The St. John’s Water Dog is a people-pleasing, affable dog who makes an excellent companion, an outstanding worker, and an exceptional swimmer. Or rather, they were. The breed, which was developed in Newfoundland between the 15th and 18th centuries, is as dead as a doornail, and has been since the 1980s. The only remaining trace of them can be found in descendants like the Golden Retriever and the Labrador Retriever. Find out more with these 10 things you didn’t know about the St. John’s Water Dog.
1. Their heritage is a mystery
We know that the St. John’s Water Dog was a favorite with fishermen because of its excellent temperament and superb working abilities, but very little is known about the genetic makeup that helped it develop its appealing qualities. Most people believe that it was a mix of old English, Irish and Portuguese working dogs, but whether it was a random mix or a carefully thought out one, no one really knows.
2. They hailed from Newfoundland
While we don’t know which breeds went into developing the St. John’s Water Dog, we do at least know where it was developed – namely, Newfoundland in Canada. It’s thought the breed was developed sometime between 1494 and 1790 as the area was colonized by Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, French, and English migratory fishermen and whalers.
3. They were bred as a fisherman’s assistant
As wagwalking.com notes, the St. John’s Water Dog wasn’t bred as a gun dog or specifically as a retriever of birds, even though they could manage both tasks easily enough. Their primary purpose was to assist the fisherman who worked the Newfoundland coast. As well as guarding the boats and providing companionship, they earned their keep by swimming perilously long distances to retrieve fishing lines and nets. Their excellent swimming abilities were aided by the webbed feet, which several of the descendants (including the Labrador Retriever and the Chesapeake Bay Retriever) have inherited.
4. They were exported to England in the 19th century
By the 19th century, the St. John’s Water Dog had developed a healthy population in Newfoundland. News of their legendary swimming prowess and exceptional work ethic had spread, and soon enough, they began to be exported to England. As Wikipedia notes, they also began to be crossbred with other dogs to create retrievers, including the Flat-Coated Retriever, Curly-Coated Retriever, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, the Golden Retriever, and the Labrador Retriever. After being bred with the Rafeiro do Alentejos, a large breed of livestock guardian dog who’d been bought to Newfoundland by the Portuguese fisherman who’d been fishing off the island’s shores since the 15th century, they produced the Newfoundland. While the St. John’s Water Dog is now extinct, its legacy continues in its descendants, all of whom share its athletic abilities and gentle natures.
5. They had water-resistant coats
Like its descendants, the St. John’s Water Dog loved the water, and spent almost as much time in the sea as on dry land Physically, they were well geared for life in the waves, with webbed feet and a water-resistant coat. Appearance-wise, they bore a strong resemblance to English Labradors, with medium-sized, stocky bodies and barrel chests. Like many modern Labradors, they had distinctive white patches on their chest, chin, feet, and muzzle.
6. They had long life spans
Not a lot’s known about the general health of the St. John’s Water Dog. If they suffered from any genetic conditions and ailments, they took the knowledge to their grave. What we do know from records is that they lived to a good old age, with a median life span of 10 -12 years.
7. They’re mentioned in 17th-century literature
Like a lot of ancient breeds (especially the extinct kind), the history of the St. John’s Water Dog is shrouded in mystery. Although most historians have dated their development to between 1494 and 1790, it’s almost impossible to know exactly when the breed standard was formalized. We do have a few hints though. Some of the earliest references to them in literature can be found in 17th-century texts, which mention medium-sized black dogs that traveled with Newfoundland fishermen on their boats and hauled nets of fish back to the boat. The dogs are described as having short, dense coats, exceptional endurance, and ‘rudder’ like tails.
8. People could only own one dog per household
As Dogbreedinfo.com notes, the St John’s Water Dog was very popular from the 1600s up until the late 1700s. Then, in 1780, the Newfoundland Commodore-Governor passed a law limiting ownership to one dog per household. Ostensibly, the new law, which was called the Newfoundland Sheep Act, was created to save the sheep population of the island, whose numbers were plummeting at the time. Reducing the number of dogs would, it was argued, reduce the number of predators laying waste to the wild sheep. In actual fact, the law had less to do with sheep and more to do with the increasing tensions between the sheep farmers in Newfoundland and the waves of fishermen coming over from England. Either way, the breed’s numbers went into sharp decline afterward.
9. They went extinct in the 1980s
The Newfoundland Sheep Act signaled the start of the end for the St. John’s Water Dog. Over the following decades, more and more restrictions and taxes were put in place to limit their breeding. In 1885, the British Quarantine Act was introduced. The act meant that any dog arriving into England (which at the time, was the main export destination for the breed) had to be placed into quarantine for 6 months to eradicate the risk of rabies. The act effectively killed the trade of the breed. All the dogs that had previously been bought into the UK had been used to create new breeds, with the result that purebred dogs were next to non-existent. At the same time, their numbers continued to decline in Newfoundland. The last two known St John’s Water Dogs were found in a remote region of the island in the 1980s. Both were male, and both were old. With their death, the breed came to an end.
10. A Canadian author tried to save them
In the 1970s, a Canadian author named Farley Moway made a last-ditch effort to save the breed by crossing Albert, his St. John’s Water Dog, with a Labrador Retriever. The breeding produced four puppies: two died, one was given to the Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau and the other to Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to save the breed, even if it did give Mowat and Albert a little taste of TV fame when they were invited to appear on the CBC series Telescope.