Newfoundland Dog History

Classic painting of a Landseer Newfoundland.
A Canine With a Dignified History.

The Newfoundland shares many traits with other Mastiffs, such as the St. Bernard and English Mastiff, including stout legs, massive heads with very broad snouts, a thick bull neck, and a very sturdy bone structure. In fact, many St. Bernard Dogs have Newfoundland Dog ancestry. Newfoundlands were brought and introduced to the St. Bernard breed in the 18th century when the population was threatened by an epidemic of distemper. They share many characteristics of many mountain dog breeds such as the Great Pyrenees.

The Newfoundland breed originated in Newfoundland, and is descended from a breed indigenous to the island known as the lesser Newfoundland, or St. John's dog. The Mastiff characteristics of the Newfoundland are likely a result of breeding with Portuguese Mastiffs brought to the island by Portuguese fishermen beginning in the 16th century. The speculation that Newfoundlands may be partly descended from big black bear dogs introduced by the Vikings in 1001 A.D. is based more in romance than in fact.

By the time colonization was permitted in Newfoundland in 1610, the distinct physical characteristics and mental attributes had been established in the Newfoundland breed. In the early 1880s, fishermen and explorers from Ireland and England traveled to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, where they described two main types of working dog. One was heavily built, large with a longish coat, and the other medium-sized in build – an active, smooth-coated water dog. The heavier breed was known as the Greater Newfoundland, or Newfoundland. The smaller breed was known as the Lesser Newfoundland, or St. John's dog. The St. John's dog became the founding breed of the modern retrievers. Both breeds were used as working dogs to pull fish nets, with the Greater Newfoundland also being used to haul carts and other equipment.

Because of that, they were part of the foundation stock of the Leonberger (which excelled at water rescue and was imported by the Canadian government for that purpose); and the now extinct Moscow Water Dog, a failed attempt at creating a lifesaving dog by the Russian state kennel—the unfortunate outcross with the Caucasian Ovcharka begat a dog more adept at biting than rescuing.

Many tales have been told of the courage displayed by Newfoundlands in adventuring and lifesaving exploits. Over the last two centuries, this has inspired a number of artists, who have portrayed the dogs in paint, stone, bronze and porcelain. One famous Newfoundland was a dog named Seaman, who accompanied American explorers Lewis and Clark on their expedition.

The breed's working role was varied. Another famous all black Newfoundland performed as the star attraction in Van Hare's Magic Circus from 1862 and for many years thereafter in one of England's founding circus acts, traveling throughout Europe. The circus dog was known as the "Thousand Guinea Dog Napoleon" or "Napoleon the Wonder Dog." The circus owner, G. Van Hare, trained other Newfoundland dogs to perform a steeplechase routine with baboons dressed up as jockeys to ride them. Nonetheless, his "wizard dog" Napoleon was his favorite and held a special position in the Magic Circus. Napoleon would compete at jumping against human rivals, leaping over horses from a springboard, and dancing to music.

Napoleon the Wonder Dog became a wildly popular act in London from his debut at the Pavilion Theatre on April 4, 1862, and onward until his untimely death many years later when he slipped and fell during a circus practice session. At the peak of his fame, his performance was described in London's Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review as follows: "Synopsis of his entertainment:-- He spells his own name with letters' also that of the Prince of Wales; and when he is asked what he would say of her Most Gracious Majesty, he puts down letters to form "God save the Queen." He plays any gentleman a game of cards, and performs the celebrated three-card trick upon which his master backs him at 100 to 1. Also "The Disappearance," a la Robin. He performs in a circus the same as a trick horse, en liberté, giving the Spanish trot to music, also leaping over bars, through balloons, with numerous other tricks of a most interesting character."

The breed prospered in the United Kingdom, until 1914 and again in 1939, when its numbers were almost fatally depleted by wartime restrictions. Since the 1950s there has been a steady increase in numbers and popularity, despite the fact that the Newfoundland's great size and fondness for mud and water makes it unsuitable as a pet for many households.