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The Newfoundland holds a rich and noble place in history. These benevolent giants, best known as working companions and natural swimmers, have an instinctive drive to protect the waterfront and rescue people in distress – particularly those in water. Heroic tales abound of the powerful, bearlike dogs braving icy seas to rescue stranded boaters and fishermen.

Equally notable is the Newfoundland’s natural hauling ability. Built for endurance rather than speed, this multipurpose dog excels at and enjoys his draft work. In the early 1800s in their native Newfoundland, the breed was used as helpmates to pull in fishnets, then haul the fish carts to market. The easygoing dogs mostly worked off lead from oral commands. But the true hallmark of the Newfoundland remains its sunny disposition, best characterized in a passage from the famous epitaph on a monument at the estate of Lord Byron in England:

Near this spot

Are deposited the remains of one

Who possessed beauty without vanity,

Strength without insolence,

Courage without ferocity,

and all the virtues of man without his vices.

Byron wrote the passage in honor of his Newfoundland, Boatswain, who died in 1808.

A well-visited tourist attraction in England, where Newfoundlands have always been a great favorite, is this monument at Newstead Abbey. Such was Byron’s regard for his Newfoundland that Boatswain’s tomb at the abbey is larger than his own.

A gentle temperament, striking appearance, and natural working abilities helped align Newfoundlands with other notable figures such as Lewis and Clark, whose dog Seaman accompanied them as a working companion on their 19th-century expedition. The famous works of 19th-century painter Sir Edwin Landseer also brought attention to the breed, particularly the black and white version of the Newfoundland now recognized as “Landseers.”

Fast forward to the 1960s, and picture Bobby Kennedy enjoying some quiet time with his beloved Newfoundland, Brumis, and the diverse appeal of the breed is clear. The breed has gained considerable popularity with the public in the past 20 years. Most of these new owners are seeking an intelligent, gentle companion for the family.

Origins and Influences

The Newf is one of the world’s most beloved breeds, and history is rife with examples of their dedication to humankind. In 1802, when Lewis and Clark began their historic 8,000-mile trek across the American continent, a Newfoundland named Seaman was part of the expedition. He was useful as a hunter and guard dog, once saving lives by running off a rogue buffalo that was charging the camp. Today, Seaman is depicted in 10 different Lewis and Clark monuments across the country.

According to NCA historian Maryjane Spackman, the Newfoundland breed developed from a combination of dogs indigenous to North America, specifically in Newfoundland. The creation of the breed coincides with the settlement of North America by European settlers. The hereditary traits that are dominant today reflect the lifestyle and culture of the people of Newfoundland. They needed a hardworking dog that was water-loving as well as a draft animal.

Webbed feet, a double, water-resistant coat, and a large, hardy body allowed the Newfoundland to thrive as a working member of the community and evolve into the present-day Newfoundland. Canadian fisherman long relied on Newfoundlands as peerless shipboard working dogs who specialized in dramatic water rescues. Newfs are born swimmers, complete with partially webbed feet, and strong enough to save a grown man from drowning.

Those dogs, says Spackman, were interbred with stock brought by the European settlers— allowing for the blockier head and floppy ears, which paved the way for the breed type as we know it today. A number of retrieving breeds were derived from Newfoundlands, including the Chesapeake Bay, Labrador, Golden, and Flat-Coated retrievers. Given a smaller stature but close relationship to the Newfoundland, Labs were originally known as the Lesser Newfoundland.

Their prowess as rescuers is the stuff of legend: What the Saint Bernard is to the Alps, the Newfoundland is to the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Newfs also earned their keep by hauling fishing nets to shore and carting the day’s catch to market. Although the Newfoundland’s career as a seagoing deckhand is mostly a thing of the past, the breed is still considered the premium water-rescue dog and is employed in that role the world over.

Newfs Today

Newfoundlands aren’t used for water rescue in an official capacity here in the States, but they still patrol the beaches in France and Italy. Today’s Newfoundland also hauls more as a hobby than as a draft animal. The NCA water and draft exercises are designed to foster and sharpen the breed’s natural working instincts.

Judi Adler, of Sweetbay Newfoundlands in Oregon, is known for her active, athletic dogs, which have earned a stunning 739 titles, including more than 300 obedience and 70 tracking titles. “Our emphasis is on producing a dog with many talents— a sturdy and robust dog that embodies the breed’s heritage as a working dog,” she explains. Newfoundlands are also ideal therapy dogs—their large size, touchable coat, and docile personality make them favorites at nursing homes and hospitals.

Related article: Skye Terrier History: From Rocky Scotland to British Royalty
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