The St. John's Water Dog, also called the St. John’s Dog, was a naturally-occuring dog breed from Newfoundland. Little is known of the breeds that went into its creation, although it was likely a random-bred mix of old Irish, English, and Portuguese working breeds.
This breed is the ancestor of the modern Retrievers; including the Flat Coated Retriever, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, the Golden Retriever, and the Labrador Retriever. The St. John’s Dog was also the founding breed of the large and gentle Newfoundland dog, likely as a result of breeding with mastiffs brought to the island by the generations of Portuguese fishermen who had been fishing offshore since the 1400s.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, St. John's Dogs were exported from Newfoundland to England. These dogs were cross-bred with other breeds to create the Retrievers.
John's Dogs were medium-sized, strong, and stocky – more closely resembling modern English labs than American style. They had characteristic white patches on the chest, chin, feet, and muzzle. This colouration occasionally manifests in modern labs as a small white chest patch, or a few stray white hairs on the feet. The classic tuxedo markings of the St. John's Dog commonly manifest in lab mixes.
Writings as early as the 1600s mention hardy medium-sized black dogs that accompanied Newfoundland fishermen in their boats, and retrieved distant lines or nets of fish, hauling them back to the boat. The dogs were described as having a short thick coat, rudder-like tail, high endurance, and a great love of swimming.
In his book Excursions In and About Newfoundland During the Years 1839 and 1840 Vol. 1, the geologist Joseph Beete Jukes describes the St. John's Water Dog with both bemusement and admiration. "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."
The roadless outport community of La Poile, Newfoundland was likely the final habitat of the extinct breed.
The St. John's Dog was made extinct in its homeland by a combination of two factors. In an attempt to encourage sheep raising, heavy restrictions and taxes were placed on dog ownership during the 1800s. Also their main overseas destination, the UK, imposed rigorous long-term quarantine on all imported animals, especially dogs (1885) as part of the eradication of rabies. However, in both Newfoundland and the Maritime provinces, there are still large black mixed-breed dogs with many characteristics of the original St. John's dog.
The 6th Duke of Buccleuch reportedly managed to import a few St. John's dogs between 1933-1934 and continued to retain as pure a version of the breed as possible (as the Dukes do to this day), but the breed continued to dwindle.
The last two known St. John's dogs were photographed in the early 1980s (in old age) having survived in a "very remote area", but both were male, bringing the breed to an end.
In the 1970s, Canadian author Farley Mowat tried to save the breed by crossing his St. John's water dog named "Albert" with a Labrador bitch. Four puppies resulted, and all had the distinctive white markings of their sire. The two bitch puppies died, but the two dog puppies were given away. One was given to Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau and the other to Soviet premier Kosygin.In 1970, Mowat and Albert appeared in an episode of the CBC series Telescope. The episode includes Mowat telling a bedtime story to his dog.