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Curly-coated Retriever, Newfoundland or St. John's Dog?

Most of you reading this have likely encountered at least one version of the history of the Newfoundland, the Labrador, the Flat-coated retriever, and, of course, the curly-coated retriever breeds. The history of these breeds usually goes something like this: dogs of a native Canadian breed, usually dubbed the St. John's dog or the Newfoundland, were exported to England to create the breeds now known as Labrador and Flat-coated retrievers.

But were the St. John's dog and the Newfoundland actually native to Canada? Or is there another path in their history? Way back in 1925, a Newfoundland dog fancier and dog writer researched the Newfoundland's origins and concluded English retrievers, including curly-coated retrievers, were used in the development of the Newfoundland in Canada. Writing in the 1925 American Kennel Club Gazette magazine, Newf fancier and dog writer Edwin Morris detailed what he had found out about Newfoundland history.

Morris believed curly-coated retrievers accompanied their owners to Canada and were part of the founding members of the Newfoundland breed.

Check out this picture of the first prize-winning Newfoundland at the 1863 Paris Dog show, one of the most important dog shows in history.

Photo of Newfoundland dog named Diamant, first prize-winner at Paris Dog Show, 1863.
Diamant, first prize winner in the Newfoundland breed class, 1863, Paris.

Trim this dog's coat, as modern-day curly-coated retriever owners do for dog show exhibition, and he would resemble a curly even more so than he does in the picture.

Here is what Morris said about Newfoundland development in Canada:

"The Newfoundland and also the Labrador dog sometimes called the smooth-coated retriever, were both derived from a cross between the Pyrenees sheepdogs, brought to Newfoundland from France by Biscaly fishermen between 1506 and 1662 and also later, and black retrievers accompanying the English colonists.

In 1506, Jean Denys of Harfleur, France, visited the island, establishing a base, and leaving boats and barks in the haven called Rougnoust. Other expeditions followed, but not until 1662 did the French winter on the island. They settled at Rougnoust, near St. Jean de Luz and in Placentia Bay.

Jean Denys probably reported that the waters were not only abundantly stocked with fish, but that on land were a goodly number of wolves and other animals. Hence, not as mascots alone, but for protection were the creamy white sheepdogs of the Pyrenees brought over from France.

These dogs were moderately large, active and faithful, with a cautious, dignified deportment, and flat coats, coarse with wooly undercoats, capable of resisting the rigorous climate of the Pyrenees. They had deep flews, affording plenty of space for olfactory nerves which game them good noses. And they had eyes of almost human pathos, deep, small, and searching.

When the English colonists went to Newfoundland to stay, they brought such sporting dogs as were in vogue in their native land. Probably these were curly-coated retrievers, black dogs of medium size. The dogs had long muzzles, were inclined to be hard-headed and hard-mouthed, made good dogs for water or land retrieving, and were alert and intelligent.

The French fisherman's favorite became crossed with the English sportsman's companion, and from this was evolved the greater Newfoundland Landseer, the Labrador or smooth-coated retriever, probably the Chesapeake Bay dog, and later on the greater dog was crossed with Alpine dogs, producing the modern St. Bernard. In spite of all that has been said to the contrary, that branch of the greater, called Landseers, was strictly of this origin."

~Written by Edwin H. Morris, AKC Gazette, January 1925.


Morris' article is just one man's theory based on research he conducted beginning in 1900. He was a well-known author and dog man, writing for a number of publications.

His theory is certainly plausible. There are historical accounts of curly-coated retrievers accompanying their owners on exploration ships. Early Newfoundland dogs were very curly and often earned extra credit in the show ring if they were curly. The dog pictured above, "Diamant", was exported to France from Canada. His photograph is one of the earliest photos of a Newfoundland dog. He looks more like a curly-coated retriever rather than a modern Newfoundland. By the 1920s, Newfoundlands had been bred for larger size and to try to rid the coat of the curls but not always successfully. Here is a picture of a champion U.S. Newfoundland, a dog so important he was featured on the cover of the American Kennel Club Gazette magazine.

Cover of the 1925 AKC Gazette featuring Newfoundland dog Ch. Jonmunn Shakespeare.
Newfoundland champion dog Jonmunn Shakespeare II.

Ch. Jonmunn Shakespeare strongly resembles a Chesapeake Bay Retriever!

Many doggy historians state that ALL retrievers descended from the St. John's dog but this has never been proven. Dog genome mapping indicates the curly-coated retriever was actually a spaniel later designated as a retriever, is most closely related to the Irish Water Spaniel, and shares some genes with the most ancient dog breeds. (More about this in a later post.)

Diamant the Newfoundland was entered into a class allowing for the exhibition of two types of Newfoundlands.

The first category type was "Chien de Terre-Neuve noir a poil ras--a poil frise." That category was for black smooth or curly-coated Newfoundlands. Diamant was entered in that class category.

In the same class, a dog could also be entered into the white and black Newfoundland dog from Labrador category. ("Chien de Terre-Neuve blanc et noir du Labrador".)

Diamant won first prize in the class and a "Chienne du Labrador" (Labrador bitch) named Grisette won second. The Paris dog show organizers recognized, in 1863, that the Newfoundland dog from Canada and the Labrador dog from Canada were separate types of Newfoundland dogs.

After viewing Diamant's picture, it is fascinating to view the picture of one of the curly-coated retrievers entered. The first prize-winning curly is one very familiar to curly fanciers: Mr. Riley's Royal.

Photo of the curly coated retriever Royal at the 1863 Paris Dog show.
The curly-coated retriever "Royal" at the 1863 Paris Dog Show.

Royal isn't groomed like modern show curlies are groomed but he is of an old-fashioned type which was still in existence when I imported my first curly in the late 70s! This head type can still be seen, albeit more and more infrequently, in some modern curly coats.

It is interesting to note the differences in ear size and shape between Diamant and Royal, the shorter back of Diamant versus that of Royal, the tail lengths and carriages, and the head shapes. (Diamant appears to have much less stop and a narrower muzzle.) I wouldn't be at all surprised, however, if we somehow found out Diamant and Royal were quite closely related and that brings us back full-circle to Edwin Morris' theory that curly-coated retrievers were used in Canada to form the Newfoundland and Labrador/St. John's dog breeds. Although Diamant and Royal have some differences in appearance, they each have traits in head shape, tail carriage and length, ear shape and size, and short/longer backs that still appear in the breed today!

(Stay tuned for a post with more about Royal, the curly-coated retriever pictured here.)


Note Well: the Newfoundland as we know it today looks much different from the original Newfoundland dog. The modern-day Newfoundland was developed in England by crossing two or more breeds with the original Newfoundland breed.

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