The Newfoundland dog is one of five Canadian dog breeds. In the past, the breed was used as a draft animal and as a companion to Canadian fishermen. Known for its ability to swim, the Newfoundland dog’s reputation as a water rescuer is unparalleled. The dog is a symbol of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador and the subject of many stories and legends based on the breed’s bravery and loyalty. (See also Dogs in Canada.)
The Newfoundland is a large dog with a strong build. It has a sizeable head, muscular neck, broad chest and powerful hindquarters. The average height for females is 66 cm and for males 71 cm. The average weight for females is 54 kg and for males 68 kg.
Newfoundland dogs are black, brown, grey or a mix of white and black. The breed sports a heavy, double-layered coat. The outercoat is oily and the undercoat dense and soft. These layers protect them from cold wind and water. Their large lung capacity and webbed feet enable Newfoundland dogs to swim long distances.
Did you know?
In 1831, artist Sir Edwin Landseer painted a black and white Newfoundland dog. The painting, titled A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society, became famous. The black and white variety of the breed has since been known as the Landseer.
Origin of the Breed
The Newfoundland dog is one of five dog breeds indigenous to Canada (see Dogs in Canada). Their origins, however, are subject to speculation. Some argue that the Newfoundland dog’s ancestor is the Scandinavian bear dog. When the Vikings visited Newfoundland more than 1,000 years ago, they may have brought the Scandinavian bear dog with them. Another plausible theory argues that both the Newfoundland dog and the Scandinavian bear dog descend from the Tibetan mastiff. The Tibetan mastiff’s appearance is very similar to that of the Newfoundland dog.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Newfoundland dog was on the edge of extinction due to a law passed in 1780. The law, aimed at protecting sheep from free-roaming dogs, forbade the ownership of more than one dog per household on the island. The breed was eventually restored with the help of the Honourable Harold Macpherson, an official and dog-breeder from St. John’s.
St. John’s Water Dog
While the Newfoundland dog’s distant ancestry is uncertain, there is consensus over the breed’s more recent predecessor, the St. John’s water dog. Now extinct, the St. John’s water dog developed in Newfoundland and Labrador as a companion to fishermen. Varieties of the St. John’s water dog were known as the great Newfoundland, the lesser Newfoundland and the small Labrador.
The St. John’s water dog is believed to have evolved from the crossbreeding of numerous dogs brought to Newfoundland by European fishermen. This crossbreeding is thought to date from John Cabot’s arrival on Newfoundland’s shores in 1497 and to have continued in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Pyrenean mountain dog, the Portuguese water dog, the Leonberger and the St. Bernard are some of the dog breeds that may have contributed to the genetic makeup of the St. John’s water dog, and subsequently today’s Newfoundland dog.
A number of St. John’s dogs were bred for size so they could haul wood and pull sleighs. To this end, they were eventually crossed with European mastiffs. This crossbreeding significantly contributed to the strong appearance of the Newfoundland dog breed known today.
The Canadian Kennel Club lists the Newfoundland as a working dog — a group of dogs developed to assist humans in their activities. As such, in the past Newfoundland dogs were mainly used as ship dogs and draft animals.
Aboard fishing vessels, Newfoundland dogs were commonly found hauling fishing nets and retrieving objects and people from the churning seas. There are hundreds of documented water rescues performed by this breed. Their strong life-saving instinct, coupled with their size and swimming ability, enables Newfoundland dogs to pull drowning people to safety.
In past centuries, Newfoundland dogs were hitched to carts to transport fish, milk or mail around communities. In some areas, they even hauled rocks to clear land and pulled ploughs to turn the soil. Today, Newfoundland dogs are most commonly found as humans’ companions, guards and friends.
Temperament and Traits
Newfoundland dogs are known for their sweet and gentle temperament. Commonly referred to as “gentle giants” or “nanny dogs,” they are esteemed as family dogs and particularly good with children. In families where a Newfoundland is present, it is common for children to take their first steps while holding on to the dog. Bravery, intelligence and loyalty are other traits that stand out in the Newfoundland dog.
Gander was a Newfoundland dog belonging to the Royal Rifles of Canada. He was adopted as their mascot during the Second World War.
In 1941, the Royal Rifles of Canada travelled to Hong Kong to defend the island against Japanese attacks. Gander accompanied the soldiers on the battlefield. On two occasions, he charged the enemies, halting their advance and protecting wounded soldiers. In a third incident, during the Battle of Hong Kong, he was killed in action by a grenade that exploded. He had picked it up from a group of wounded soldiers and carried it away in order to protect them.
For his heroism, in October 2000 Gander was awarded the Dickin Medal — the animal version of the Victoria Cross. The first to be awarded to a Canadian animal, the medal is now displayed on a memorial wall at the Canadian War Museum.
In 2015, the Gander Heritage Memorial Park unveiled two statues: one for the soldiers who served with the Royal Rifles and the other for Gander.