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The exact origin of the Newfoundland dog has been the subject of much speculation, some of it quite bizarre. Every author seems to have a different opinion which only adds to the confusion. Until recently I believed that the true origin of our beloved breed would never be revealed. However now that L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern peninsula of the Island of Newfoundland has conclusively been proven to be a Viking settlement, I reckon we are getting closer to the truth.

One of the many versions of the beginnings of the Newfoundland dog speculated that they were descended from the large black Bear Dog of the Vikings. Norse sagas indicated that Lief Ericsson and his fellow explorers brought such dogs to Vinland shortly before the year 1000 A.D. The settlement in Newfoundland is most probably the Vinland of the sagas giving us for the first time a concrete connection to an ancestor.

Some of the Viking dogs must have been left behind when the Norsemen abandoned their settlement. Matings would have taken place with the indigenous people’s water dogs. Over the next 500 years they would have developed into a single breed with its amazing and unique ability to adapt to the cold both on land and in the water.

Then when John Cabot rediscovered Newfoundland in 1497 there followed visits by fishermen from Europe including Basque fishermen who would have brought Great Pyrenees. This ancestry is evidenced not only by the white and black version (Landseer) of the Newfoundland breed but also by the rear double dew claws that pop up on Newfie pups from time to time. Usually only breeders have seen these extra appendages as they are routinely removed at birth.

The Norse Bear Dogs were used in Norway for hauling and as guardians which fits our current breed. Their probable descent is from the Tibetan Mastiff and this is most significant. Many authors have speculated that the Newfoundland had the Tibetan Mastiff as an ancestor but via the long ago Alaskan land bridge. Now we have a second possible connection to these black mastiffs, greatly increasing the probability of the connection.

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

June 2003