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St. John's water dog
St Johns dog.jpg
Nell, a St. John's water dog, c. 1856
Other names Lesser Newfoundland
Origin modern-day Canada
Variety status Extinct. Not recognized as a standardized breed by any major kennel club.
Weight Male 40-90 pounds (18-40 kg)
Female 35-85 pounds (16-38 kg)
Height Male 22-24 inches (55-61 cm)
Female 21-23 inches (54-59 cm)
Colour Black with white tuxedo markings
Notes The St. John's water dog first developed on the island of Newfoundland sometime between 1494-1790 as European fishing dogs were brought to the region. During its development, Newfoundland was being colonized by Europeans; while contested, Newfoundland was primarily a British colony until Canada was formed in 1867 and Newfoundland voted to join the country 1949. The dog went extinct in the 1980s.
Domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris)
A Newfoundland outport fisherman with his young St. John's water dog, photographed 1971 in La Poile, Newfoundland
Modern-day Labrador Retriever mixes, such as this one from Atlantic Canada, may show their genetic ancestry through the manifestation of the tuxedo coat pattern of the St. John's water dog.

The St. John's water dog, also known as the St. John's dog or the lesser Newfoundland, is an extinct landrace of domestic dog from Newfoundland. Little is known of the types that went into its genetic makeup, although it was probably a random-bred mix of old English, Irish and Portuguese working dogs. They were favourite dogs of fishermen because they had extraordinary qualities like good temperament and working behaviour. The number of St. John's water dogs started declining by the beginning of the 20th century. By the early 1980s, the landrace was extinct.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, St. John's water dogs were exported from Newfoundland to England. These dogs were crossbred with other dogs to create the retrievers. It was the ancestor of the modern retrievers, including the Flat-Coated Retriever, Curly-Coated Retriever, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, the Golden Retriever, and the Labrador Retriever. The St. John's water dog was also an ancestor to the large and gentle Newfoundland, probably through breeding with Rafeiro do Alentejos brought to the island by the generations of Portuguese fishermen who had been fishing offshore since the 15th century.


The St. John's breed were called "water dogs" because of their love for water and their coat, which was water-resistant. St. John's water dogs were medium-sized, strong, and stocky – more closely resembling modern English Labradors than American Labradors. They had characteristic white patches on the chest, chin, feet, and muzzle. This colouration occasionally manifests in modern labs as a small white chest patch – known as a "medallion" – or as a few stray white hairs on the feet. The classic tuxedo markings of the St. John's water dog commonly manifest in Labrador Retriever mixes.

Writings as early as the 17th-century mention hardy medium-sized black dogs that accompanied Newfoundland fishermen in their boats, and retrieved distant lines or nets of fish, hauling them back to the boat. The dogs were described as having a short thick coat, rudder-like tail, high endurance, and a great love of swimming.


Year (AD) Event
1 A pre-Beothuk culture migrates to Newfoundland; did not own dogs.
1000 Vikings are first Europeans to land on Newfoundland. Norse literature reports overwintering in what may have been Newfoundland as well as somewhat contentious encounters with the native population. Their records also describe at least one subsequent visit by others.

Archaeological evidence found at least 8 structures at L'Anse aux Meadows (1070 kilometers/665 miles north of St. Johns), but no animal structures or evidence of animal husbandry. The site was likely a transient base. Recent evidence may suggest that Vikings may have returned to that site (but not continuous use). The authors have carefully amended their original suggestion that Vikings may have returned for up to 200 years (as well as whether current technology is capable of determining that) by stating that "realities are possible".

Based on this evidence, it is unlikely that the Vikings would have brought herding dogs with them. If they brought dogs, it is likely they were spitz-types similar to Norwegian Elkhounds or Icelandic Sheepdogs; these dogs types, however, do not appear to share strong genetic ties to the Retrievers and Newfoundlands that descended from St. John's dogs. Further, as these visits were transient, it is unlikely the dogs would have been left behind to migrate south over the next 500 years or so.

1494 or 1497 (disputed) Beothuk culture is emerging. John Cabot lands on Newfoundland, "discovering" it for English. The site of the landing is disputed, but may be Cape Bonavista (317 kilometers/197 miles by land and to the north of St. John's). No outpost was created.

