There are very few facts and much speculation about the origins of the Newfoundland dog. Almost every author of a book about Newfs offers a variation on the genesis of the breed. There is not even a consensus that there was an indigenous canine that acted as the foundation. Some believe that the breed was created solely by inter-breeding of various breeds brought over from Europe by the early fishermen.
The greatest consensus is on the place of origin – the Island of Newfoundland. The most common theory is that the native peoples on the Island had the foundation canines and these were descended from Tibetan Mastiffs with two possible sources of this heritage. One is that when people migrated from Asia across what was then a land or ice bridge to Alaska, they brought with them Tibetan Mastiffs. The other possibility is that the Vikings brought their big black bear dogs with them when they briefly colonized Newfoundland around 1000 AD. Some of these dogs, thought to be descended from Tibetan Mastiffs, were probably left behind and then bred with the native dogs. Modern speculation is that this latter happening was a reinforcement of the original heritage. There is also general agreement that various European dogs contributed to the gene mix.
Another common belief is that the Newfoundland dog or his immediate ancestors evolved on the Island of Newfoundland in a semi-wild state. Colonization of the Island was restricted in the early years. Fishing admirals are said to have sent ships up and down the coastline and any homes with chimneys were burnt down. This was done to force settlers to return to Europe for the winter, hence preventing permanent settlements and the governments that would follow. Early writings claim that these big black dogs were not adept at catching food on land. In winter this left only fish in the icy cold waters and the suggestion is that they evolved into an underwater cold water mammal like the Polar Bear. To this day, the Newfoundland is as different from other canine breeds as the Polar Bear is from the other sub-species of bears.
In the 1700’s a large and powerful dog that worked extremely well on both on land and sea was getting noticed. This dog was referred to by various names such as the Bear Dog and the Greater St. John’s Dog. It wasn’t until 1775 that the name Newfoundland Dog first came into use. At sea the Newfoundland became the sailor’s darling. The dogs had many uses such as taking lines to shore, retrieving objects from the sea, carrying object between ships, rescuing men who went overboard and even helping to pull in fishing nets. They were equally useful on land doing draft work. They hauled the catch from the fishing boats and also delivered fish and other merchandise door to door with their carts. Probably the most exotic of the door to door deliveries was the Royal Mail which was transported in special wooden carts. The Newfs also hauled the mail between towns in teams pulling sleds.
The Newfoundland dog ran into trouble in his native land at the end of the 18th century. The best specimens were exported in great numbers to Europe, primarily to England and the Government of Newfoundland restricted families from owning more than one dog, making it virtually impossible to do any breed development on the Island. Fortunately the English carried out the ongoing development of the Newfoundland especially in terms of the mastiff type muzzle that makes modern day Newfs look so different from their early ancestors along with a longer neck, larger size and a level bite.
Lord Byron had a marble monument constructed at Newstead Abbey for his beloved Newf, Boatswain, who died in 1808 and summed up the wonderful respect that the Newfoundland had gained outside his native land with the famous epitaph, especially in the most quoted phrases: “…Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity, and all the virtues of Man without his vices…”.
Shortly after, in 1814, another Newfoundland dog named Boatswain, has been credited with altering human history and giving the breed the title of “the dog that changed history”. When Napoleon was escaping from his island exile the non-swimmer emperor fell overboard unnoticed in the dark except for the ship’s Newf who saved him, allowing him to go on to meet his Waterloo.
In the 1830’s Newfs performed a very special type of rescue. After losing most of the breeding stock of St. Bernards from disease and avalanches, the monks resurrected the famous giant alpine rescue dogs by crossing them with the giant water rescue dogs. The rough or long coat found to this day on some Saints is a testimony to this event.
Even though black colour was the original colour of the breed there was a variety of colours when they landed in England and that was then almost eliminated in the refinement process. However in 1837 the renown painter Sir Edwin Landseer started doing paintings with white and black Newfoundlands and Queen Victoria acquired one such dog. This colour variation subsequently became the rage in England and they became known as “Landseers”. This term is still in use in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom; however the rest of the world has, since 1960, recognized another breed descended from white and black Newfs and the new breed has co-opted the name.
The Newfoundland has never been more popular than in the Victorian era. They became the “in” dog. In this family situation, another special characteristic of the Newfs stood out; they became renown as children’s companions and protectors. This was reflected in children’s books of the time and the most famous of these was the story of Peter Pan which featured a Newfoundland Nanny named Nana.
By the early 20th century people were so enamoured by the gentle bear-like dog and this, coupled with the fact that news reporting was somewhat less diligent than today, resulted in tales that are nowadays being debunked by historic researchers. The story of Rigel, the Newf who saved the occupants of one of the life boats of the Titanic as well as the story about a Newf saving all the crew and passengers of SS Ethie of the coast of Newfoundland in 1919 are the two main stories now suspected to have been fabricated.
The strict rationing of food during World War I nearly caused the extinction of the breed. In 1923 only 23 Newfs were registered in Britain and in 1928 the number had only climbed to 75. Earlier, National Geographic had declared the breed extinct in America. Fortunately a few dedicated breeders from England, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States and Canada fought to save the breed. In Canada we are indebted to the Honourable Harold Macpherson who founded the famous Westerland Kennels in St. John’s Newfoundland.
In 1937 the Newfoundland dog was honoured by its native land by becoming the only dog to appear on a stamp with a monarch. Back in 1887, the breed got the distinction of being the first dog ever to appear on a stamp. Since then Newfoundlands have appeared on stamps of many countries around the world.
In 1972 the Government of Newfoundland finally made it official and declared the Newfoundland dog to be the official Animal Emblem of the Province.
The Newfoundland Today
Newfoundlands are well established all over the world. While the majority are living as loved family members, many are still working. Both France and Italy employ them as lifeguards, some of them dramatically leaping out of helicopters. Earlier this year a Newf named Bilbo became the first fully qualified canine lifeguard in England; he patrols a beach at Sennen Cove. In Canada and the US, Newfoundlands can qualify for titles of Water Rescue Dog and Water Rescue Dog Excellent although their abilities as lifeguards has not yet been utilized by any government agency in North America.
On this continent Newfoundland dogs are regularly used as therapy dogs, for search and rescue, avalanche rescue, cadaver locating and as mobility service dogs. In recent years Newfs have been excelling in “Crisis Response” providing emotional support for victims and rescuers at major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. Some families with autistic children have opted to have a Newfoundland rather than a trained service dog.
Newfoundlands are as active as ever as draft dogs but pulling of carts, wagons and sleds is mostly a recreational activity nowadays. Besides qualifying for titles in draft work tests, you will find Newfs giving rides for kids at winter fairs and participating in parades with their decorated carts and wagons. Many families hitch up their Newf to a cart for the evening walk so that the younger or handicapped kids get to ride.
Newfoundlands are renown for their gentle temperament especially with children; this is considered to be the hallmark of the breed. They are an excellent draft dog and when hauling records were kept by the Guinness Book of World Records, a Newf held the title for the greatest proportional weight hauled – 52 times his weight. In the water they are the strongest canine swimmer and the only canine designed for underwater and cold water swimming, even in the middle of winter.
Unique features include a bear like roll when walking, a long oily outer coat, webbing between the toes that is present when the fetal foot is formed, swimming with a modified breast stroke, a tail that acts as a rudder and tolling for fish.
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