Your Lab's Ancestor, the St. John's Water Dog


Labrador Retrievers are the most popular breed of dog in the world. With a combination of good looks, athletic ability and discipline it is easy to see why this dog has found a place in the hearts of millions of people. The breed has a long and somewhat ambiguous history that has come together to produce what could be the world’s most perfect dog.

The origins of the Labrador Retriever trace back to the St. John’s dog (also known as a St. John’s water dog or Lesser Newfoundland). These dogs appeared in the 1500s in Newfoundland which was being settled by the English, Irish and Portuguese. The dog’s origins are unknown but were probably a mixture of different working breeds from those three countries. The settlers found the dogs were eager to please and were great at retrieval jobs which were essential for the fisherman. They were strong and were workaholics being employed to help pull in the heavy nets from the sea while spending long hours in the frigid waters. After a hard day’s work they would come home and change their temperment to enjoy spending time with the settler’s children. As time wore on their retrieving abilities were also found to be ideal with hunting, another task that was ideal in the newly settled world.

For the people who settled Newfoundland they developed a strong relationship with their dogs as well as a dependency on them. This was not a hospitable place to live. Even today in the summertime the surface temperature of the water only gets barely above 50 degrees Fahrenheit and is near freezing in the wintertime. Harsh weather is common there as are violent storms, and the sun is a rare sight even today with only about 1600 hours of sunshine per year. The capital city of St. John’s today is the foggiest, cloudiest, wettest and snowiest major city in Canada. For the St. John’s dog their short and thick coats made them uniquely suited for this climate.

The St. John’s water dog had a slightly different look than a Labrador Retriever. As far as size goes they resemble the British Labrador more than their American cousins. White patches of hair could be found on their chest, chin, feet and muzzle and while rare these traits do occasionally surface on a Lab or a mixed Lab. They had a short but thick coat, a rudder-like tail and boundless energy and endurance. The dogs were not considered to be handsome but were found to be highly intelligent.

In the 1820's a British aristocrat brought several St. John’s dogs back to England after being impressed with their skills and abilities. These dogs would become the breeding stock for the Labrador Retriever that we know today. This was also not the first new breed of dog that the St. John’s dog had created. Portuguese fishermen had used the St. John’s dog to breed the Newfoundland centuries before.

The St. John’s dog’s days were numbered though. The Newfoundland government began to encourage the raising of sheep and placed a heavy tax on dogs not used to herd sheep in the late 19th century resulting in most being sold to British dog dealers. These dogs were taken to England to try to improve Retriever blood lines. Around the same time in England, in an effort to stamp out rabies, the British government imposed a quarantine on imported animals, dogs in particular which placed the breed in danger. Numbers quickly diminished but the breed survived until the 1980's when the last two, both males who lived in a remote area of Newfoundland, died. No one had apparently thought to try to pair them with a Lab to save the bloodline.

While the end of the St. John’s dog may be sad their bloodlines live on today with the Labrador Retrievers that have become the most popular dog in the world. The working and retrieving abilities that made the St. John’s dog famous has been passed on to the Labs as well as their temperment, making them ideal working dogs or family pets.

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