Soon after, explorers and seasonal fishermen from Spain (primarily Basque), France, England, and Portugal are thought to start fishing in Newfoundland during summer months, presumably bringing working dogs with them over time. Many would not make landfall except to dry fish, making the exact timing of the first land dogs on the island unclear.

1521 Portuguese explorers establish the first fishing outposts on Newfoundland. These are seasonal, so unlikely to have dogs year-round. Records are poor, but it is possible that the outpost were planned for Newfoundland, but due to the cold there, changed to Nova Scotia instead.
1536 Although European monarchs may not have recognized them as European settlements, fishermen were overwintering in Newfoundland outports. This may have been the first opportunity for dogs to live in Newfoundland year-round, but this is unknown.
1583 Humphrey Gilbert arrives in St. John's and claims Newfoundland for England (France contests this claim; Newfoundland changes hands several times over the next few years). When he arrives, there are 16 English ships and 20 ships from France and Portugal. Although some report that the "locals" give him a dog, the only existing account of the ill-fated trip does not describe any dogs. The report does describe other animals (bears, wolves, deer, birds) and plants.

The author reports that the land is being used for three purposes: drying fish, growing peas, and fattening lambs. Otherwise, it is referred to as a "desolate and dishabited land." “In the south parts we found no inhabitants, which by all likelihood have abandoned those coasts, the same being so much frequented by Christians; but in the north are savages altogether harmless.” There do not appear to be any structures on the land; the general sets up a tent, and when lying on the shore, some attempt to steal their "shipping".

1610 After attempts by the French to spend winters in Newfoundland, England established the first official settlement at Cuper's Cove (approximately 75 kilometers/46.5 miles by land and to the west of St. John's). In the first winter (1610-1611), 39 male colonists (carpenters, masons, and blacksmiths) spent the winter of 1610–1611 in the new permanent settlement. These colonists were told not to focus on fishing.
1620 There are 300 fishing boats and about 10,000 sailors from England, Spain, Portugal and France working the Grand Banks of Newfoundland for the fish. George Calvert, in an attempt to develop a settlement in a popular harbor for migratory fishermen, invests in warehouses, wharves, and fishing stations in the Avalon (76 kilometers/47 miles south of St. John's). These efforts are met with little success, in part due to French raids. He departs, citing the terrible winter as the reason. The town grew to 100 people by 1625 but was destroyed by New France in 1696.
1630 St. John’s becomes a permanent community, and inhabitation swells each summer as fishermen arrive. English and French settlements continue to pop up over time (year-round settlements like St. Johns may indicate that the St. John's breed was more likely to start around this time).
1680 A census on St. Johns finds 29 year-round property-owning households who owned fisheries (not seasonal fisherman). Some reported being born on the island, which supports the possibility that domesticated dogs could have been living there year-round. The total number of families, when including those who did not own property/fisheries, may have been 50-60. Each of the 29 fisheries likely had a "dwelling house, fishing stage, boats, flakes and vats for rendering cod liver oil. Besides these structures there were 80 lodging houses for crews. Most planters kept gardens and raised pigs, some kept cattle and there were a few horses and sheep". Unfortunately, the census did not appear to ask about dogs.
Bewick's "Newfoundland" was based on a single dog in Eslington. It may have been a St. John's dog or Newfoundland interbred with other dogs before coming to England; it may also have been an accurate representation of the Newfoundland landrace. Some debate what the naturally-occurring colors of the Newfoundlands were on the island and how well early accounts differentiated the two breeds.

Thomas Bewick, a woodcarver, creates the earliest depiction of a “Newfoundland dog” (possibly not a modern-day Newfoundland). If the dog is indeed from Newfoundland, it indicates that the St. John's breed had formed by this point (as Newfoundlands are thought to be descendants of the St. John’s dog).

The description reads: "The drawing of this dog was taken for a very fine one at Eslington, in the county of Northumberland. Its dimensions were as follow: From its nose to the end of its tail, it measured six feet two inches; the length of its tail, one foot ten inches; girt behind the shoulder, three feet two inches; round its head over its ears, two feet; round the upper part of his fore leg, nine inches and a half. It was web-footed, could swim extremely fast, dive with great ease, and bring up any thing from the bottom of the water. It was naturally fond of fish and ate raw trouts, or other small fish, out of the nets.

