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My wildest dreams have come true – a book has just arrived in the mail entitled Sea Dogs & Skippers and it is published in St. John’s Newfoundland. Quickly I read the covering letter which came from Flanker Press Ltd. and was signed by Garry Cranford as both publisher and editor. The back cover of the book sums it up as “…sixteen tales of salty heroism and tragedy by fourteen writers whose lives have been shaped by their experiences and knowledge of the North Atlantic Ocean.” In the covering letter, Mr. Cranford sums up the connection to Newfoundland dogs: “The first two stories in this collection debunks the famous myth of a Newfoundland dog HERO at the wreck of the SS Ethie in 1919.”

What nerve! thought I; he wants me to review a book that puts down a Newfie dog. That should make item 12,472 on my to do list. However my curiosity got the better of me and I read and re-read the first two stories authored by Cassie Brown. Once I got over my initial prejudice, I had to concede that her writings about the heroic rescue were well researched and offered a viable alternative to the research done by Hilary Hyland, author of The Wreck of the Ethie, that I wrote about in July 2000.

In the alternate version of the story, Wisher was a small yellow Collie cross who happened to be with his master who was helping bring the rope in from the ship wreck, and Wisher might have grabbed the rope at some point but just because his master was holding on to it. Then an American reporter heard stories about the dog and sent these back to The Philadelphia Ledger. The good people of Philadelphia sent in contributions for a silver collar award for the dog and Reuben Decker was forced to accept the award on behalf of his dog, despite his protestations. Then a man from New Brunswick bought Wisher and the collar in order to take them on tour; however, a large black Newfoundland dog was substituted for the tour. This might explain why some versions of the story say the dog was named Tang – there may very well have been a second dog involved.

My conclusion is that while this particular heroic Newfoundland dog story may be an exaggeration, there were many real water rescues that were never documented as this role of the Newfie dog was so very common and just taken for granted. Thus, just like the fictional Nana in the story of Peter Pan has come to symbolize the nanny instinct of the Newfoundland dog, the story of Wisher, whether real or fictional, may do the same for the ocean life saving ability and instinct of our Newfs.

Peter Maniate has been writing columns for the Newf News, the magazine of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada, since 1979.  In 1996 he started writing a Newfoundland dog column in the Breedlines section of Dogs in Canada magazine on behalf of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada.  When Dogs in Canada ceased publication at the end of 2011 he continued the Breedlines column in the Newf Newfs.

Permission is granted for re-publication of the preceding article or excerpts from it as long as the author is credited and the name of the original publication and date of first publication is included.

Dogs in Canada

January 2002