Posts Tagged ‘Newfoundland’

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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yukon sled dogs

Photo courtesy of Nara U.

Newfoundlands, arctic spitzes, and at least one St. Bernard.

I particularly like that Newfoundland in the front.

He’s obviously the leader.

He looks very sharp.

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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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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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The Newfoundland dog has a very unusual history.

The most important aspect of this history is that it was the first breed to become globally popular.  During much of the nineteenth century, this breed was common in virtually every European country. It was also extremely popular in the United States, and this popularity extended well back into the colonial period.

In Homo et canis: or, The autobiography of Old Cato and some account of his race (1892) John Paul Dudley includes the “autobiography” of a Newfoundland dog, which includes his genealogy tracing back to two Newfoundland dogs that were brought into what became the United States by Marblehead fishermen who brought them from their homeland:

In the last quarter of the seventeenth century some Marblehead fishermen, who had spent a month or two about the Grand Bank [Grand Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland], entered the Bay of St. John’s, where they remained for several days exchanging some commodities with the simple people with whom my ancestors were associates and in a sense slaves. Two fine specimens of the Newfoundland dog were carried off by these Puritan fishermen, and from them sprang a very numerous race in the continental Colonies. Some of us had been brought over before this time, and subsequently many others were landed at various points on the coast of the United States. While it is often very difficult to trace a particular family with us it is not unfrequently made easy enough by the ingenuity and fondness with which we are treated. The term family is indeed, of higher application than can be looked for among dogs, although the reasons are such as often expose human familism to precarious chances. Still while the appearances are unfavorable in tracing a line of dogs, the tradition or history remains clear enough to us.

From the two Marblehead dogs a very considerable family arose in various parts of the United States. Some of my ancestors had reached Philadelphia long before the first meeting of the Continental Congress, and some of them were as noteworthy figures about New York as Aaron Burr.


The bitch from which I sprang was born on the Hudson above the city of New York, and her ancestors not only came from the Marblehead pair, but also had the advantage for several generations of remaining under the protection of an old American family of English origin. When she was a year old her young master carried her to Lexington, Kentucky; near which place I was born on one of the most lovely of all the Blue Grass farms. I say “on a farm,” for two reasons, first because of its truth, and secondly because I have heard it said that few of the best things on this Earth ever have had their birth or origin in the crowded and noisome cities.

In the somewhat aristocratic family with which my lot was cast, there was a beautiful girl to whom I was much more attached than I was to my own life. She became the wife of Dr. D., and a short time subsequently I accompanied her and the good physician to the great dingy city of C. While I greatly mourned the evils of this change, yet my life was rendered as agreeable as possible, and the wretchedness of the walled town, crowded with what I then felt to be the most undesirable, if not wicked, of the human race, was partly compensated for by the beautiful summers and winters we spent in various parts of the country, North and South (pg. 28-30.).

Newfoundland dogs could be found on the island from about the eighteenth century, so the date of these two dogs arriving from Newfoundland to found a colonial Newfoundland dynasty in what became the United States in the seventeenth century is a bit dubious. However, these dogs were around during the colonial period and during the early days of the republic.

The number these dogs that were owned by famous Americans is quite startling. In addition to Aaron Burr mentioned above, a Newfoundland accompanied Lewis and Clark on their journey to the Pacific Ocean. John James Audubon had a Newfoundland named Plato with him Florida that he used for retrieving shot birds, including a great white heron that Plato brought to Audubon alive even as the bird attacked him with its beak. President  Grant had a Newfoundland for his children at the White House, and even Samuel Adams had a Newfoundland  that was said to harry British troops that were occupying Boston.

And that is just a tiny sample.

The question I always ask when I read historical accounts of Newfoundlands is what exactly were these dogs like.

The answer to this question is more often not known, for there are very few depictions of particular dogs. Most of the depictions of Newfoundland dogs we see are from English artists, and as we shall see, nineteenth century English Newfoundlands were probably not the best examples of their breed at the time.

The first place we should start is with what is probably the earliest depiction of a Newfoundland dog. This comes from Thomas Bewick’s A General History of Quadrupeds (1790). Bewick was a wood engraver who lived his whole life in the northern English counties of Durham and Northumberland. He never traveled to Newfoundland, and the only dogs of this breed he ever knew were those belonging to people who lived in that region. His model for a Newfoundland was a large black and white dog with smooth hair and a curled tail that was living in Eslington, Northumberland.

The dimensions of this dog are described in the Bewick text, and although difficult to analyze from how we normally measure dog size, it was a large dog. It was a great diver, and Bewick describes the dog bringing up anything from the bottom of rivers and having an appetite for fish. Bewick describes the dogs as being good at hauling loads of wood, but from the behavior of the dog, he sounds very much like a fisherman’s dog– one that would have had some experience retrieving fish from hooks, setting and hauling nets, and maybe retrieving shot waterfowl.

In color, head shape, and topline, this dog actually resembles the next entry in Bewick’s text, the “Great Rough water dog,” which is probable ancestor of the Newfoundland.

It also resembles Bewick’s depiction of a mastiff, especially in tail carriage:

Mastiffs in those days were often parti-colored or even predominantly white, a trait that is worth examining again at another point in this post.

Again, one should understand that Bewick’s view of what a Newfoundland dog was comes from that predominantly white individual that he met at Eslington. One cannot make too many generalizations at all about these dogs from that one sample, of course.

The other early depiction of a Newfoundland dog comes from Philip Reinagle, and this image of a feathered black and white dog appears in William Taplin’s The Sportsman’s Cabinet (1803). This dog is very similar to the dogs were painted by Landseer later on.

Taplin would describe the Newfoundland as a sagacious animal—one that is very easily trained and intelligent. He also never saw the dogs in their homeland, and his understanding of the animals came from animals he saw in Britain.

So two of the earliest depictions of this animal are based upon dogs living in England.

This actually doesn’t tell us what the dogs were like on Newfoundland at all.

Now, one would think this question would be pretty easy to answer, but there are problems with it.

Even at the time that Newfoundland dogs were becoming popular around the world, there was a huge debate about what the “true Newfoundland” was. Mark Derr describes a contemporary debate on this exact issue that happened upon a ship called the John Adger. In A Dog’s History of America, Derr discusses a 1855 voyage of a ship named the John Adger. The ship left New York with 60 of the city’s most prominent citizens and headed to St. John’s, Newfoundland. The purpose of the trip was to witness the completion of the Submarine Telegraph Cable, which would link North America and Europe via telecommunications for the first time in history.

The weather was so bad that the cable couldn’t be finished.

So there were 60 New Yorkers wandering St. John’s with too much money and time on their hands.

At the time, Newfoundland dogs were en vogue, and because they were in the place where these legendary dogs originated, the New Yorkers proceeded to clean out every dog dealer in St. John’s.

On the way back, the dogs made so much noise barking and fighting with each other, but it was nothing compared to the contentious debates that their owners were having about the “purity” of their dogs.

Even when this breed was at the peak of its popularity, no one really knew much about them.  Comparisons were almost always made to dogs described by British fanciers, but they were almost never made about the dogs actually on Newfoundland itself.

When we actually do read accounts of the dogs in Newfoundland, several issues need to be addressed when considering these dogs.

The first of these is that Newfoundland dogs were a working dog that existed as a landrace on the island and in Labrador. Landraces vary from generation to generation, and because the working dogs were derived from a large number of different dog stocks that came to the island at different times, the dogs would vary quite a bit over time.

The other issue is that the dogs often passed through dealers before they wound up in the hands of pet owners. Dealers knew what people wanted, for whatever reason, there was an expectation that a Newfoundland would be a giant dog. It seems to me possible that dog dealers and even settlers on the island wanting to make an easy buck would breed their water dogs to mastiffs and other very large dogs to produce an animal that would sell well.

The final problem is that as a globally popular breed, Newfoundlands that were exported and bred in other countries began to vary a lot over time. Part of these issues were genetic drift, and the rest can be blamed upon crossing in other breeds. The very large black and white Newfoundlands that Sir Edwin Landseer painted were quite popular in England during the middle part of the nineteenth century. Their exact origins are not known, but it is sometimes said they were the result of crossing Newfoundlands with the white estate guard dogs of France, which might be a reference to Great Pyrenees or the ancestor of that modern breed.

The white coloration could have also come from white mastiffs.

