Remarks on Newfoundland Dogs,
How the Water Dog Lost His Woolly Coat
and other tenuously-related observations

Aaron Thomas, "History of Newfoundland Dogs"

"The celebrity of Newfoundland Dogs in England is so notorious that the value of them there needs no comment, but their usefulness in Britain cannot be put in competition with the great utility they are to the people of this cold Country. In this Empire of Frost and Snow great quantitys of wood must be used by the Inhabitants whose winter here is from October to April!--or May! In this Country as soon as the Snow falls it freezes. The people then cut their wood for firing, for Fish Flakes and for Building etc., etc. This wood is sometimes cut seven or ten miles in the woods and is drawn home by Dogs. They have gearing the same as Horses; the wood is put into Sledges which they draw, and sometimes they draw a single stick only, attended by one man who wears frost shoes. This labour of Dogs is daily thro the winter and a hard service it is.

"These Animals here bear a more hardier aspect in general to what their same specie do in England, so much so that on a superficial view their kind does not appear the same. Their difference ariseth thus--in Newfoundland the Dogs commonly are their own caterers. They chiefly live on Fish and many of these sturdy race fish for themselves. It is no very uncommon thing to see one of these Dogs catch a Fish. Bitter hunger is their monitor and as it presses upon them they go to the waterside and set on a Rock, keeping as good a lookout as ever Cat did for a Mouse. The instant a Fish appears they plunge into the water and seldom come up without their prey. This is a wonderful property in these Animals, but it is as true as it is singular, for when Newfoundland was first discover'd these Dogs were found in a wild state, none of the savage Indians did they associate with. They kept in herds or companys the same as Bears and Wolves do now. In winter they lived by hunting and killing Foxes, Beavers etc., and when these failed them they had recourse to the watery element, which never refused them relief, for if the neighboring Seas were frozen over they would perambulate on the Ice on which they would find Sea Lions, Seals and other animals that became and easy prey when attack'd by a formidable host of these Dogs.

"In Summertime they follow'd the same business of Hunting and when the woods deny'd them food the Sea Shore became their rendezvous. Here they catched Fish to suffice their wants and when nature was satisfy'd they betook themselves again to their haunts in the woods, where they had nothing to fear from rivals, going generally in such numerous herds that flocks of Wolves would shun them. I am told that in winter these Dogs were the greatest enemys to themselves, for when on the Barrens their food began to get short they would, as their appetitie increas'd, set up a dismal howl, and this noise of theirs would continue untill they arriv'd at the Sea Shore. Before they reached the Beach they might a travelled several miles, but before they began their march they collect'd in great numbers, four of five hundred in a drove. Harmony produc'd by this tumultous assemblage must, no doubt, strike terror into every Animal within the limit of the frightfull sound. Thus Beasts, who otherwise might have become their prey had they travelled orderly and quietly like peacefull citizens, made all the haste in their power to escape from so piercing a clangour. These Dogs, in Summer, lead the perfect life of an Idler. They do no kind of work whatever. These poor Creatures, lean and meagre, all day lye like lifeless carcases in the Sun; when night comes they prowl about under the Fish Flakes in great numbers, quarrelling and fighting with all the stragglers of their own species that they meet, and yet they seem now so much degenerated from their ancient character that nothing now remains of their former good qualitys, except that of Diving and their strength and ability for drawing wood, for they are at this period as great a brood of cowards as any of that kind of specie. I doubt not but that one single English Bull Dog would put to flight a Posse of twenty or thirty of them.

"One of these Newfoundland Dogs, after he had been constantly worked in the woods during the winter, then slain, is not bad eating. The Hams, salted and smoked with Juniper Berrys and branches of Raspberrys and the Indian Tea, in point of flavor, is superior to the celebrated Hams of Bayonne in Gascony. Dog Hams are a new article in the Epicure's Catalogues. Had you sent to the Cock, in Cornhill for a Ham, and had they sent you this specie, you and your friend would a put it down as fine Westphalia as ever was eat." The Newfoundland Journal of Aaron Thomas, Able Seaman in H.M.S. Boston: a journal written during a voyage from England to Newfoundland and from Newfoundland to England in the years 1794 and 1795..., edited by Jean M. Murray (London: Longmans, 1968), pp. 52-53.

How the Water Dog Lost His Woolly Coat (and tenuously-related observations)

The editor of the Poodle History Project taught one-room school at Spotted Island, Labrador for the Grenfell Mission during the summer of 1955, and observed a way of life which has now tragically disappeared. This was before the advent of the snowmobile, and a multitude of dogs was an integral part of the cycle of life in the village. The people, who were a mixture of at least two First Nations, almost certainly both Northern and Southern European, and black, and who spoke an archaic English, probably largely West Country, lived on the coast during the summer in a beautiful landscape. High rocky boggy hills, knee-deep in northern plants, which were often sheets of bloom at that season, majestically descend to a crenolated shoreline; small communities teetered on the edge of sheltered bays past which huge icebergs float southwards. Once a fortnight, the coastal steamer brought supplies, mail, etc.

