St. John's water dog

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St. John's water dog
St Johns dog.jpg
Nell, a St. John's water dog, c. 1856
OriginNewfoundland/ Canada
Breed statusExtinct. Not recognized as a standardized breed by any major kennel club.
Colour Black with white tuxedo markings
Domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris)

The St. John's water dog, also known as the St. John’s dog or the lesser Newfoundland, was a landrace (a dog bred for a purpose, not for pedigree or appearance) 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. [1]They were favorite dogs of fishermen because they have extraordinary qualities like good temperament and working behavior. 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.


The St. John's water dog 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. They were called water dogs because of their love for water and their coat, which was water resistant.[2] 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.

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.

Appearance and characteristics[edit]

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.

St. John's water dogs were medium-sized, strong, and stocky – more closely resembling modern English Labradors than American Labs. 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.

In his book Excursions In and About Newfoundland During the Years 1839 and 1840 Vol. 1,[3] 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."


A Newfoundland outport fisherman with his young St. John's water dog, photographed 1971 in La Poile, Newfoundland

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",[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]


  1. ^ Gosling, Samuel; Graham, Lindsay (2009-04-28), "Temperament and Personality in Working Dogs", Canine Ergonomics, CRC Press, pp. 63–81, doi:10.1201/9781420079920.ch4, ISBN 9781420079913
  2. ^ "History of Labrador Retriever - A Detailed Information - The Labrador Dog". The Labrador Dog. 2018-10-06. Retrieved 2018-10-23.
  3. ^ Jukes, Joseph Beete. Excursions In and About Newfoundland During the Years 1839 and 1840 Vol. 1. (London, 1842),
  4. ^ Photos here [1]. They are also published in Richard Wolters' book The Labrador Retriever according to that site.
  5. ^ Boyle, Robert H (1975-01-06). "An Old Dog, New Chic". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved 2012-12-28.
  6. ^ "CBC Digital Archives". Archived from the original on September 19, 2009. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)