The origin of the Newfoundland dog will always remain a matter of speculation. There are several theories to explain the appearance of the large black dogs on their native island of Newfoundland, off the eastern shore of Canada. One theory holds that the Boethuck Indians’ dogs evolved from the American black wolf, now extinct, or from the Tibetan Mastiff, which could have entered North America from Asia. Another theory maintains that the breed developed from dogs brought to the New World and left by the Vikings in 1000 AD.
It is agreed only that he is one of the older breeds of dogs in existence today. He may not have originated in Newfoundland, though skeletons of giant dogs have been discovered in Indian gravesites in Newfoundland dating from the 5th century, AD. One of the more appealing speculations rests on the legend that when Leif Erikson discovered North America about 1000 AD, he had aboard his boat a large black dog, resembling a Newfoundland, called “Oolum.”
The first record of the Newfoundland dog on the island whose name he bears dates from 1732 when an unknown author wrote, “The Bear Dog of a very large size is very watchful, his business is to guard a court or house, and has a thundering voice.” It is possible, too, that some Great Pyrenees were bred to this Newfoundland dog by the Basque fishermen sailing between Newfoundland and their homeland.
The Newfoundland is an ancestor of the present-day Labrador and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, which follow the Newfoundland in their natural swimming ability. The rough-coated St. Bernard owes its coat to the Newfoundland.
In the Canadian province of Newfoundland, the Newfoundland was used as a working dog to pull nets for the fishermen and to haul wood from the forest. Elsewhere, he patiently did heavy labor of all kinds, powering the blacksmith’s bellows and the turner’s lathe.
The 17th and 18th century, English settlers on the island of Newfoundland were impressed with the native dogs’ great size and strength, their natural swimming ability, and their gentle dispositions. Traders brought the dogs back to England where they were bred with the large estate dogs. Thus, the North American Newfoundland evolved gradually, first by natural selection, and later by selective breeding in Britain. The breed was first given its name around 1775.
In the journals of Lewis and Clark are stories of the dog, “Seaman,” who accompanied their expedition through the Louisiana Territory in 1804-1809. Seaman was credited with saving the life of the explorers when he headed off a buffalo charging through the camp toward their tent.
Newfoundlands were used for draft purposes in their native land, and in England they became popular as ship dogs. In the 18th and 19th centuries, few ships sailed the oceans of the Western Hemisphere without a Newfoundland on board as a lifesaver; such was the reputation for heroic water rescues.
In the mid 19th century, white and black Newfoundlands became very popular as a result of their depictions in paintings by Sir Edwin Landseer. These dogs became known as Landseer Newfoundlands. Newfs became the darlings of Victorian households; they were also valued as children’s guardians and as family companions.
The modern American Newfoundland can trace its lineage to a dog named “Siki,” who was shown in England in the early 1920s. He was the most famous show dog of his time, but more importantly, he was a proponent stud dog. Newfoundland type, as defined by the breed standard, begins with Ch. Siki and the three Siki sons imported to North America.
In the mid 1960s, the Canadian-bred dog, Ch. Newton, was successfully campaigned in Canada and the US. In addition to winning the US National Specialties in 1965 and 1966, he was very successful in all-breed competition. His excellent type could rival any of the currently exhibited Newfoundlands.
In general, it can be said that in the past thirty years, type has been stabilized and the breed has become more structurally sound. The Newfoundlands of today are as capable of hauling loads and of water rescue as his ancestors were.