Farm Dog History, Part 1

Now for a bit of “farm dog” history, beginning in the 19th Century with a brief introduction to the subject by an American author, R. L. Allen, and followed by his description of the Newfoundland and a few historical references to that breed.  The original Newfoundlands were a landrace breed of working dogs, encompassing a few distinct types variously referred to as Labradors, Labrador Spaniel, lesser Labrador dog, St John’s Water dog, and Newfoundland dog. Of interest, despite the fact that the early Newfoundland dogs were themselves described uniformly as “sheep biters”, Thomas Pearce (1872) and others note that they were crossed to Shepherd’s Dogs in the U.K. to add biddability and trainability to that type.  (Scroll down to Richardson’s description of the temperament of Newfoundland dogs to see why it was so prized)

From DOMESTIC ANIMALS: History and Description of … Farm Dogs
by Richard Lamb Allen, published 1865
Chapter VIII.


“No grazing farm is complete without one or more intelligent, well-trained dogs, adapted to the various wants of their owners; and the general taste has made their presence almost universal in every rural household… Since this animal is the habitual tenant of the farm, and, when suited to his peculiar duties, can be made of great utility by the assistance he is capable of affording in its management, we deem it entirely appropriate to our subject to indicate such of the species as are deserving the farmer’s attention.  Discarding all ideas of fancy or sportsmanship, and looking to utility alone, we may safely affirm that the farmer needs only such as may be found in the four breeds of the Newfoundland, the Shepherd’s and Drover’s dog, and the Terrier.

The Newfoundland Dog.

(Drawing: Richardson’s Newfoundland, 1840s)

This dog, of which we give a portrait, is always above medium height, and frequently is of the largest size.  He is long-haired and shaggy, and has a thick coat of fine, soft fur, beneath the outer covering, which is almost impenetrable by water.  His color is most frequently black; often spotted and partially flecked or grayish; and occasionally buff… There are two varieties: the large, used in the north, called the Labrador;  and the smaller, more docile and intelligent, of the south, called the St. John’s… they are strong, courageous, and watchful; and with slight training, they are scarcely inferior to the best hunting-dogs in pursuing the wild game that abounds in those high northern latitudes.. These estimable qualities, coupled with their uniform good-nature, have always made them favorites with the farmer.

The Newfoundland is an excellent watch-dog; sagacious in discriminating between a friend and a foe, and with courage and strength to follow out his prompt and judicious conclusions. He is easily trained for the drover, to whom he is frequently a great assistant; and with a scent sufficiently acute to pursue game, he is readily broken in as a useful companion to the sportsman. He can also be made serviceable in the various duties of the farm: destroying noxious vermin, taking the cattle and horses to the field or water, drawing a light load, churning the butter, &c. It is true, he has not all the sagacity of the Poodle, whose intelligence approaches nearer to human reason than any other of the brute creation. But if he has not that quick apprehension, which too often leads, as in the case of forward children, to the attainment of every worthless accomplishment and the indulgence of every loaferish habit, he seems to have a sedate, well-formed judgment, which makes all his wit available for some useful purpose. He is unsurpassed as a water-dog; and his courageous efforts, whenever an opportunity has been afforded, in rescuing numberless human beings from a watery grave, together with his unswerving fidelity and devotion, commend him as the prince of the canine family.”

1809 Painting of a Newfoundland dog by James Ward

From The Literary Gazette, or Journal of Belles Lettres, Politics and Fashion, No. XXIII; SATURDAY, JUNE 28, 1817:  REVIEW OF PAINTINGS AND SCULPTURES IN THE EXHIBITION AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY.

“No. 251.  A Newfoundland dog, near an inlet of the sea and a mountainous coast.  The landscape is of a quiet and silvery hue; the penciling of the dog somewhat too sharp; the effect clear and spirited without any force of shadow”

Interestingly, the dog in this painting was mislabeled as a “collie” by the Yale Center for British Art, where the painting resides — demonstrating, again, how prone people are to identify breeds based on color, despite historical evidence indicating otherwise!

In Newfoundland in 1842

Sir Richard Henry Bonnycastle wrote about Newfoundland dogs as follows:

“… I have known the mahogany-coloured Labrador dog, an animal of immense size and power, to follow my sleigh during a long journey upon the crust of the snow, until his feet became so chafed and sore that he was unable to proceed. His affection was unbounded, and the whole race appear to be particularly fond of children; but perhaps, from their originals having been of the wolfish nature, which manifests itself in those of the colder regions of Labrador and the Esquimaux country, they are all sheep-biters, and, if not very well fed, most dexterous thieves.”

From Dogs: Their Origins and Varieties (1847)

H.D. Richardson described three types of Newfoundland, which he contended were “wolf dogs”, noting in support the fact that they were occasionally prick eared and were prone to hunting on their own when not being worked:

“I am compelled thus arbitrarily to give, perhaps, an undeserved name to the present group, but it is the only one by means of which I can accurately indicate the family of dogs to which I refer. The individuals of which this group is composed, bear, all of them, a greater or less resemblance to the wolf, in erect or semi-erect ears—in long and shaggy coats, and bushy tails. The Newfoundland dog is fully entitled to be placed at the head of the group ; from his being better known than the others, from his greater beauty, his sagacity, nobility of nature and disposition, his utility to mankind, and the high degree of estimation in which he is held in every part of the world where he is known.