During the summer, men fished for cod from open gas-powered boats about 20 feet long, two/three men and/or often a boy in a boat. Perhaps a mile off-shore, the method of fishing was with a hand-held line, on the bottom of which was a jig: an unbaited three-prong hook attached to a lead weight. This was let into the sea, and "jigged" up and down vigorously with a motion of the lower arm, and thereby hooked onto a fish, usually by the gills, but often other parts; the fish, usually about two feet long, but often three feet long, was then thrown in the bottom of the boat. Too-small fish were thrown back. When the boat was full, or when it was judged there was just enough daylight left to process the catch, the boat was brought ashore to the fish stages.

In Thomas's day, Newfoundanders dried their fish on "flakes"--drying racks--and this method was used to a small degree on Spotted Island in the mid-1950's, but by far the greater proportion at that time was salted on the "stages." A stage consisted of two parts: an open apron perhaps ten feet above the shore, in front of which the boat could be brought and the catch uploaded with pitchforks. The fishermen then worked at tables, gutting (livers were preserved in a barrel), removing tails and heads (except for large heads, which were taken home to enjoy the delicacy of cod cheeks and eyes), and splitting the fish. All the offal was dumped through a hole in the stage, and this fed the dogs which sat underneath awaiting their dinners. The fish, which were now flat triangles of flesh, were then taken to the second, enclosed, part of the stage to be stored; these were neatly fitted together, head to tail, and tail to head, layered with the salt which had been piled in a corner like so much gravel, so as to form a cubic rectangle as long as the stage, as wide as the larger fish were long, and gradually reaching waist height. This was bought and picked up by a buyer; in the mid-1950's Spotted Islanders' cod was destined for Portugal. By contrast to cod, salmon, during their brief run early in the summer, were caught in gill nets (while they were running, everyone got very tired of salmon, because it's a far richer fish than cod, which is easy--pleasant--to eat three meals a day).

In the Spotted Island community in the mid-1950's lived approximately twenty families, including one which wintered in Newfoundland. Otherwise, during the winter, the people went inland "on the Labrador" to their second homes, to cut a year's supply of wood for heat and cooking fuel, and to trap. Wood was in the form of entire trees, almost certainly spruce, which produced straight "sticks" about thirty feet long, approximately eight inches in diameter at the bottom, and two inches at the top. These were brought out to the coast, and stacked in cones the shape of so many teepees adjacent to the houses. Sticks were sawn into stove lengths as needed; thicker pieces were split.

Summer homes were all more or less on the same pattern: wooden structures set on piers about 18 inches or two feet above the ground, which might have a open front porch--what we'd now call a "deck." From this, opened an outer "cool" storage room in which was hung occasional seal meat (skins were dried on racks hung on the outside of the houses) and oilskins; the universal summer footware--rubber boots with red soles--lined the walls. From this storage room opened a main room lined with benches, in which was an iron cook-stove and a work/eating table around which the whole of a numerous family could not fit; these families were fed in several sittings. The typical diet was evaporated milk, tea, homemade white bread, fish, and sometimes alexander, a herb cooked like spinach (the school-supplied morning snack was always stewed dried fruit--and toothbrushes supplied). From the main room might open one or two small rooms one or both of which might be used as a bedroom. Upstairs was a sleeping loft. Families were often large, yet the standard of housekeeping was high: the particular point of pride was a spotless main-room floor, which entailed frequent scrubbing of unfinished boards and care not to track dirt into the house. When work was done, adults typically relaxed sitting on a bench against the wall, holding one or another small child on their lap; an amusement after a moderate day's work was dancing to a fiddle or accordian: people danced as a group, but unpaired except when one man might challenge another in an endurance test. Skilled tasks were generally sex-specific, but apparently without taboo.

In the mid-1950's on Spotted Island, dogs were considered draft animals. They were of a "northern breed," known to be cross-bred to wolves with which they joined in howling-fests on bright summer nights particularly when the northern lights pulsed in the sky. Typically, a family owned a team of eight, plus assorted puppies, etc. This fact and simple multiplication renders Thomas's estimates entirely credible. Each household's dogs lived more or less under the house; were not chained, despite that this was required by law. They were not taken in boats on a daily basis (and, in fact, since fish were alive when thrown into the bottom of the boat, if lost, these would have swum away). The dogs were not seen enjoying swimming, and were not pets or companions or playmates, although people were on tacitly cordial terms with dogs. Waterfowling was not a much-discussed occupation, by contrast to the marshy coastal Massachusetts community in which the editor grew up, in which market-gunning was within living memory. Market-gunning for waterfowl presupposes an easier market than found in Labrador in the mid-1950's, let alone the people and the wildfowl being at the same place at the same time. For these several reasons, this eye-witness account is only partly relevant to the history of the water dog.