It could have existed on Newfoundland itself, for there is an account of “spotted” dogs called “Labradors” on Newfoundland. The account in question comes Sir Richard Henry Bonnycastle’s Newfoundland in 1842Bonnycastle was a British officer, who served as a military engineer in what is now Ontario, Nova Scotia, and on Newfoundland. He writes about two types of dogs in Newfoundland, one of which was large and one of which was curly-haired:

I have said nothing of the Newfoundland dog in the natural history section of this work, because a finer specimen of the breed is now to be had in England and in Canada—the dog here being of lower height, and less beautiful. There are, however, still some splendid waterdogs to be found, chiefly, as I hear, at the Twillingate Isles on the northern coast, and their habits adapt them as much to the water as to the land. They are of two kinds; the short, wiry-haired Labrador dog, and the long, curly-haired Newfoundland species, generally black, with a white cross upon the breast.

The common dogs used in the catamarans are of every possible cross with these, and are of every variety of colour and fur. The whole live upon and prefer fish, and seem careless as to whether it is fresh, salted, or putrid. I think, from having kept both kinds, and also the spotted, mahogany-coloured, and shorthaired Labrador dog, that the short-haired kind are the most faithful friends of man, and the best guardians of a house, and that the other variety, with his bushy and curling tail, is the best water-dog, although both are able to endure the most severe cold in that element, and would, if left alone, sleep in the snow, in preference to having a more sheltered bed.

I have known the mahogany-coloured Labrador dog, an animal of immense size and power, to follow my sleigh during a long journey upon the crust of the snow, until his feet became so chafed and sore that he was unable to proceed. His affection was unbounded, and the whole race appear to be particularly fond of children; but perhaps, from their originals having been of the wolfish nature, which manifests itself in those of the colder regions of Labrador and the Esquimaux country, they areall sheep-biters, and, if not very well fed, most dexterous thieves.

These dogs are all subject, when removed to a warmer climate, to a glandular swelling in the ear, which becomes very large and painful, and it should always be watched and lanced, or treated with care, although this class of dogs are very seldom visited with hydrophobia, and generally, when past cure, will, if allowed, retire to a woody or secret covert to die. If they were much subject to that malady, St. John’s and the other towns in Newfoundland would be uninhabitable in the heats of summer, until they were extirpated; and what with bad treatment, want of regular diet, and filth, these poor creatures, it may be supposed, would be, of all their tribe, the best entitled to become mad and turn upon their tormentors (pg. 24-26).

Bonnycastle believed, as was accepted knowledge at that time, that hydrophobia was something that attacked dogs when the became too hot. Germ theory really wasn’t known in those days. Ear infection issues, though, are something that we see in both modern retrievers and Newfoundland dogs.

Bonnycastle says that all these dogs are crossed with whatever can be found– which is exactly what we would expect from dogs that were being bred for a purpose without regard to pedigree. In this way, the water dogs of Newfoundland were likely as mixed as Alaskan huskies are today, and thus, one would have a hard time figuring out what the original dog even was.

Bonnycastle mentions the Labrador as being the best water dog. It is also the one with short hair. This claim that short-haired dogs were better water dogs does have some merit as we follow the trajectory of Newfoundland dogs through the nineteenth century.

The discussion of the Labrador as being mahogany but spotted also suggests a possible origin for the Landseer coloration. Landseers are black and white, but mahogany and white could easily be turned into black and white through a very simple outcross to a black dog. This mahogany coloration is also of note, for it could refer to either liver or e/e red, both of which can be found in retrievers in addition to black.

Bonnycastle’s Labrador was a very large dog, but because these dogs varied so much in appearance, Bonnycastle does not suggest that this huge size was a trait of the type. Further, most people familiar with Newfoundland dog history know that the smaller “Labrador” or St. John’s water dog is the one that is supposed to be smooth-coated, but Bonnycastle makes it clear that the traits of a Labrador dog are spotted mahogany color and short hair.

Bonnycastle’s delineation does not comport at all with what Newfoundlands in Europe were becoming.

Because Newfoundland dogs were known to be inveterate sheep killers and because they readily went hunting on their own when they weren’t used as working dogs, there was a common assertion that they were very close to wolves. The fact that a lot of Newfoundland dogs at the time had semi-prick or prick ears (like Lord Byron’s Boatswain) further added to their lupine reputation. The Irish dog expert  H.D. Richardson laid out the following description of three types of Newfoundland dogs in his Dogs: Their Origin and Varieties (1847).

Richardson starts with a general description of Newfoundland dogs and makes the case that they are very close to wolves:

I am compelled thus arbitrarily to give, perhaps, an undeserved name to the present group, but it is the only one by means of which I can accurately indicate the family of dogs to which I refer. The individuals of which this group is composed, bear, all of them, a greater or less resemblance to the wolf, in erect or semi-erect ears—in long and shaggy coats, and bushy tails. The Newfoundland dog is fully entitled to be placed at the head of the group ; from his being better known than the others, from his greater beauty, his sagacity, nobility of nature and disposition, his utility to mankind, and the high degree of estimation in which he is held in every part of the world where he is known.

Those who have grouped these dogs with the Spaniels, are in error, for they possess none of the characteristics of that group (pg 74-75).

It was very common to list Newfoundland dogs as spaniels in those days, but Richardson was among several dog experts who contended that Newfoundlands were actually wolf dogs.

H.D. Richardson's "true breed" of Newfoundland, which he describes as a "wolf dog" that is never more than 26 inches at the shoulder.

Now, no genetic evidence agrees with this assessment, but it does show that Newfoundland dogs were occasionally prick-eared. And the fact that these dogs did occasionally hunt on their own when they weren’t being worked on the ships or hauling loads might be suggestive of something lupine.

Then, Richardson begins his elucidation of the three types of Newfoundland.  The “true breed” of Newfoundland is described as having long hair and is roughly the size of a large retriever.

The true breed of Newfoundland is a dog of moderate stature, seldom exceeding twenty-six or twenty-seven inches in height; long-bodied, broad chested, shaggy coat, pointed, wolfish muzzle, ears small, and inclined to be semi-erect; colour usually black, with a shade of brown through it, and occasionally some white. There is another breed of dog peculiar to Newfoundland; short-coated, and sharp-nosed—an excellent water dog, by some mistaken for the true Newfoundland breed.

The large dogs, usually known as Newfoundlands in this country, are evidently the result of a cross with the mastiff. They are a fine showv animal, but less sagacious, less active, and more apt to display irregularity of temper than the original breed; these often attain the height of thirty inches In his native country, the Newfoundland dog meets with worse than indifferent treatment; during winter, he is ill-fed, and most severely worked; his employment consisting of drawing heavy loads of timber—an employment so severe, that many dogs are worn out, and perish from exhaustion, before winter is over. When summer approaches, and the occupation of the natives changes to fishing, the poor dogs are turned adrift, to shift for themselves.

The origin of this dog is questionable, but I am disposed to trace him to a large European variety, still in use among the Norwegians, for the chase of the bear and wolf. It is now well known that the original discovery of Newfoundland is to be attributed to the Norwegians, who, before the year 1000, sailed from Greenland on a voyage of discovery, and that the same people discovered North America some time between the tenth and eleventh centuries….

The Newfoundland dog has long been famed for his aquatic powers, and many human lives have, from time to time, been saved by him. It is not long since ten of the true breed were imported into Paris, and employed in watching the banks of the Seine—experienced trainers being daily employed in teaching them to draw, from the water, stuffed figures of men and children; handsome kennels have been erected for them on the bridges, and they have already proved their utility, in saving a number of poor perishing human creatures from a watery death. I recollect a noble dog of this breed, the property of Professor Dunbar, of Edinburgh, which was accustomed to go out with the young people, in the capacity of a protector, and a most efficient one he proved himself, suffering neither man nor brute to approach his charge. This dog, also, was accustomed to apply to the bell at his master’s gate, when it happened to be shut, and he desired admittance. The true Newfoundland dog has been frequently used as a retriever, and is remarkable for his fearless manner of penetrating the thickest cover (pg. 75-76).

One should be dismissive that the Newfoundland derived from Norse dogs. The last indigenous people of Newfoundland, the Beothuks, kept no dogs, and thus, there would have been no one to care for the surviving colony of purported “Norse water dogs” once the Norse colony was abandoned. At the time Richardson was writing this piece, it had not been confirmed that the Norse had ever come to Newfoundland. It had merely been suggested through reading the sagas.

However, if we can ignore that bit of fanciful nonsense, we can see that Richardson though the Newfoundland was a large dog but that the giant representatives of that breed in Europe were clearly crosses with mastiffs.  This insight is something I wish more historians of Newfoundland dogs would pay attention to, but alas, they continue to believe that the Newfoundland dog as it exists now is exactly how the breed always was.

Of course, for whatever reason, Richardson thinks the idea of the large size deriving from crosses with mastiff doesn’t apply with another kind of Newfoundland he calls a “Labrador.”