Those who have grouped these dogs with the Spaniels, are in error, for they possess none of the characteristics of that group”

On the temperament of Newfoundland dogs,

Richardson had this to say:
 (Drawing right: Illustration of Newfoundland, Richardson, 1852)

“His size and strength are great, and his look dignified, so that those who are not accustomed to him are apt to be afraid of his approach; but he is exceedingly mild, and has at once the most beautiful and expressive eye of all the race.  Unless under very extraordinary circumstances of provocation and necessity, he is never the aggressor; and though many large dogs are very prone to tyrannise over the smaller ones, he has no such habit; but will bear considerable indignity rather than fight with any dog of insignificant appearance…

“He is docile to a very great degree, and nothing can exceed his affection. Being naturally athletic and active, he is ever eager to be employed, and seems delighted in performing any little office required of him. From the great share of emulation which nature has given him, to be surpassed or overcome would occasion great pain to him. On every emergency he is active, the friend of all, and is naturally without the least disposition to quarrel with other animals; he seldom or never offers offence, but will not receive an insult or injury with impugnity. Such is the capacity of his understanding, that he can be taught almost anything that man can inculcate, of which his own strength and frame are capable. His sagacity can only be exceeded by his energies, and he perseveres with unabated ardour in whatever manner he is employed, and while he has a hope of success he will never slacken in his efforts to attain it. The amazing pliability of his temper peculiarly fits him for man’s use, and he never shrinks from any service which may be required of him, undertakes it with an ardour proportional to the difficulty of its execution. He takes a singular pride in being employed, and will carry a bundle, stick, or basket, in his mouth, for miles, and to deprive him of either of these is more than a stranger could with safety accomplish. Sagacity and a peculiarly faithful attachment to the human species are characteristics inseparable from this dog, and hence he is ever on the alert to ward off impending danger from his master, and to free him from every peril to which he may be exposed…”

In The Dog: With Directions for his Treatment

by Rev. Thomas Pearce, “Idstone”, 1872

“The Newfoundland, the Labrador, and the St. John’s dogs have this peculiarity — they not only possess sagacity, but they disseminate it through any number of crosses,… On this account their breed has been used almost universally in improving Retrievers, and with great success.  Some of the best shepherds I have ever met with have told me that their favorite breed of Sheep Dog was descended from Labrador and Colley and I have been solicited by them, and never in vain, for the services of my most intelligent Retrievers, to put more sense into Sheep Dogs, already showing distinctly the Newfoundland mixture.”

Finally, American dog authority James Watson wrote as follows, in The Dog Book (1906):

“Popular belief would no doubt lead to the opinion that the Newfoundland dog would have a very straight history, but such is not the case by any means. In the first place, the early illustrations by Bewick and Reinagle (drawing right, 1803) show a long, Hat-headed white and black dog. Captain Brown in 1829 gives us a similar dog but seemingly solid black, but he does not specify any colour. Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton who had visited Newfoundland stands alone in describing the true Newfoundland as a black-and-tan dog. This he calls the true old type and characterises all others as cross-bred dogs. When he was in Newfoundland we cannot state, but he was an experienced investigator and possessed an extensive knowledge of dogs in all parts of the world, so that his conclusions and assertions are entitled to great consideration, even if he stands alone on the black-and-tan statement. The ” Naturalist’s Library ” for which he wrote on dogs was published in 1840, hence we may say he wrote of the breed of 1830. Between that time and 1860 the tan markings appear to have been bred out entirely, and there is little doubt that pure black, rusty black occasionally, became the prevailing colour.

(Drawing left: Bewick’s – Newfoundland, 1790)

We must recognise that we are not now speaking of a country where dogs were bred for points but a very undeveloped territory, where the dogs were obliged to earn their own living, bred as they liked, and were grievously neglected according to all accounts. Where they originated is not hard to state, for they must have descended from ship dogs. In the old days, which in this breed can be put at 1800 to 1850, there were three varieties, smooth or short-coated, shaggy and curly. The shaggy were the most attractive, and became the popular dog. Up to 1870 the height of dogs on Newfoundland Island ran to 26 inches, anything larger being an exception; and the dog presented to the Prince of Wales when he visited this continent was a monstrosity, a perfect giant, and not considered by any means typical of the breed. It was stated to have measured “considerably over 30 inches.” No such dog had ever been known on the island before, hence it was not typical of the breed at home. That they grew much larger when taken as puppies to England, or bred there [more likely], is very well known. If the breed had never been taken to England we should have no such dog as is now called the Newfoundland, which is purely an English development from a very common-sized black dog [the St. John’s water dog].”