St. John's Water Dog

The extinct St. John’s Water Dog or Lesser Newfoundland, is believed to have developed alongside the fishing industry during the 16th century on the island of Newfoundland in what is now part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, in Canada.  Most authorities agree that prior to the arrival of the Europeans no dogs existed on the island of Newfoundland.  However, even if there were an indigenous canine species present in Newfoundland Pre-European influence they were so few in number that they failed to make documented history and would likely have had no influence on the future development of the breed. A relatively ancient working water dog, the St. John’s Water Dog is the antecedent of many modern working Retrievers including the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, the Golden Retriever , the Flat-Coated Retriever and the Labrador Retriever. It is also the founding breed of the large, tremendously strong, working, water rescue and lifesaving dog we know today as the Newfoundland.

Breed Status: 
Extinct Breeds

Breed Information

Breed Basics

Country of Origin: 
Large 35-55 lb
X-Large 55-90 lb
10 to 12 Years
Very Easy To Train
Energy Level: 
Protective Ability: 
Hypoallergenic Breed: 
Space Requirements: 
Lesser Newfoundland, St. Johns Dog, St. John’s Newfoundland


In determining how the Saint John’s Water dog came to be, we are forced to make our assumptions by examining the relevant known history of the region as no historical documentation of its early development exists. What we do know, by examining documents and literature of the period, is that as early as the fifteenth century explorers, whalers, and fisherman were sailing the world’s oceans in search of new areas to colonize or that possessed profitable natural resources. One of these early explorers was the Italian navigator John Cabot; who is officially credited with discovering the island of Newfoundland in 1497. Following its discovery by Cabot, the next Europeans to visit Newfoundland were French, English, and Spanish migratory fishermen who may have brought dogs with them.


The most likely scenario is that the St. Johns Water Dog originated from a mix of dogs brought to Newfoundland by early explorers and fisherman such as the black St. Hubert's hound of France, working water dogs from Portugal, or old European pointer breeds.  It is certainly probable that some mixture of these or of others created the St. Johns Water dog. This is based on the fact that fisherman, tradesmen and explorers from all around the world frequented Newfoundland during the centuries prior to the existence of the breed. This would have provided plenty of time for the colonial inhabitants of Newfoundland to develop a working retriever breed such as the St. Johns Water Dog that possessed the desired physical abilities and working dog traits required to work alongside them in the fishing trade.


The Saint John’s Water dog is believed to have developed alongside the Newfoundland fishing industry. Growing up together during the 16th and 17th century; the breeds early years of the development coincided with the fact that commercial fishing technology at this time was still in its infancy.  Hooks were not nearly as well made as they are today and it was not uncommon for a large fish to free itself from the hook when brought to the surface and escape. In order to prevent this from happening fisherman would lower a dog from the deck of the ship to the water using rope and a special harness to grab the fish. The dog would then be hoisted back aboard, hopefully with the fish in its mouth. A highly versatile dog and capable swimmer, these dogs were also used when fishing from the shore with nets. When fishing from the shore, one end of a fishing net would be held ashore while a fisherman with a dog rowed a boat out from shore in a half moon pattern extending the remaining net as he went. After having released a sufficient amount of netting into the water, the dog would be handed a light line and ordered to swim back to shore with the line in its mouth. Another fisherman on shore would then take the light line, which was attached to a heavier line and so to the net and pull the net in; capturing any fish between the ends of the net. Like the working Retrievers of today, the Saint John’s Water Dog or Lesser Newfoundland as it was known at this time was described as an intelligent, eager to please and highly capable working dog. This also led to many of them being exported to England and incorporated into Labrador Retriever breeding programs.


During the time of the fishing boom; starting with the establishment of the London and Bristol Company in 1610; ending in 1780 with the declaration by then Commodore-Governor of Newfoundland, Richard Edwards that limited legal ownership of dogs to one per household. It was common place for fisherman to bring St. Johns Water Dogs or their early predecessors along as working dogs aboard fishing boats in Newfoundland. This resulted in these fishing dogs becoming quite plentiful around the port areas of Newfoundland. The reason given for the 1780, Newfoundland Sheep Act was that it would promote the rearing of sheep by limiting the number of potential predators. Specifically the act limited the number of dogs a household could own to one, it was stated by officials at the time that this would prevent uncared for stray dogs from becoming a menace to or preying upon helpless sheep. However, the truth of the matter is that it was a politically motivated move in response to the growing hostility between the colonist who raised sheep and the West-of-England fishing merchants who used dogs and did not welcome the competition of permanent settlers.  This was the first of a series of enacted policies to begin the slow extinction of the Saint John’s Water Dog.