Richardson's "Labrador" was giant breed that was supposedly used for hauling loads in Labrador.

Richardson describes the Labrador as follows:

This is a much larger animal than the preceding, standing from twenty-eight to thirty inches in height; his muzzle is shorter and more truncated, the upper lip more pendulous, the coat coarser, and the whole dog presenting far more marks of great strength than the Newfoundland.

The following are the measurements of a dog of this breed, given in ” Knight’s Weekly Volume :”—”Total length, including the tail, six feet three inches; height at the shoulder, two feet six inches; length of head from occiput to point of nose, eleven inches; circumference of chest, three feet one inch. In Labrador, these large dogs are used in drawing sledges loaded with wood, and are of great service to the settlers.”

The finest specimen of the Labrador dog that I have ever seen, is Rollo, property of Lady Bellew, lady of Sir Patrick Bellew, of Barmeath, whose baronetcy is the oldest in Ireland. Rollo stands above twenty-nine inches in height at the shoulder. As we have given a faithful portrait of him, description is unnecessary (pg. 77-78).

Richardson’s division between Labradors and Newfoundlands is quite different from Bonnycastle’s. Bonnycastle mentions that his Labrador was quite large, but he doesn’t say that this is a trait of the breed. Richardson had also not been to Newfoundland, so it is very possible that this giant Labrador was nothing more than a mastiff crossed with the Newfoundland. Much of the description of the dog seems to point to having some mastiff blood, and as regular readers of this blog know, the dogs that were used to haul loads in Newfoundland weren’t necessarily giant animals.

Finally,  Richardson describes “the Labrador spaniel” or “Lesser Labrador dog” :

This dog presents an appearance intermediate between the Newfoundland dog and the Land Spaniel; he is generally called by the above name, but whether or not he is fully entitled to it, is in my judgment at least questionable. These dogs are remarkable for their diving powers. I saw one some years ago with an officer, who was quartered at Portobello Barracks, Dublin, which dived repeatedly to the bottom of the canal, between the lochs, when full of water, and fetched up such stones, &c., as were thrown in. I subjoin the following anecdote, on the authority of Saunders’s News-letter, in which paper it appeared, of date September 21, 1846. I can only observe, that if strictly true, it places the sagacity and gratitude of this dog in a most interesting light:—

“Peeler, The DogOf The Police”– During the recent investigation relative to the manner in which the policeman came by his death at Kingstown, a little active and inquisitive dog, of the Labrador breed, was seen from time to time during each day running in and out of the room as if he took a personal interest in the inquiry. The dog was admired, and a gentleman in the police establishment was asked to whom it belonged. ‘Oh,’ said he ‘don’t you know him? we thought every one knew Peeler, the dog of the police.’ The gentleman then proceeded to give the interrogator the history of this singular dog. It appeared from the story, that a few years ago poor little Peeler tempted the canine appetite of a Mount St. Bernard, or Newfoundland dog, and was in peril of being swallowed up by him for a luncheon, when a policeman interposed, and with a blow of his baton, levelled the assailant, and rescued the assailed. From that time ‘Peeler’ has united his fortunes with those of the police; wherever they go, he follows; whether pacing with measured tread the tedious ‘ beat,’ or engaged in the energetic duty of arresting a disturber of the public peace. He is a self constituted general-superintendent of the police, visiting station after station, and after he has made his observations in one district, wending his way to the next. He is frequently seen to enter a third class carriage at the Kingstown Railway, get out at Black Rock, visit the police station there, continue his tour of inspection to Booterstown, reach there in time for the train as before, and go on to Dublin to take a peep at the ‘metropolitans;’ and having satisfied himself that ‘all is right,’ return by an early evening train to Kingstown. He sometimes takes a dislike to an individual, and shuns him as anxiously as he wags his tail at the approach, and frisks about the feet of, another for whom he has a regard. There is one man in the force for whom he has this antipathy; and a day or two ago, seeing him in «the train,’ he left the carriage, and waited for the next, preferring a delay of half an hour, to such company; and when the bell rang, with the eagerness with which protracted joy is sought, he ran to his accustomed seat in ‘the third class.’ His partiality for the police is extraordinary; wherever he sees a man in the garb of a constable, he expresses his pleasure by walking near him, rubbing against and dancing about him; nor does he forget him in death, for he was at his post in the funeral of Daly, the policeman who was killed in Kingstown. He is able to recognize a few in plain clothes, but they must have been old friends of his. Wherever he goes, he gets a crust, a piece of meat, a pat on the head, or a rub down upon his glossy back, from the hand of a policeman; and he is as well known amongst the body as any man in it. We have heard of the dog of Montargis, the soldier’s dog, the blind beggar’s dog, and the dog of the monks of St. Bernard, and been delighted by stories of their fidelity and sagacity, but none are more interesting than ‘Peeler the dog of the Police,’ ‘whose heart, enlarged with gratitude to one, grows bountiful to all'” (pg. 78-79).

Interesting anecdotes aside, the Lessor Labrador or Labrador spaniel sounds like what came be known as the St. John’s water dog.

However, the “true breed” of Newfoundland would also fit within our understanding of what this dog might have been.

But because the Newfoundland varied so much as a landrace, we can make a few assertions.

1. The original dogs of Newfoundland were not necessarily giant dogs, but if crossed with a mastiff on either Newfoundland or the import country, one could easily produce a giant dog.

2. Long-haired and smooth dogs were existence in Newfoundland and in Labrador.

Col. Peter Hawker  in his Instructions to Young Sportsmen (1814) made a very similar analysis of Newfoundland dogs that one could find in both Bonnycastle and Richardson.  Like Richardson, Hawker divides Newfoundlands into three categories:  a giant Labrador breed, the true Newfoundland, and the one that is big and shaggy and sold as a pet. He mentions the big and shaggy Newfoundland only in passing, for his main interest is the “true Newfoundland,” which is, like Richardson’s description, a medium large dog. However, Hawker’s true Newfoundland is smooth-coated, and his giant Labrador is long-haired. Hawker is of interest because he was among the first people to write about using a Newfoundland dog as a retriever. His true Newfoundland is called the St. John’s breed, which I usually refer to as the St. John’s water dog:

Here we are a little in the dark. Every canine brute that is nearly as big as a jackass, and as hairy as a bear, is denominated a fine Newfoundland dog. Very different, however, are both the proper Labrador and St. John’s breed of these animals; at least, many characteristic points distinguish them.

The one is very large; strong in the limbs; rough haired; small in the head; and carries his tail very high. He is kept in that country for drawing sledges full of wood, from inland to the sea-shore, where he is also very useful, by his immense strength and sagacity, among wrecks, and other disasters in boisterous weather.

The other, by far the best for every kind of shooting, is oftener black than of another colour, and scarcely bigger than a pointer. He is made rather long in the head and nose; pretty deep in the chest; very fine in the legs, has short or smooth hair; does not carry his tail so much curled as the other; and is extremely quick and active in running, swimming, or fighting.

Newfoundland 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 held, and they will instantly be choked from their hold.

The St. John’s breed of these dogs is chiefly used on their native coast by fishermen. Their sense of smelling is scarcely to be credited. Their discrimination of scent, in following a wounded pheasant through a whole covert full of game, or a pinioned wild fowl [waterfowl] through a furze [gorse] brake, or warren of rabbits, appears almost incredible. (It may, perhaps, be unnecessary to observe, that rabbits are generally very plentiful, and thrive exceedingly near the sea-shore. It therefore, often happens, that wigeon, as they fly, and are shot by night, fall among furze brakes, which are full of rabbits.)

The real Newfoundland dog may be broken in to any kind of shooting; and without additional instruction, is generally under such command, that he may be safely kept in, if required to be taken out with pointers. For finding wounded game, of every description, there is not his equal in the canine race; and he is a sine qud non in the general pursuit of wildfowl.

Poole was, till of late years, the best place to buy Newfoundland dogs; either just imported, or broken in; but now they are become much more scarce, owing (the sailors observe) to the strictness of “those the taxgatherers.” I should always recommend buying these dogs ready broken; as, by the cruel process of half starving them, the fowlers teach them almost everything; and by the time they are well trained, the chances are, that they have got over the distemper, with which this species, in particular, is sometimes affected beyond recover.


I have tried poodles, but always found them inferior in strength, scent, and courage. They are also very apt to be sea-sick. The Portland [Portuguese?} dogs are superior to them. [NB: I’ve always found this part of Hawker’s description a bit interesting. He was a veteran of the Peninsular War against Napoleon, which was fought in defense of Portugal, which was Britain’s only ally in Europe at the time.] (pg. 285-287).