The Spotted Islanders' way of life was in contrast to that of fishermen who sailed far from home to the Grand Banks to fish for cod, a way of life with which the Poodle History Project's editor was familiar from Gloucester, Massachusetts, near where she grew up, and from various nearby shipyards in the soft, sheltered marshes where the old fishing schooners were built, for example, at Essex. In Thomas's time, and well into the 20th century, these "fishermen" sailed from the deep rocky harbour at Gloucester (which, not surprisingly, has a large Portugese population, and a beautiful church dedicated to this fishing, Our Lady of Good Voyage; she holds a vessel in her arms). The schooners carried dories which, on the Grand Banks, men rowed away from the main vessel in order to fill with cod fish, which were then uploaded into the vessel. This was less pleasant than the Spotted Islanders' way of life because of "the horrible Stink which ariseth from the Codds Heads and Offal which are retain'd for some time in the Ship, it being improper to throw them overboard as taken off, because if they were the Fish would eat them and thereby an injury would be done to the Fishing business." (Ibid, p. 173.)

Fish shops in Gloucester and thereabouts in the Poodle History Project's editor's childhood and in her recollection into the 1980's, typically displayed photographs of the famous fishermen's races, including those involving the victorious Nova Scotian, Bluenose. In fact, the salt-supply vessel for Spotted Island in 1955 was a dismasted fisherman, with the typical long bow which served to reduce the dangerous (to sailors in heavy weather) bowsprit, and painted the traditional black. Then, as in Thomas's day and for several centuries previously, vessels travelled across the Atlantic to fish on the Grand Banks--and to go whaling and to render the whales' oil on shore, for example at the Basque summer whaling settlement at Red Bay, now a famous archaeological site; many place-names in Newfoundland are corruptions from Spanish, Portugese, French. By 1580 there was a great increase in fishing ships from the West of England due to restrictions in relation to the Icelandic fishery.

Newfoundland was attractive to vessels requiring to fill water casks, wash clothes and perform similar tasks since even the smallest inlet possessed a fresh water stream, and there are many easily accessed harbours with good holding ground; Thomas warns, however, that shipwrecks are common due to fog.

Newfoundland was mostly settled by people from these vessels (including a high proportion of Irish people picked up on the outward voyage), men and women who stayed behind to guard fish flakes and other equipment. Thomas's diary indicates that the seasonal way of life of these Newfoundlanders in the late 18th century was similar to that of the Spotted Islanders in 1955, including that gardens were rare because "its one continued Rocky surface....To use the Plow is impossible..." (Ibid., p. 128; on Spotted Island, use of a spade is impossible.) Thomas describes the impenetrability of Newfoundland's spruce forest; when two acres of unclaimed grass were discovered, a crew from the Boston went ashore daily to make hay for the vessel's livestock; he observes very little hay grown and the price is high: nine pounds for a ton. Four acres of oats in good condition was remarkable. He notes that livestock are brought to Newfoundland from Nova Scotia and the States, and cattle, horses and sheep fare well during the summer, but few can be supported during the long winter. Similarly, in summer 1955, a cow was shipped to Nain, and a school trip hastily arranged from Spotted Island to the supply vessel to see the cow (none of the children had seen a cow); unfortunately, the night was calm and bright, and the vessel departed too soon.

Between Thomas's Newfoundland in 1794 and Spotted Island, Labrador in 1955 are two important local differences in relation to dogs. First, a supply of wood (spruce, used for building, fuel, leavening, to make beer, and as fodder) was close at hand for Newfoundlanders in the 1790's--they didn't cover as much distance as the Spotted Islanders; their work was seasonal but not migratory: they didn't require two homes. Second, as Thomas accurately estimates, Newfoundland is approximately four-fifths lakes and ponds, which supported vast quantities of waterfowl, just as did the Great Lakes flyway in the same period: the surveyor of Toronto, Bouchette, wrote in May 1793: "Dense and trackless forests lined the margin of the lake, and reflected their inverted images in its glassy surface....the bay and neighboring marshes were hitherto uninvaded haunts of immense coveys of wild fowl, indeed, they were so abundant as in measure to annoy us during the night." (Joseph Bouchette, The British Dominions in North America. 2 vols. London: Longman, 1832. I:89n.) The Labrador also harbours waterfowl, of course, but during that time the Spotted Islanders were perched on the edge of their fjord.

Newfoundlanders who developed, evidently from various types of water dog, the Newfoundland Dog and St. John's Labrador, required dogs which could be used as draft animals during the winter months to haul wood, and which could also act as water dogs--could retrieve waterfowl and perform as ship's/boat's dogs. This is a combined role which is similar to that of large water dogs which were used as draft animals for hauling milk cans in the Low Countries. However, in Newfoundland, the European water dog's ever-growing woolly coat which stayed dry at the skin during wet, cold weather, evidently gave way to one easier to manage in ice and snow. Thomas is incorrect in his opinion that the dogs he observed were native to Newfoundland, except in that Newfoundland had experienced European year-round and part-year settlement from at least the 11th century. In relation to the Portugese, Spanish, French, and English versions of the water dog, a good guess is 200 years of residence prior to 1794, with annual renewal by ships' dogs selected for competence; obviously, also selected for competence for the trip back across the Atlantic for sale at Poole.

We lack documentation for a casual trade in water dogs in the wool trade between England and the Low Countries, in the Baltic trade, along the great European rivers, and so on. However, given the relatively good documentation of exchange of water dogs across the Atlantic from the 1590's, it is impossible to believe that the former was non-extant.

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