coated dogs, and the last remaining “pure” St. John’s water dogs were smooths.

But that doesn’t mean that they always were this way.

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The notion that the Newfoundland dog originated from a more retriever-like ancestor may seem like a bit of heresy, but I think I’ve found some more evidence that this certainly was the case.

The above illustration is from Neptune; or, The autobiography of a Newfoundland dog (1869).

The author, a Mrs. E. Burrows, creates an anthropomorphic story about a Newfoundland dog named Neptune.  Neptune was her childhood dog, and he would have lived in the earlier part of the nineteenth century.

As to be expected from any autobiography, Neptune is the narrator in the text, and very early on, Neptune makes us aware of  his pedigree:

On my father’s side I come of an old and noble family, his ancestors having been considered for many hundred years past as being amongst the best bred dogs in Newfoundland. He was himself born in that country, but came to England when he was quite a puppy. Possibly this may account for his having lost something of that exclusiveness for which our family have always been remarkable, and which has led them to imitate the example of certain royal families, and refuse to marry except with their own near kith and kin. Be that as it may, my father allowed his affections to get the better of his pride, and formed a matrimonial connexion with my beloved mother, a dog who was far more remarkable for her beauty and intelligence than for her relationship to aristocratic families, and I am afraid, if the truth must be told, there were some of my cousins who were decidedly vulgar (pg. 4-5).

He was at least half “pure” St. John’s water dog, and the illustrations on the text portray him as more of retriever-type dog. He was a large dog, but he was clearly not a giant.

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Judging from all I’ve been able to glean from the history of retrievers and Newfoundland dogs, I think that the ancestor of them all looked much like this:

This image comes from the 1879 edition of The Dog in Health and Disease by John Henry Walsh (“Stonhenge”).

The dogs were then either crossed with setters, spaniels, and even collies and foxhounds to make the various British retriever breeds or then crossed with giant mastiff-type- like the proto-Great Pyrenees– to found the giant Newfoundland dog.  Chesapeake bay retriever is derived from exactly the same stock, but there was a selection for the liver and brown-skinned red colors over the black, which was the preferred color for a British retriever.

These dogs came in both smooth and feathered coats, but the fishermen of Newfoundland and Labrador were eager to get rid of the feathered ones, as Lambert De Boilieu pointed out:

The dogs sent to England, with rough shaggy coats, are useless on the coast; the true-bred and serviceable dog having smooth, short hair, very close and compact to the body. I sent to England a fine specimen of these, but unfortunately the vessel which bore it had the misfortune to be wrecked on the north coast of Ireland, and all hands were lost.

The modern Labrador wasn’t really created until the 1880’s. However, there were records of “Labradors” well before that. The term was virtually interchangeable with the word “retriever” or “wavy-coated retriever.”  It was also used to describe certain strains of the large Newfoundland, especially those with what we would call a Landseer phenotype, black and white and less heavily boned than the typical show Newfoundland.  All of these dogs were also called Newfoundlands, which makes things even more confusing!.

There are mentions of  “smooth” retrievers, which were almost always crossed with wavy-coated retrievers. The old wavy-coat is the progenitor of the flat-coated and golden retrievers, and at one time, you could get smooth and feathered pups in the same litter.The Rev. Thomas Pearce (“Idstone”) wrote about smooth retrievers and feathered ones in The Dog (1872):

There is the swooth-coated dog of the same family, and as useful an adept. The flat and shaggy, and the smooth-coated—I mean as short in the hair as a Mastiff—are sometimes found in one litter, and one of the best I ever saw was thus bred from Mr. Drax’s keeper’s old “Dinah” (imported), the father being also from Labrador [or Newfoundland]. “Jack” acknowledged no owner but Mr. Drax, and died in his service at Charborough Park. During the time he was in the squire’s service he must have carried more game than any team, or half-a-dozen teams, could draw, since every year he went the circuit of Mr. Drax’s manors and estates, and the two were as much heralds of each other in Kent, Dorset, or Yorkshire, as Wells and “Fisherman” when a Queen’s Plate was to be run for….

But the smooth-coated dog has a lighter eye—a pale hazel with an intensely black pupil, occasionally very like what is known as a “china” or “wall-eye.” Be that how it may, they are the best of all breeds for boating; they can stand all weathers, and though men unused to them call them butchers’ dogs, I think them handsome, and I know that they are sensible, and that the punt and shore men, living by adroit use of the long stauncheon gun and “flat,” look upon them as a part of their household, and in some cases—to quote the words of one old sporting farmer, to a duke who wanted to buy his horse— “no man has money enough to buy them” (pg. 128-129.).

We call this ancestral dog the St. John’s water dog, even though they were found throughout both Newfoundland and Labrador. They were usually imported from St. John’s, and they usually arrived in England through the port of Poole, which was a major base for the English cod fishery that frequented the Grand Banks every year.