Peter Hawker’s description is well-known to retriever historians. It very clearly describes the true Newfoundland dog of 1814 as being very similar to retriever– particular that which we know as the modern Labrador retriever. One should be a bit careful in saying that these dogs were Labrador retriever, for St. John’s water dogs withouth any modern Labrador ancestry continued to exist on Newfoundland until the late 1970’s.  The dogs were clearly different from what we’d call Labrador retrievers today, and the history of that breed as we currently know it only happens in the 1880’s when lines of smooth retriever belonging to the Dukes of Buccleuch and the Earls of Malmesbury were combined with St. John’s water dogs that were imported at around the same time.

It’s not clear if the giant dogs ever were common in Labrador. The only mention I can find of a giant Labrador in Labrador is that of Bonnycastle. Labrador is a much wilder place than Newfoundland, and the main dogs that were used for hauling anything in Labrador were a type of indigenous hauling spitz, which has the unfortunate name of Labrador husky. It is not a cross between a Labrador or Newfoundland and the Siberian husky, but it is a very similar dog to the Canadian Inuit dog or Qimmq. There are mentions of Newfoundlands and St. John’s water dogs being used to augument sled teams in Labrador. They also often crossed the hauling spitzes to create easier to handle sled dogs.

I think it is very likely that the giant dogs, either called Newfoundlands or Labradors, were creations of the pet market.

There is a mention of a giant dog on Newfoundland from roughly the same time that  Hawker was writing that the true breed was pointer-sized. This comes from A history of the island of Newfoundland (1819) by Lewis Amadeus Anspach. Anspach was a Swiss-born Anglican clergyman who worked in Newfoundland around the vicinity of Conception Bay. Anspach, despite his German sounding name, was actually a French-speaking Swiss who had been trained to be a Calvinist minister in Geneva. He  tutored French Calvinist children in London before being offered a job at an Anglican school in Newfoundland. He switched denominations and wound up operating the Anglican school and working as a clergyman on the island.

He managed to procure a Newfoundland from Harbour Grace, which he erroneously believed was in the north of the island. This dog grew quite large, was an inveterate sheep-killer (as nearly all Newfoundlands were said to be), and was a very intelligent animal.

The last quadruped that we shall mention under this head, though very far from being the least in worth, is the Newfoundland dog, a valuable and faithful friend to man, and an implacable enemy to sheep. When born or reared from an early age under the roof of man, this dog is the most useful animal in the island as a domestic. He answers some of the essential purposes of a horse; is docile, capable of strong attachment, and easy to please in the quality of his food; he will live upon scraps of boiled fish, whether salted or fresh, and on boiled potatoes and cabbage; but, if hungry, he will not scruple to steal a salmon, or a piece of raw salt pork from the tub in which they have been left to steep; he is likewise fond of poultry of the larger kind; but, as a beverage, nothing is equal in his estimation to the blood of sheep. The Author had purchased a puppy of the true breed, which had been brought from the northward of the island to Harbour-Grace. This puppy grew up to the size of a small donkey, as strong and fit for hard work, as he was tractable and gentle, even with the children of the family, of whom he seemed to be particularly fond; nor was he ever known, in any oneinstance, to disagree with the cats of the house, whom he treated rather with a kind of dignified condescension. But the dog, unless closely watched, would run after sheep wherever he could trace them, even drive them from high cliffs into the water, and jump in after them; not, however, without first considering the elevation of the cliff; for, if he thought it too great, he would run down and take the nearest more convenient place to continue his pursuit. The owner of that dog had, at one time, some domesticated wild geese, one of which would frequently follow him in his morning walks, side by side with Jowler: they seemed to live together on the best terms. Unfortunately the servant neglected one night to confine them, according to custom; the next morning the feathers of the favourite goose were found scattered in a small field adjoining to the grounds. The dog was soon after found concealed in a corner of the wood-yard, and on his master looking at him, exhibited evident signs of conscious guilt: his master took him to the field, and pointed out to him the feathers: the dog, staring at him, uttered a loud growl, and ran away with all the speed of which he was capable; nor could he bear his master’s sight for some days afterwards. At another time, the Author had three young sheep, for whom in the day-time the dog seemed to affect the utmost indifference: the servant neglected one evening to take them into their shed, and to confine the dog; and the next morning the sheep were found stretched in the back-yard, lifeless, and without any other mark of violence than a small wound in the throat, from which the dog had sucked their blood. It is a remarkable circumstance, that the Newfoundland dog, when pursuing a flock of sheep, will single out one of them, and, if not prevented, which is a matter of considerable difficulty, will never leave off the pursuit until he has mastered his intended victim, always aiming at the throat; and, after having sucked the blood, has never been known to touch the carcase [sic].

The natural colour of this dog was a perfect black, with the exception of very few white spots. As soon as winter approached, he acquired a coat which grew to the depth of about one inch, of close coarse, wool deviating from the original colour only by an inclination to red; the long, thick, glossy hairs preserved the same colour up to the surface of the coat, and then turned generally to a perfect white: it is probable that a more constant exposure to the weather would have made the change of colour more complete. The sagacity of this animal was astonishing; on many occasions he appeared to want only the faculty of speech to make himself fully understood.

To mention another remarkable instance, which also came within the Author’s observation: one of the magistrates of Harbour Grace had an old animal of this kind who was in the habit of carrying a lantern before his master at night, as steadily as the most attentive servant could do, stopping short when his master made a stop, and proceeding when he saw him disposed to follow him. If his master was absent from home, on the lantern being fixed to his mouth, and the command given, “Go, fetch thy master,” he would immediately set off and proceed directly to the town, which lay at the distance of more than a mile from the place of his master’s residence; he would then stop at the door of every house which he knew that his master was in the habit of frequenting, and laying down his lantern, growl and strike the door, making all the noise in his power until it was opened; if his master was not there, he would proceed farther, in the same manner, until he had found him. If he had accompanied him only once into a house, this was sufficient to induce him to take that house in his round (379-382).

Note that Anspach does not say that all of these dogs were the size of his dog. The only description he makes is that these dogs were black. but that his dog occasionally developed a reddish tinge to his undercoat in the winter. From my reading of Anspach’s description of the dog’s coat, it was densely coated smooth-haired dog– and thus very different from our concept of what a modern Newfoundland is.

My guess is that someone at Harbour Grace sold him a dog that was being bred for export– a mastiff/water dog cross. Anspach, being a foreigner and not well-versed in the island’s ways, may have assumed that his dog was particularly amazing for its large size.

But the truth is that it may have been bred to be a pet. A large dog, for a hunting and gathering society like Newfoundland at this time period, would have been a bit of a hindrance. Very large dogs take a long time to mature, and anyone who has ever been around giant breed puppies will know one must be careful with them until they are about two years old. That’s around two years that a dog is going to be eating meat and fish and not contributing a damn thing to its upkeep.

So there would have been a demand that Newfoundland dogs would have been smaller. They wanted them big enough to retain heat in cold water or in frigid conditions on land and so they could actually haul heavy nets and seals from the sea and also pull loads of timber and fish on sleds, but they wanted them to mature at a decent age so that they could be used.  They also wanted a dog that could catch fish off the hooks, which means they needed a dog that was agile in the water.  And because the dogs were also used to flush ptarmigan, they needed one that could really put a drive on them in the forests.

All of these pressures work against Newfoundland dogs being giant from a practical perspective.

William Nelson Hutchinson, the noted gun dog trainer, provides the best evidence for the notion that giant Newfoundlands were crossed with something else to make them more palatable than to the British buyer. In his famous work entitled Dog Breaking (1850), Hutchinson tells his reader that the best retriever is a Newfoundland crossed with a setter or spaniel but then clarifies what he means by the word “Newfoundland” :

From education there are good retrievers of many breeds, but it is usually allowed that, as a general rule, the best land retrievers are bred from a cross between the setter and the Newfoundland, or the strong spaniel and the Newfoundland. I do not mean the heavy Labrador, whose weight and bulk is valued because it adds to his power of draught, nor the Newfoundland, increased in size at Halifax and St. John’s to suit the taste of the English purchaser;—but the far slighter dog reared by the settlers on the coast, a dog that is quite as fond of water as of land, and which in almost the severest part of a North American winter will remain on the edge of a rock for hours together, watching intently for anything the passing waves may carry near him. Such a dog is highly prized. Without his aid the farmer would secure but few of the many wild ducks he shoots at certain seasons of the year. The patience with which he waits for a shot on the top of a high cliff (until the numerous flock sail leisurely underneath) would be fruitless, did not his noble dog fearlessly plunge in from the greatest height, and successfully bring the slain to shore ( pg. 73).

