901 LOSING THE 'GREAT RETRIEVER'
LOSING THE 'GREAT RETRIEVER'
If you look at the list of recognised retriever breeds in the world, two things are quite clear: firstly that they all come from British stock and secondly the Newfoundland dog is not listed as one. Yet in Victorian times the latter was known as "The Great Retriever" and depicted as such by the great sporting artists of that time. In these times when the Newfoundland is bred to look like a mountain dog, it is easy to overlook their true heritage. As a water-rescue dog, the Newfoundland needs strength; as a draught dog in its founding country it needed size and strength; what it doesn't need is needless bulk and heavy bone, two features seen far too often in show rings.
A great deal of nonsense has been recorded regarding the origins of the Newfoundland Dog, with absurd claims for Pyrenean Mountain Dogs taken to the New World by Breton fishermen! Are fishermen from coastal areas in the north likely to have taken huge mainly white dogs, from mountain regions hundreds of miles to the south, over three thousand miles in tiny boats? Why should they? And if you want a dog to excel in water, why go for the blood of a high-pasture herd-protecting breed? I believe this story originated from a German scholar without any tangible evidence at all. The Portuguese once took big black water-dogs on their ships to this coastal region; the local Indians used a big black husky-type haulage dog in inland areas. These are for more likely ancestors for this distinguished breed. And it is understandable from such a background that the Newfoundland became renowned as a water-rescue dog - with its feats lauded by the Victorian press.
Heroes were much a feature one hundred years ago, whether intrepid explorers, valiant soldiers or pioneer airmen. Canine heroes too were once much vaunted in those more romantic times, when dogs were valued not for what they looked like but for what they could do. Throughout the 19th century, both the Newfoundland and the St Bernard were very much the hero-breeds. Landseer's celebrated painting "A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society" drew attention to the feats of the Newfoundland. The Newfoundland too drew the writers' attention. Edward Jesse, in his "Anecdotes of Dogs" of 1846, writes: "A gentleman bathing in the sea at Portsmouth, was in the greatest danger of being drowned. Assistance was loudly called for, but no boat was ready, and though many persons were looking on, no one could be found to go to his help. In this predicament, a Newfoundland dog rushed into the sea and conveyed the gentleman to land..." Margaret Booth Chern, in her "The New Complete Newfoundland" of 1975, describes how: "Every Christmas season brings to memory the heroic rescue of the 90 passengers and crew of the SS Ethic by a stalwart Newfoundland. For the number of people saved, it is believed to be the record for any dog of any breed...The Newfoundland swam out through a sea in which no man could possibly have survived. The powerful dog made it to the ship and carried a lifeline back to the shore..." For such feats this admirable breed is rightly lauded, with Landseer's famous paintings recording such heroism for posterity.
With 70 registered in 1910, 400 seventy years later and around 1,000 a year since then, the Newfoundland has deservedly maintained its affection in the eyes of the English fanciers. It was reassuring to read the 2012 Crufts judge praising the movement and balance of the entry; championship show judges in recent years have expressed concerns over the lack of hind-quarter strength in the breed. This is a working breed not an ornamental one; the coat and great bulk must never become leading breed features. We have good reason to be grateful to those admirers who brought the foundation stock of this fine breed to our shores, to be developed by us into a distinct breed. In his masterly Dogs of the British Islands of 1878, Stonehenge wrote: "Two distinct types of this breed are now admitted - one considerably larger than the other, and known as the Newfoundland, from its being generally found on the island of that name; whilst the other, distributed over the state of Labrador chiefly, though also met with in the island of Newfoundland, is now known as the Labrador, otherwise called the St John or Lesser Newfoundland." What a contribution to our breeds of dog! And what skill from early English breeders to bring such dogs to the peak of perfection, both at work and on the bench, we see today. A few years ago, an experienced gundog exponent showed me her favoured 'gundog', a Newfoundland-Pointer cross, and an impressive specimen it was too. The creators of the Korthals Griffon and the Pudel-pointer provided fine gundog breeds for us to enjoy. Perhaps we need to involve the blood of the "Great Retriever" once again if over-bred and too-closely bred retrievers of today are losing virility and performance.