These dogs became the breed for every family have, both in Britain and in North America. Their popularity spread also spread through Europe, where they were used to found the Leonberger and the Landseer breed that is recognized by the FCI.

With the heightened popularity of retrievers in the past 30 years, we’re essentially repeating that history. This time we’re going for different descendants of the old Newfoundland water dog.

But we going with them nonetheless.

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Newfoundlands are just very large retrievers.

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The first two are pre-Labrador retriever.

They are both St. John’s water dogs, which are the ancestors of all the British retriever breeds.  (Here’s the 1819 version, and the second dog is Billy from Stonehenge’s The Dog in Health and Disease. Billy could have been registered as a wavy-coated retriever.)

This chart shows how the Labrador retriever was developed from the St. John’s water dog landrace and then selectively bred into different types as time as progressed.

This is really the story of all purebred dogs once they enter the closed registry system.

They start out as rougher and more diverse, then they become more conformed and, paradoxically, more prone to fads within conformation breeding.

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Newfoundland dogs are actually retrievers.  With the exception of the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, all the other retrievers and this breed are modifications on the working dog that was once common in Newfoundland. The large Newfoundlands are often quite capable of retrieving from water in much the same way that their retriever cousins do.

All these photos are by Sophia Pirgents of Athens, Greece.

This retrieving Newfoundland is beige, a diluted liver. It is the same color as the ash Chesapeake and the silver Labrador.

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The image above is of Albert.

Albert was a St. John’s water dog who was actually born in Newfoundland.

He was among the last of his breed. Well, he was among the last of the lines that were free of modern Labrador retriever blood.

And he had a famous owner.

This particular dog belonged to Farley Mowat, a well-known Canadian naturalist and author.

The above photo comes from Bay of Spirits, Mowat’s memoir about his time falling in love with Newfoundland– and then having a very bad falling out with it.

Albert is described as follows:

Perhaps the most momentous event that winter was the aquisition of Albert, a young water dog from La Poille. As big as a Labrador retriever, he was a sway-backed creature, black as ebony except for his white chest, and equipped with webbed feet, the tail of an otter, and the attitude of a lord of the realm. He quickly became an integral member of our little family both ashore and afloat, where he demonstrated he was a proper seadog: sure-footed, ready for anything, and afraid of nothing (pg. 303).

“La Poille” is on Newfoundland’s Sou’west Coast. It is normally spelled “La Poile,” and it is not very far from Burgeo, where Mowat lived from 1962 until about 1968.  Albert would later be featured in an episode of the the CBC series Telescope in 1970.

By then, the Mowats had taken to summering on Quebec’s Magdalen Isands, which are located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In the film, Albert and his mate– aptly named Vickie– are shown retrieving from the surf. Albert also receives a bizarre bedtime story from his master, which would give any dog nightmares!

Mowat tried to use Albert as a way of saving his breed.

Mowat believed the water dog of Newfoundland was closely related to the Portuguese water dog, a linkage that, thus far, hasn’t been revealed in any genetic studies.  Like many breed historians, Mowat tried to trace these water dogs through their poodle lineage, eventually arriving at herding dogs that were native to Central Asia. These linkages have not been confirmed in any genetic studies, but they are still pretty interesting.

In order to save the breed, Mowat tried breeding Albert to a Labrador, but because none of the puppies had the characteristic white spots, he abandoned the project.  There were only four pups in the litter, and both bitch pups died.   The two dog pups were given to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin.

These dogs were multipurpose hauling, hunting, and fishing dogs.

They are primary ancestor of all the retrievers, except the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, which may have a bit of this blood. However, it is mostly of collie extraction.  All the others, including the large Newfoundland dog and its variants, are derived from variation upon this landrace.

There still are black retriever-type dogs in Newfoundland, but these dogs heavily outcrossed to modern Labrador retriever lines, which were introduced from North America and the United Kingdom as “improved” hunting dogs.

When people say that Labrador retrievers come from Newfoundland, they aren’t exactly wrong. However, all the larger retrievers descend from this stock, and the modern Labrador retriever was developed in the United Kingdom in the 1880’s.

The dogs are derived from animals from Newfoundland, but the “improvement” happened in the United Kingdom and on Chesapeake Bay.

Albert is an idea of what a dog from this landrace looked like– at least what the last of his kind looked like.

One can create a dog that looks very much like him if one crosses a Labrador retriever with a border collie.

But the cross is  an imposter.

Albert’s kind was developed on the land and on the sea.

Natural and artificial selection honed his kind.

A dog derived from the cross of a border collie and a Labrador retriever never experienced those generations of selection.

It would just look the same.

Nothing more.




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