Hutchinson agrees with Richardson and Hawker that there were three breeds of Newfoundland dog, and like those authors, he thinks that the true breed of Newfoundland isn’t a giant dog. Like Richardson, he thinks the dogs are all crossed to make them larger, but unlike Richardson, he thinks that the giant dogs were crossed before they made it to the dog dealers in Halifax and St. John’s before they were sold.

Unlike any of the authors mentioned before, Hutchinson had traveled to Newfoundland and parts of Canada, where he had seen the dogs. I can’t find any evidence that he ever traveled to Labrador, so his descriptions of a giant Labrador dog might not be accurate.

I still don’t understand why these authors think that the giant size in Newfoundlands came about as the result of a cross but that there actually were giant dogs hauling wood in Labrador.

Of course, now one needs to understand something that can be a bit confusing. Different authors use the words Labrador and Newfoundland to describe different dogs. The only consistent thing is that prior to about 1860, the word Labrador referred to a giant dog. After about 1860, Labrador referred to same dog that Richardson and Hawker called the “true Newfoundland” or St. John’s water dog.

I can’t find any evidence of this giant Labrador breed except in texts written by British people who had never been to Labrador.

Lambert de Boilieu was a merchant and trader in Newfoundland and also in Labrador in the 1850’s. He encountered “Labrador dogs” in Labrador, but he makes no mention of them being giants. In his Recollections of Labrador Life (1861), de Boilieu compared these dogs with the retrievers of England, which definitely did descend and were being bred from St. John’s water dogs– what Richardson and Hawker might have called “true” Newfoundlands:

During winter, for want of horses, dogs are used for the purpose of conveying all sorts of produce to and from the bays, as well as for pleasure. Some are trained as retrievers, watch, house, and water dogs. Still they are all of the same breed. The retriever is well known in England, but I fancy the duty of the Labrador watch-dog is little if at all understood. In the summer and fall, then, many stray ducks may be seen frequenting the small bays round the islands; the watch-dog lands with you, and, with much caution, examines the shore, and directly he observes ducks, he will instantly lie down and crawl out of their sight, then immediately rise and run towards you, when by his actions you may be sure he has sighted a company. He leads the way, and when in the vicinity of the birds, down he crouches, and you must do the same. Should you be over-eager, and fire at too great a distance, and miss your birds, the dog looks towards them for a moment, as if reflecting!—” It’s no use going into the water, he has not killed any,”—and stands still. If, on the other hand, you have a good shot— killing, say, half-a-dozen, and crippling three or four—in he bounds, leaving the dead birds and giving chase to the cripples. If they are wounded in the wings they swim with difficulty, and cannot dive, and so become an easy spoil. The dog has the instinct to know this, for he wastes but little time in the pursuit. It constantly arises that the spot from whence the ducks are shot is, at least, ten feet perpendicular from the water; sportsmen provide themselves in such instances with what is termed a “gunning gaff,” some twelve feet long, with an iron crook at the end, made in the shape of a shepherd’s crook. The dog brings a duck at a time under the rock; you place the crook round its neck, and draw it up or land it. The last bird the dog retains in his mouth, and allows himself to be drawn up in a somewhat scientific manner; that is to say, having seized the. bird firmly across the wings he swims under the rock, and allows his master to place the hook through his collar at the back of the neck; then placing his paws against the rock, and throwing his weight on the gaff, he gracefully walks up and lands his game; did be not retain it in the operation in all probability he would be choked. Of a fine day I have seen these dogs near the landwash amusing themselves fishing, diving six or seven feet, and bringing up a fish every time. Their mode of diving is not direct, but spiral.

It has been said a goose is a foolish bird, and certainly the geese of Labrador are very foolish indeed. They are found some miles up the bays, and when discovered the dog uses a simple artifice to decoy them. Near the shore (the neighbourhood of a small wood, with goose-grass in the foreground, is their favourite resort) he rushes out of the wood into the water and swims some eight or ten yards, with head low and-tail out—looking something like a water-fowl—then comes back to the shore, and so continues until he fancies they are within shot, when he quietly waits by your side watching your gun, and, by his looks, showing his anxiety to see the flash. Then off he goes and secures his birds, and lands them at your feet.

The house-dog has a peculiar sagacity. I trained one to keep house in a noiseless manner. If myself or steward was not at home, and a visitor called, the dog would allow him to walk in, sit down, light and smoke his pipe, as if unconscious of his presence; but if the visitor attempted to leave the house the dog was up in an instant, and, placing himself in the doorway, showed a set of teeth of dazzling but appalling whiteness. The frightened fellow again returns and takes his seat, the dog once more lies down, and thus the pair are seen on the return of one of the household. A visitor once served that way takes care to look through the window on his next call, to see if any one is at home. 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 (pg. 239-244).

He makes no mention of giant Newfoundland-type dogs in Labrador. The Newfoundland water dog or St. John’s water dog would have been known as a retriever in England, and that’s clearly how he wants the reader to think of the dog. He makes mention that these dogs had smooth or long coats, but those with long-coats were regularly exported, which explains why the long-haired wavy-coated retriever was much more common than the smooth retriever. It also explains why the giant Newfoundland dogs that became popular in England were almost always shaggy coated.

In Stonehenge’s The Dogs of the British Islands, Being a Series of Articles and Letters by Various Contributors, Reprinted from the “Field” Newspaper (1872), the word “Labrador” is used as a synonym for the wavy-coated or flat-coated retriever, which shows that de Boilieu’s assertion that the long-haired dogs were exported was probably correct:

We have seen first-class dogs smooth-coated, wavy-coated, and curly. One smooth dog, two flat-coated or small Labrador, two curly-coated dogs and one bitch, all belonging to personal friends, we have never seen excelled; and a dog by a Clumber spaniel out of a Labrador bitch is one of the very best dogs to find and bring game or wildfowl that we have ever seen (pg. 91).

In that same text, Stonehenge specifically notes that the “Small Labrador” is the same as wavy-coats:



This dog is known by his smooth, though slightly wavy and glossy coat, being the foundation of the wavy-coated retriever already alluded to (page 89). He is much smaller than the Newfoundland proper, seldom exceeding 25in. or 26in. in height. In other respects there is little difference (pg 171).

So the flat-coated or wavy-coated retriever was not necessarily a St. John’s water dog crossed with a setter.

Stonehenge, of course, bought into the large Labrador actually being the giant hauling dog of Labrador, but he was likely unfamiliar with de Boilieu’s text, which clearly shows that the Labrador dog was more like a retriever, even if it was occasionally used for hauling. He also thought that the “Newfoundland proper” was a giant dog, which, as we have seen, contradicts all the earlier texts.

As Newfoundlands that derived dealers’ dogs became more and more popular in England, there was a move for some well-to-do people to go to Newfoundland and find some more of the original stock.

What they found was that there were very few–if any– giant Newfoundland dogs on the island. One well-traveled sportsman wrote to The Field magazine in 1869 to show that the Newfoundland dogs of their actual island homeland weren’t that large. Stonehenge included these comments, as well as some rather hysterical commentaries from a Newfoundland fancier who denounced the smaller dogs as mongrels. The initial correspondent then comes back and clearly states that the giant dogs that were ever found on Newfoundland were invariably imports back to the island.

The first correspondent writes the following:

Sir,—A few years ago (I don’t name the year, not wishing to be in any sense personal) I addressed to you a letter on the subject of the judging at a certain dog show, which I may now say took place at Birmingham. In the Newfoundland class (eighteen entries) a dog of mine, which I had brought with others from St. John’s, was adjudged second, he being beaten by a dog which was no Newfoundland at all. Since then I have been mostly on the Continent, and have not exhibited; but now that I have returned I intend to do so, provided there is some reliable and uniform standard of breed and merit, as in the case of other dogs—pointers, mastiffs, Dalmatians, terriers, &c.

With regard to the Newfoundlands at the National Dog Club’s first exhibition (Islington, 1869), you say: “If size is beauty, the Newfoundlands were handsome enough, and the judges were certainly right in their awards.” This observation is the cause of this letter. It is possible (and I hope they were) that the winning dogs were of the genuine breed; I have not seen them; but, in view of the fact that they were large, I should like some more detailed information. I attack no one, least of all the judges, who are always entitled to the thanks of exhibitors and the public. But I wish to know, not only for my own guidance but for the general good, what the judges’ standard in England is, and whether or not it is the true one. The public, I think, is in fairness entitled to know this, and I should bo very much obliged to Messrs. Hedley, Barrow, and Monsey, or any of those three gentlemen who officiated in the non-sporting classes at that show, to state for our information and assistance—I refer especially to owners of Newfoundlands, real or supposed— the standard which they, or any of them, have adopted.