It is important to note that the period of time; starting with the 1780 Newfoundland Sheep Act and ending with the British Quarantine Act of 1895 put in place all of the factors that would eventually totally wipe out the Saint John’s Water dog.  As previously stated, Newfoundland's Sheep Act limited legal ownership of dogs to one per household and since the St. John’s Water dog was native to Newfoundland, all but those that had been previously exported to England were vulnerable. By the 1880's, trade between Newfoundland and England had basically ceased, which meant that very few Saint John’s Water dogs were able to escape the Sheep Act through exportation to England for use in Labrador breeding programs. The next major blow to the Saint John’s Water dog came in the form of the Sheep Protection Act of 1885; which among other things imposed a heavy tax on all dogs in Newfoundland. The tax rate set for females was considerably higher than it was for males, which led to many owners of Saint John’s Water dogs  to destroy their female pups at birth. Following this act over 130 districts within Newfoundland completely banned the keeping of all dogs which factored heavily into the eventual extinction of the Saint John’s Water dog.


The final nail in the coffin for the St. John’s Water dog was the British Quarantine Act of 1895, which was intended to prevent the introduction of rabies into the country. This act not only raised the importation fees substantially, it also required imported dogs to undergo a strict six month quarantine prior to entering the country.  The effect of this act was that it made it nearly impossible to import dogs into England unless you were very well off or part of the nobility. It also effectively ended the practice of importing Saint John’s Water dogs into England for breeding use or as a hunting dog.  By the 1900’s, the cumulative effect of these acts was becoming quite apparent, in its native homeland the breed was near destruction and by the 1930’s the St. John's dog had become quite rare throughout Newfoundland. Later research would determine that small pockets of the purebred dogs had remained in a few remote and isolated fishing towns.


When researching the Saint John’s Water dog it is interesting to note how seemingly unimportant the breed was to the people of Newfoundland and/or their lack of interest in preserving it.  Unlike many other breeds that through the course of history found themselves near extinction at one time or another,  no group of fanciers, breeders or even individuals really stood up or really cared that the breed was beginning to vanish;  as such there was never any serious effort put forth to restore it. The only documented attempt to save the breed came in the 1970’s and it was a halfhearted and clumsy effort by a controversial Canadian author named Farley Mowat. He felt that he could save the breed by crossing his St. John’s water dog named “Albert” with a Labrador Retriever. The result of this mating was four puppies, all with the distinctive St. John’s Water dog tuxedo markings. However, when two of the puppies died the other two where given away; one to Canadian prime minister  Pierre Trudeau and the other to Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin and so ended the Farley Mowat restoration effort and Saint John’s Water dog breeding program.


The last two St. John's dogs were photographed in the early 1980s; both were elderly male dogs, one was 15 and the other was 13; both had managed to survive in a "very remote area" of Newfoundland. However since both were male, it brought the breed to an end.




The St. John’s Dogs were described as stockily built, strong dogs that when compared with the Labradors of today would more closely resemble the English Labrador than the American Labrador Retriever.  This breed was also known for its characteristic tuxedo markings (white patches on the chest, chin, feet, and muzzle), which give the dog the appearance of wearing a tuxedo. Also like the Labradors of today and for which this breed is the ancestor of, St. John’s Water Dogs were known for their short thick coat, rudder like tail, durability, high level of endurance and love of swimming.


A popular and plentiful breed in Newfoundland prior to its extinction, descriptions of the St. John’s Water dog were captured in various pieces of correspondence and literature of the time.


A Scottish decendant, explorer, philanthropist, agriculturalist and author; William Epps Cormack (May 5, 1796 – April 30, 1868) was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The first European to journey across the interior of the island he viewed many St. John’s Water Dogs in his travels and writes in his journal of 1822 that:

"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."


Another early report by a Colonel Peter Hawker (1802-1853) a hunter, sportsman and the man commonly credited with being the father of “wild-fowling”; the hunting and shooting of the larger sea birds states that the St. John’s Water Dog is:

"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...."


Lastly, educated and renowned explorer and geologist Joseph Beete Jukes (1811 –1869), in his book 'Excursions In and About Newfoundland During the Years 1839 and 1840' describes the St. John’s Water Dog as:

"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."


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