The St. Johns Water Dog – Ancestor to all Retrievers

Although they may not look much alike, the retrievers all share at least one common ancestor. It is a Canadian ancestor that was developed on the east coast of Canada in Newfoundland. Like many dogs of the time, he had a specific job to do was more than a pretty face. At the time, it is unlikely that the many contributors to the creation of the St. Johns Water Dog would know how far reaching the result of their efforts would go in creating retrievers that would become among the world’s most popular breeds.

In the 1500s, European fishermen would venture out to the shores of Newfoundland in Canada to take advantage of the bounteous quantities of fish available there. They brought their own dogs with them and these animals interbred along with the Native Indian dogs in the area. This meshing of dogs evolved into a premier quality retriever that was known by various names, most commonly the lesser Newfoundland and the St. Johns Water Dog.

The dogs served multiple purposes, helping to haul in nets, tow boats, and carry ropes between boats. When on land, he acted to retrieve shot game and waterfowl for his master. They were strong swimmers and excellent retrievers. Fishermen and hunters alike extolled their virtues. They had shorter coats than the greater Newfoundland who would ultimately develop in the modern Newfoundland dog. The two types of Newfoundland were not bred to one another and would develop distinct talents of their own.

The St. Johns Water Dog was usually black with white on the chest, feet, and sometimes the face. They were sturdy dogs with straight tails that acted as rudders in the water. The short, thick coat helped protect them from the icy waters of the area.

Not surprisingly, as word of the breed’s abilities spread, they were exported to England and other countries where they were bred to local dogs to increase and improve their own abilities. Unfortunately, Newfoundland began heavily taxing owners of dogs that were not useful in sheep farming. This led to a serious decline in the number of St. Johns Water Dogs. England would later develop quarantine laws that would limit further importation of the breed as well.

In England, the breed would become one of the many breeds used to develop the Labrador Retriever, Flat Coated Retriever, and Curly Coated Retriever. In the United States, dogs resembling the St. Johns Water Dog would become an integral part of the development of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever. The Flat Coated Retriever, a descendant of the St. Johns Water Dog, would be used as one of the breeds to develop the Golden Retriever in England and the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever in Canada.

Although their numbers continued to dwindle remnants of the St. Johns Water Dog would survive late into the 20th century. The last known picture of a pair of St. Johns Water Dogs was taken in 1981. They were both male and very old at the time. It was the end of the breed.

Surviving pictures of the St. Johns Water Dog, show a dog that looks a lot like a black Labrador cross with white markings on the chest and feet and, sometimes, muzzle. They lacked the refinement seen today in many retriever breeds and bear little resemblance to any of the other retrievers. However, retriever fans owe them a debt for they are one of the reasons that the retrievers exist today. Their instincts, swimming abilities, and devotion to retrieving on land and in the water, are the reason that the many retriever breeds we know today remain a popular choice as family pet and working retriever.


The article, The St. Johns Water Dog – Ancestor to all Retrievers was originally posted on March 19, 2015 and was last updated on March 19, 2015. It was posted in the category, General with the Tags: , , , , , ,

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