I have a Newfoundland dog which stands about 25in. high at the shoulder. If there are three of these dogs in the whole of Newfoundland higher than he, I will forfeit 20£ . This assertion, though made after a year’s observation and experience on the island, is to a certain extont speculative, and there may perhaps be one or two more than three. But it is an absolute fact that every true Newfoundland is entirely black, except a small streak of white, which is upon the breast of about ninety-nine out of every hundred genuine dogs. These conditions are as necessary in the nature of things as that a black and-tan terrier is not, and cannot be, white-and-fawn. A dog professing to be a Newfoundland which has any white or any other colour about him except a little on the breast, cannot be a pure Newfoundland. He must have been crossed somewhere; and, no matter how handsome and perfect he may be in other respects, to award him a prize is to raise the mongrel (and mongrels are often very beautiful animals) at the expense of justice to the true dog, which is invariably of an “intense black colour.” The last three words are used by you to describe one characteristic of the Newfoundland dog, in an admirable and weighty article in The Field of Nov. 4, 1865, and reprinted in “The Dogs of the British Islands” (pg. 162-163).

This correspondent’s description of the native water dogs of Newfoundland appears to agree with that of Richardson, but as we shall see, he generally thinks only the long-haired dogs are “true Newfoundlands.”  These long-haired dogs would have been the ones exported according to de Boilieu, and they would have been the foundation for the retrievers and the large Newfoundlands.

This correspondent, however, does want it known that his smaller Newfoundlands are more correct that the giant ones being exhibited in England at the time. The large ones are, of course, very likely derived from crosses that were designed to appeal to the foreign purchaser.

A Newfoundland fancier responds to the initial claim that Newfoundland dogs were not giant animals with some typical dog show cultist histrionics, including a great extolling of the virtues of a 28.5 inch dog named Cato. I’m not going to include the entire letter because it’s mostly that sort of bad logic. This person had never been to Newfoundland, yet assumed he knew all about them because the breed standard says so:

But your correspondent, encouraged as he confesses by your remarks, jumps to a rash conclusion, and strongly assorts that it is very rare indeed to find a pure-bred dog “in the whole of Newfoundland” higher than 25in. at the shoulder. This may be, aud it may not be. But, supposing it to be true, it only proves that bad treatment has somewhat reduced these dogs in size; while to conclude that no dog which measures more than his standard can be a pure Newfoundland is simply illogical. My experience, which by the way, is pretty extensive, is widely different.

For years I have been an admirer of the majestic Newfoundland. I have spared neither pains nor expense to procure the purest blood and best strains, and have taken care to preserve it pure, while I have carefully avoided “inand-in breeding”. beyond the first cross. I am in a position, therefore, to prove the Cato pedigree. The article on the Newfoundland in “The Dogs of the British Isles” is to my taste. I prefer the shaggy coat and the rich glossy black colour, and these Cato and his family possess in an eminent degree. He stands 28.5 in. at the shoulder, measures 37in. round the chest, and 9.75 in. round the forearm.

In conclusion, I should like to know the height and other particulars of the specimen of this dog presented to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales some years ago, and the winner, I believe, of a first prize at Islington in 1864. I would also express a wish that others competent to deal with the question would take it up and discuss it in your pages. The Newfoundland is not known or valued as he deserves to be; but I am glad to find the authorities of the different important shows throughout the country are establishing classes for Newfoundland bitches, which must tend to improve the breed, and establish it in popular favour.

A (163-164). [“A” was probably Mr. Atkinson, the owner of Cato.]

This person didn’t inbreed much and bred from dogs that were said to have been pure, but it doesn’t take into account the possibility, as was raised by Hutchinson and Richardson, that many Newfoundlands available in Britain were bred to be larger than they were on Newfoundland through crossbreeding. The British fancy decided that Newfoundlands should be very large dogs.  A standard was written to that end, and no one paid any attention to what the Newfoundlanders were breeding. This person refuses to consider these possibilities, so he’s attacking the person who was widely traveled in Newfoundland because it doesn’t comport with what he’s always believed. As we’ve seen time and again, facts don’t trump belief in the dog world.

The initial correspondent comes back to the remakes made by the dog show cultist. In his second commentary, this writer states something that actually started to happen on Newfoundland as time went on.  The European strains of Newfoundland started to diverge greatly from the working dogs on the island and in Labrador, but fishermen from other countries would bring their own strains of Newfoundland dog to the island. These dogs would have been derived from this root stock, but they would come back to their homelands as very different animals from the ones that had continued to exist on the island.

Sir,—I fully agree with your correspondent A. His notion of the true Newfoundland exactly agrees with mine. He accepts the authority of the “Dogs of the British Islands,” that most interesting collection of articles and letters from The Field; so did I in my letter to you in 1866, and I still do so in 1869. There is a jet black and very rare curly-coated breed in Newfoundland, of which I have a superb specimen, and for ideal beauty perhaps the curly-coated breed is unequalled in the world of dogs. But I quite agree with The Field, as I said in 1866, that the purest specimen is the dog whose rich glossy black coat is long and shaggy.

Sometimes I have seen in Newfoundland a very large black-and-white dog. Perhaps there are three or four on the whole island; and those persons who know how small a portion of the country is settled will also know that a year’s residence ought to be ample for a man of methodical and scientific habits to acquire perfectly authentic information, so far as he would venture to communicate it to the public. Conscious of this responsibility, I affirm, first, that I have invariably found these large black-and-white dogs to be direct importations from England or the Continent—often from Spain, where they frequently reach an enormous size; secondly, that they are utterly and unanimously repudiated as the true breed by the inhabitants, who recognise no dog as genuine but the dog described by you, accepted by A. and by me, and now accepted also, it would seem, by the judges at our chief dog shows; and, thirdly, that the thousands of dogs of all colours which are accumulated in and around St. John’s, and up and down and into the country (including an immense number of close smooth-haired black dogs, from 18in. to 24in. high, called Labradors, and who are often admirable retrievers), are no more true Newfoundlands than they are Dalmatians, except in so far as their birth on the island makes them so.

Books about dogs are almost uniformly wrong in their treatment of this breed. Some of them describe varieties which absolutely do not exist. The writers copy each other, and the first blunder accounts for the rest. Imperfect observation or a single hasty generalisation, and we know the inevitable result. Hence Sir Edwin Landseer was led by bad, but the then currently accepted, authority to misrepresent the colouring of the Newfoundland dog—a mistake which in no way affects the grandeur of the conception, and the splendour and minute beauty of the execution of his picture. But, if inaccurate or insufficient observation or experience may sometimes put or leave a writer in the wrong, much more dangerous is it to try to generalise or contribute to the settlement of a debated question without previous personal examination and cautious systematic inquiry.

I have never said, or wished, that a dog should be condemned on account of his size. On the contrary, the larger the dog, other things equal, the better. At the same time it seems to me that the average height, or near it (and whatever that height may be in different people’s opinions does not affect the argument), is more likely than any exceptionally high or low standard to be united with perfection of shape. No doubt A.’s black dog, 28.5 in. high at the shoulder, might possibly beat my black dog (25 in. high), owing to the difference of size; though a large Newfoundland, according to my experience not ‘only on the island and in my own kennel, but from seeing the class at various dog shows—is very often markedly inferior to a much smaller animal, who wins by a number of points which count more than mere size in forming a competent judge’s decision.

But the complaint I made, and make, is that, whilo a pure Newfoundland must be black, except generally a mark of white upon the breast, the first prize dog at a former Birmingham show (my pure black dog being second) was a dog who was more white than black, and who therefore could not have been of the genuine breed. In other words, the principle I lay down is that the true Newfoundland can be no more white, or any other colour than black, than a black-and-tan terrier can be fawn-and-white. It is indeed possible, though I don’t say the fact is so, that to my having earnestly called attention to this principle in 1866 Mr. Atkinson owes, in this limited sense, his success in 1 867 and subsequent years.

The size of a dog is a thing altogether apart from every other consideration. There are, of course, large and small Newfoundlands. Everyone must admire the “majestic Newfoundland,” of which size is a prominent characteristic. And of two genuine black Newfoundlands, equal in all other respects, the larger dog is obviously the superior. Nor do I differ from your correspondent as to the great size sometimes attained by individuals of this breed. I have often talked in St. John’s with the broeder of the dog presented by the inhabitants to the Prince of Wales. This dog’s height was, I believe, considerably over thirty inches; but, as a matter of fact, so large a black dog (the Chang of dogs) was never before known within living memory, or by tradition, to be on the island. He was altogether an abnormal specimen, not handsome, and not remarkable for anything but his size; so I believe that on a comparison of points he would have had to be adjudged second to Cato or some of my own dogs.