This breed of dogs was originally brought from the country of which they bear the name, where their great strength and docility render them extremely useful to the settlers on those coasts, who use them in bringing down wood from the interior parts of the country to the sea side. Three or four of them, yoked to a sledge, will draw two or three hundred weight of wood piled upon it, for several miles, with great ease. They are not attended with a driver, nor any person to guide them; but after having delivered their loading, they return immediately to the woods, where they are accustomed to be fed with dried fish, &c.”

1803 William Taplin’s The Sportsman’s Cabinet depicts what appears to be a Newfoundland dog (thought to be descended from St. John's dogs).
1809 An English ship carrying two St. John's puppies shipwrecks off the coast of Maryland. There is a black female and a red male who mix with local dogs. These later form the Chesapeake Bay Retriever.
1814 Col. Peter Hawker publishes Instructions to Young Sportsmen. Hawker divides dogs from Newfoundland into three categories: a giant "Labrador" breed; what he calls the "true Newfoundland" (St. John's breed); and a big, shaggy breed sold as a pet. St. John's is described as a medium-large dog that is smooth-coated. He describes the giant Labrador as long-haired. Hawker was one of the first to refer to a Newfoundland dog as a retriever.
1822 Explorer W.E. Cormack crossed the island of Newfoundland by foot. In his journal, he wrote "The dogs are admirably trained as retrievers in fowling, and are otherwise useful.....The smooth or short haired dog is preferred because in frosty weather the long haired kind become encumbered with ice on coming out of the water."
1830 An early report by a Colonel Hawker described the dog as "by far the best for any kind of shooting. He is generally black and no bigger than a Pointer, very fine in legs, with short, smooth hair and does not carry his tail so much curled as the other; is extremely quick, running, swimming and fighting....and their sense of smell is hardly to be credited...."
1839-1840 In his book, Excursions In and About Newfoundland During the Years 1839 and 1840 Vol. 1, the geologist Joseph Beete Jukes describes the St. John's water dog with both bemusement and admiration: "A thin, short-haired, black dog came off-shore to us to-day. The animal was of a breed very different from what we understand by the term Newfoundland dog in England. He had a thin, tapering snout, a long thin tail, and rather thin, but powerful legs, with a lank body, – the hair short and smooth." wrote Jukes. "These are the most abundant dogs in the country...They are no means handsome, but are generally more intelligent and useful than the others... I observed he once or twice put his foot in the water and paddled it about. This foot was white, and Harvey said he did it to 'toil' or entice the fish. The whole proceeding struck me as remarkable, more especially as they said he had never been taught anything of the kind."
1842 Sir Richard Henry Bonnycastle publishes Newfoundland in 1842. "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".
1867 Modern Canada is founded.
1872 Stonehenge publishes The Dogs of the British Islands, Being a Series of Articles and Letters by Various Contributors, Reprinted from the “Field” Newspaper.

"THE ST. JOHN’S, SMALL LABRADOR, OR LESSER NEWFOUNDLAND. 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)".

1847 Irish dog expert, H.D. Richardson, describes three types of Newfoundland dogs in Dogs: Their Origin and Varieties. This includes the Labrador spaniel/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."
1869 British colony of Newfoundland votes against joining Canada
1885 UK introduces long-term quarantine on all imported animals, especially dogs, to combat rabies
1949 Newfoundland votes to join Canada.
1980s Last surviving St. John's dogs photographed.


The St. John's water dog was made extinct in its homeland by a combination of two factors. In an attempt to encourage sheep raising, heavy restrictions and taxes were placed on dog ownership during the 19th century. Also their main overseas destination, the UK, imposed a rigorous long-term quarantine on all imported animals, especially dogs (1885) as part of the eradication of rabies. However, in both Newfoundland and the Maritime provinces, there are still large black mixed-breed dogs with many characteristics of the original St. John's water dog.

The last two known St. John's water dogs were photographed in the early 1980s (in old age) having survived in a "very remote area", but both were male, bringing the St. John's water dog to an end.

In the 1970s, Canadian author Farley Mowat had tried to save them by crossing his St. John's water dog, named "Albert", with a Labrador Retriever. Four puppies resulted, and all had the distinctive white markings of their sire. Two puppies died, the other two were given away. One was given to Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau and the other to Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin. In 1970, Mowat and Albert appeared in an episode of the CBC series Telescope. The episode includes Mowat telling a bedtime story to his dog.

See also

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