Don’t let me be misunderstood. I am aware, and it is well known in Newfoundland, that dogs bred and reared on the island do not as a rule, with only a very few exceptions, grow as big as dogs bred and reared in England. There must be a reason for this, and I shall be ready to submit a theory if the opportunity occurs. But I am now only concerned (just as I was in 1866, and in my last letter) to prove that size in the Newfoundland dog, apart from colour, is worthless; that, indeed, Newfoundlands on the island are generally smaller than they are when whelped and developed in England; and that to place a mongrel specimen who showed his impurity of breed in his variously coloured coat, before a true Newfoundland who was remarkably handsome, and who, though not exceptionally large for this country, was yet larger than ninety-nine out of every hundred dogs on the island, was, to say the least, a mistake, which might act as a discouragement to owners (pg. 164-166).

Obviously, this correspondent didn’t know that the settlers of Newfoundland and Labrador preferred to keep short-haired dogs, as per the commentary of Lamber de Boilieu. His suggestion that the dogs in Newfoundland don’t grow as large in Newfoundland as they do in England is also reflective of a common meme that one comes across in some of this literature. The Newfoundlanders just were too ignorant and poor to take care of their dogs, the reasoning goes, so they could never produce as large a Newfoundland as we British upper class gentlemen. Never mind that the Newfoundlanders were actually better equipped to find particularly good quality protein from the land and sea than virtually anyone in Britain, and never mind that the Newfoundlanders were indeed concerned about the health and welfare of their dogs. If the dogs got sick or injured or were malnourished in anyway, they wouldn’t have been of much use at all.

And never mind that the great dog obsession of the late nineteenth century England was the Tibetan mastiff, which was well-known to grow quite large, even though they didn’t have access to all the fancy European diets.

So this argument falls flat on its face.

There is a commentary by the Editor in those letter that is particularly asinine:

There is no doubt that the Newfoundland, if reared in the island, is comparatively small (say 25in. to 26in.); but one of the same litter, if brought early to this country, and well reared, will reach 30in., or even 3l in., as we know from actual experience.

This seems very unlikely. Nutrition can have a marginal effect on dog size at maturity, but if the dogs in Newfoundland were that much smaller than those in England as the result of nutrition, then they would have so many other problems. They wouldn’t be suitable for work at all.

And the fact is the dogs in Newfoundland did have access to better quality protein than virtually any dog in England at the time.

So it seems that this argument is just a convenient dodge to the simple fact that the British dog fancy was fundamentally changing a working breed.

The fact that they might have been scammed by the dealers and dog breeding fishermen on Newfoundland never crossed their minds.

How could uneducated colonials and rough-cut dog dealers get the better of someone of their station?

The bulk of the evidence suggests that the water dog of Newfoundland looked like this:

or this:

The former dog would have been readily exported, where it became basis of the retrievers, while the latter was the preferred working dog of Newfoundland. Some of the exports were crossed with mastiffs and other giant breeds to increase their appeal to the gullible British dog buyer.  Dog dealers on the island and at Halifax, Nova Scotia, would crossbreed these dogs with whatever they could find to make them larger.

But the people who actually relied upon the dogs in Newfoundland preferred retriever-sized dogs. Any very large dogs, as we have seen, would have been aberrations– the result of breeding from diverse working dog stock.

I am not the first person to make the claim that Newfoundland dogs were initially retriever-sized. Richard Wolters made this case quite convincingly in his The Labrador Retriever: The History…the People…Revisited. I have mentioned that this book does have some serious weaknesses, but using the Hawker and Hutchinson texts,  Wolters came to the conclusion that the dog called the St. John’s water dog, the  primary ancestor of all retrievers, except the toller, was actually the “true Newfoundland dog” — and it was also the ancestor of the giant Newfoundland that became very popular as a pet in the nineteenth century.

But Wolters was not the first person to figure this out. Noted American dog authority James Watson came to this exact same conclusion in his Dog Book (1906):

Popular belief would no doubt lead to the opinion that the Newfoundland dog would have a very straight history, but such is not the case by any means. In the first place, the early illustrations by Bewick and Reinagle show a long, Hat-headed white and black dog. Captain Brown in 1829 gives us a similar dog but seemingly solid black, but he does not specify any colour. Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton who had visited Newfoundland stands alone in describing the true Newfoundland as a black-and-tan dog. This he calls the true old type and characterises all others as cross-bred dogs. When he was in Newfoundland we cannot state, but he was an experienced investigator and possessed an extensive knowledge of dogs in all parts of the world, so that his conclusions and assertions are entitled to great consideration, even if he stands alone on the black-and-tan statement. The ” Naturalist’s Library ” for which he wrote on dogs was published in 1840, hence we may say he wrote of the breed of 1830. Between that time and 1860 the tan markings appear to have been bred out entirely, and there is little doubt that pure black, rusty black occasionally, became the prevailing colour.

We must recognise that we are not now speaking of a country where dogs were bred for points but a very undeveloped territory, where the dogs were obliged to earn their own living, bred as they liked, and were grievously neglected according to all accounts. Where they originated is not hard to state, for they must have descended from ship dogs. In the old days, which in this breed can be put at 1800 to 1850, there were three varieties, smooth or short-coated, shaggy and curly. The shaggy were the most attractive, and became the popular dog. Up to 1870 the height of dogs on Newfoundland Island ran to 26 inches, anything larger being an exception; and the dog presented to the Prince of Wales when he visited this continent was a monstrosity, a perfect giant, and not considered by any means typical of the breed. It was stated to have measured “considerably over 30 inches.” No such dog had ever been known on the island before, hence it was not typical of the breed at home. That they grew much larger when taken as puppies to England, or bred there [more likely], is very well known. If the breed had never been taken to England we should have no such dog as is now called the Newfoundland, which is purely an English development from a very common-sized black dog [the St. John’s water dog] (589-590).

So now we know that the true Newfoundland dog was very much like the St. John’s water dogs that existed on their island home until the late 1970’s. Black water dogs can still be found there, but they have heavily interbred with Labrador retriever stock that has been brought over from both the United Kingdom and the North American mainland.

The last two “pure” examples of this original Newfoundland were photographed by Richard Wolters in the late 70’s. One of these dogs was 13 years old and, though he was a male dog, was called Lassie. His brother was also nearby. He was 15. His name was never mentioned in the text.

Lassie and his brother-- the last two St. John's water dogs that were free of modern Labrador retriever blood.

Both of these dogs had smooth coats, which matches de Boilieu’s description perfectly. The long-haired dogs were purged from the gene pool through exportation.

Toward the end of their existence as a landrace that was free of modern Labrador retriever blood, there was at least one attempt to save them. Farley Mowat tried to save them through breeding his “pure” dog Albert to a Labrador bitch named Victoria (get it?!). The puppies didn’t have the traits he wanted, so the breeding program was discontinued.  This breeding happened at about the same time Mowat ticked off all of Newfoundland by writing about the killing of a fin whale that got trapped in a lagoon. The portrayal made Newfoundlanders look like barbaric hicks, and he was forced to leave the island in disgrace. Thus, he really didn’t get much of a chance to bring about any kind of conservation breeding program.  (You can see Albert and Victoria in this clip, and you can see some of Mowat’s water dog crosses at the end of this short documentary.)

The St. John’s water dog, the Newfoundland, the true Newfoundland, the Newfoundland water dog, the Lesser Labrador, the Lesser Newfoundland, the wavy-coated retriever, the old flat-coated retriever,  or the Labrador are all names that refer to this sort of dog that was widely distributed on Newfoundland. It later would become a global phenomenon. It would be crossed with many things, and it would have a major impact upon several very different dog breeds.

In the British Isles, it was widely celebrated as the basis for the newly establishing retriever strains– and I’ve written about this quite a bit on this blog.

But it was also useful in increasing biddability in sheep dogs. Yes, the dogs that would so readily kill a sheep in Newfoundland could be used to increase both predatory responses and trainability. The Rev. Thomas Pearce (“Idstone”) would write that shepherds wanted to breed their sheepdogs with retrievers that derived from Newfoundland strains because of how much it improved them:

The Newfoundland, the Labrador, and the St. John’s dogs have this peculiarity—they not only possess sagacity, but they disseminate it through any number of crosses, or at least through a great number of them. On this account their breed has been used almost universally in improving Retrievers, and with great success. Some of,the best shepherds I have ever met with have told me that their favourite breed of Sheep Dog was descended from Labrador and Colley; and I have been solicited by them, and never in vain, for the services of my most intelligent Retrievers, to put more sense into Sheep Dogs, already showing distinctly the Newfoundland mixture.

–The Rev. Thomas Pearce The Dog: With Directions for His Treatment (1872).

Perhaps this might explain why so many border collies are either black and white or liver and white, two colors that were quite common in the Newfoundland dog family.

Gypsy, one of Queen Victoria’s collies, looks very much like a golden retriever/border collie cross.

Collies of this type could have founded the St. John’s water dog type, or they could have been descended from it.  Genetic studies show that border collies are not more closely related to the retrievers, but they may have experienced an occasional outcross at the time of Idstone’s writing. Collies of this type were definitely crossed into retrievers, but it is unclear if these collies contributed much to modern collie breeds.

In the United States, Newfoundlands were popular. As mentioned before, they were known in this country from colonial times, but they really became popular as the nineteenth century progressed.

Newfoundlands in the United States remained more conservative than their giant European counterparts.

During the Peninsula Campaign in 1862, General George Armstrong Custer managed to capture a Newfoundland dog that was running with a Confederate regiment. The dog was mostly white, but it had some black patches on its head.

It resembled a black and white golden retriever.

Of course, the United States also got its own strain of Newfoundland dogs early on. In 1809, a English ship wrecked off the coast of Maryland. It had previously been in Newfoundland, and its entire crew had to be rescued. On board, there were two Newfoundland puppies. One was a black female, who was then named Sailor, and the male was red-colored. He was named Canton. These two Newfoundlands were of the St. John’s type, and they were bred to local dogs. Over time, the red and liver colors came to dominate the breed, which was called the Chesapeake Bay dog or the Chesapeake duck dog. The dogs were used primarily for retrieving shot waterfowl, and they eventually came in three distinct strains. The red Winchester was deep red with brown skin. and it was always long-haired like a golden retriever. There was a curly-coated strain, and there was a short-coated strain that was called “otter.”  The otter type wound up taking over the entire breed, but they could have split into three distinct breeds.

We call this modern breed the Chesapeake Bay retriever.

Chesapeake Bay retrievers are very similar to the ancestral Newfoundland dog.

Americans really didn’t mess with the Newfoundland that much.

But the other Europeans certainly did.

In addition to the Spanish and British breeding very large Newfoundlands, the Germans weren’t above doing some crossbreeding on their own.

Today, the Germans would be denounced as designer dog breeders. In the 1830’s,  Heinrich Essig crossed a Newfoundland with a St. Bernard.  Playing around with different dog strains, the Essig produced his own strain of black-masked tawny sable dogs that derived from Newfoundland crosses.

The town in which Essig lived was Leonberg. Supposely, Essig wanted to create a dog that looked like the lion on the town crest. Of course, this is a bit dubious, because many of the original dogs of that breed were predominantly white in color!

Essig based his strain on giant Newfoundlands, which were about the only type that could be found in Germany.

He was also not the only person in the German-speaking countries who was trying to create a new breed from using Newfoundlands.

In the aforementioned Homo et canis: or, The autobiography of Old Cato and some account of his race (1892), John Paul Dudley describes a dog called “Berghund” (mountain dog) that was found in late nineteenth century Germany. It wasn’t a mountain dog in the same way that the Swiss breeds are today. It was more like a designer dog.

The Berghund

Dudley describes the dog as follows:

This great dog is seldom seen in this country, but is held in some repute in Germany where he originated. He is also a Newfoundland mongrel. He has little to recommend him (pg.  159).

Of course, the German berghund is now extinct, and ironically, Dudley thought the Leonberger would go extinct. The German berghund did go eventually go extinct, but the Leonberger, though not exactly very common, is still with us. It is used for water rescue in Italy and in other countries, including Canada.

The Parisians also used Newfoundlands as water rescue dogs on the Seine. These Newfoundlands were more of the St. John’s type, and if we are to read all the historical accounts of these dogs on Newfoundland, we have to think of these dogs as being very typical of the breed. This image comes from  Our Domestic Animals: Their habits, Intelligence and Usefulness (1907) by Gros de Voogt.

The dog on the left is very much like a long-coated retriever type, while the other reminds one of a spitz type cross.  The dog on the right also has a close, yet relatively wavy coat.

There is no way of knowing where these dogs came from, but it seems to me that they would have been either recent imports from Newfoundland or derived from them.

As late as 1920’s, one could still find Newfoundland dogs with these characteristics in the United States. This dog was Ch. Jonmun Shakespeare.

He was probably quite a bit larger than a retriever, but he was fairly different from the Newfoundland dogs of Britain and Europe at the time. He is not a feathered dog at all, and one should note the dewclaw on the hind legs. Curly-coated retrievers sometimes have dewclaws on the hind legs, but it is virtually unknown in other retrievers. Curly-coated retrievers were said to have been an early offshoot of the St. John’s water dog in the same way that Chesapeake Bay retrievers were. The curly-coat is hard to maintain through the generations if one crossbreeds with other retrievers. Golden retrievers, which do have some curly-coated retriever ancestry, almost never exhibit coats that even suggest a curly-coated retriever. They can have very curly coats, but these are much longer and looser than one would find on a curly.

Finally, in the 1930’s at Swansea, Wales, there was a famous dog that rescued 27 people from drowning in the River Tawe and the North Docks area. This dog’s name was Swansea Jack.

Swansea Jack has been called a “retriever” and a “Newfoundland.”

He was said to have been born in Newfoundland in 1930, but if he had been born in 1870, he could have been called either.

A wavy-coated retriever, as we have seen, could be a “pure” Newfoundland, and the Newfoundlands that were actually found on Newfoundland were most often of retriever size and type.

Calling him either a Newfoundland or a retriever is really a matter of preference, for at the same time, Labrador retrievers were being bred to very similar dogs that were being imported from Newfoundland.

But whatever we call them, the working dogs of Newfoundland started out as nothing more than a regional working dog landrace.

They wound up having a massive impact upon the dog world.

They became the first globally popular pet dog breed, and they were also used to improve and create other breeds.

Right now, the most popular purebred dog in the world is derived from them.

The modern Labrador retriever is unbelievably common, and because there are more people and more dogs on this increasingly interconnected planet, this breed’s popularity exceeds that of the original Newfoundland dogs.

But the Newfoundland dog didn’t remain popular forever.

In 1918, Mark Derr writes that only a single Newfoundland was exhibited at the Westminster Kennel Club:

Only one Newfoundland was on display [at Westminster], the darling of the nineteenth century, the dog of Meriwether Lewis,  Byron, and Audubon, having fallen from grace with the fancy.

In the early twentieth century, the St. Bernard was all the rage, and it largely replaced the Newfoundland as the large, trainable family dog. Collies, too, were coming into their own.

Both of these breeds have since risen and fallen in popularity, only to be replaced by two “back to the future” dogs.   The Labrador and golden retrievers of today are offshoots of the old Newfoundland dogs. Their popularity has been buoyed by their high trainability and docile natures– the exact same features that sold the nineteenth century public on the Newfoundland.

The popularity of breeds waxes and wanes. At some point, these two retrievers will become less popular than they are now.

However, it may take a while.

Mass communications and the information super highway have connected the world in ways that could have never been imagined even twenty-five years ago.

Developing countries are starting to develop middle classes, and these middle classes want breed dogs.  The mass culture continues to promote golden and Labrador retrievers as great family and working dogs, and these dogs are exactly what they buy.

The market is still far from saturation, and what’s more, no real replacement breeds exist yet.

The Spinone Italiano and the Portuguese water dog are two breeds that might one day replace them, but just like with the Newfoundland dog, people are doing experimental and “designer dog” breedings to create different variants of the retrievers. Goldadors and Labradoodles are extending the appeal of these breeds.

We are seeing a repeat of history.

It’s just that this history hasn’t been as fully explored in the popular literature.

We like to think that Newfoundland dogs were always giant, shaggy dogs– because that’s what we see them as now.

But that’s not what the history is.

The Newfoundland dog started out as working dog landrace that varied in type and included medium large and large dogs. It included black, liver, gold, red, and predominantly white dogs. There were dogs with feathering and dogs with smooth coats.

Over time, these dogs became breeds.

The Newfoundlanders preferred mid-sized to medium large dogs, as did the working retriever fraternity in Maryland and in the United Kingdom.

The show people wanted a giant dog, but that’s because their dogs derive from giant dogs that were sold at St. John’s– and were probably produced just so they would meet the demands of the dog fancier.

It’s sort of a bizarre history, and teasing it apart from the romance is one of the most difficult tasks for any canine historian.



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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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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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