The Vanishing Newfoundland Dog

The American Kennel Club recognizes 208 different breeds of dogs. There seems to be a dog breed for every imaginable human need. Some dogs are specifically bred to protect us and guard our property. And others are bred to herd sheep and cattle. A number of different breeds of dogs are trained to guide the blind. And there are several breeds that excel at hunting and killing vermin. There are even dogs bred specifically for human companionship.

In today’s modern world, many of the inbred skills and attributes of older breeds are no longer needed or necessary. The Newfoundland dog, once a widely used working dog, and a favorite companion of fishermen, is one of the breeds that has fallen out of favor with the current everyday dog owner.


The magnificent Newfoundland dog is a large, powerful, and intelligent animal. The Newfoundland is usually solid black or brown but some Newfoundland dogs are a combination of black and white. These are often mistaken for their cousin, the Saint Bernard. Both breeds are descendants of an ancient canine known as the Molosser dog. The now extinct Molossers were bred by the Greeks and Romans for their ferocity. The Greeks used the Molosser primarily as a war dog. And, like the Greeks before them, the Romans used the fierce Molosser in battle. They also trained the Molosser dog to fight lions in Rome’s Colosseum.

Newfoundland Brown

From Roman times on, with 2000 years of breeding and crossbreeding, the Molosser dog has morphed into the modern group of large dogs known as Mastiffs. The Saint Bernard and the Newfoundland are not true Mastiffs. But they, along with the Mastiffs, can claim the Molosser dog as an ancestor.

St BernardIt’s widely known that the Saint Bernard dog has been used for centuries to rescue lost travelers in the heavy snow regions of Europe’s tallest mountains. The image of a 250-pound Saint Bernard trudging through deep Alpine snow drifts, with a miniature keg of brandy strapped to its collar, is instilled in the minds of dog lovers all over the world.      Its cousin, the Newfoundland dog, besides being a powerful working dog, is also a noted rescue dog. But the Newfoundland is much more suited for water rescue. For the past 200 years, newspapers across America and Canada have printed numerous stories of water rescues attributed to the Newfoundland dog. Its webbed feet, its double coat, and the unique down and flared-out stroke of the Newfoundland dog, helps to make it the strongest swimmer in the canine world.

The Newfoundland dog is indigenous to the continent of North America. Most canine experts agree that the enormous Newfoundland dog is the result of crossbreeding Portuguese Mastiffs with the now extinct Saint John’s Water dog. But regardless of where the Newfoundland got its genetic heritage from; the strength, the intelligence, and the rescue instincts of this majestic beast are remarkable. However, once in a while, the normally dormant ferociousness of the Newfoundland dog will be aroused. One such incident occurred in Topeka, Kansas on a chilly February evening in 1888. A story printed in the Wichita Daily Eagle on February 9, 1888 and published in newspapers across America gave the nation a glimpse of just how dangerous a Newfoundland dog can be.

Mr. Hoelcher and his wife had just finished their Saturday evening meal when Mr. Hoelcher decided to unchain Max, their two-year-old Newfoundland dog, from a post in their backyard. Upon unchaining the dog, Mr. Hoelcher wanted to show the 160-pound animal that he was the boss. He kicked Max and the dog flew at him. The screams and snarls alerted Mrs. Hoelcher and the neighbors. Mrs. Hoelcher rushed from the home with a broom to beat off the beast. The dog seemed intent upon ripping open Mr. Hoelcher’s throat. Several neighbors with shovels and rakes pounded the dog with blows to the head and back. Mr. Hoelcher locked his shredded hands on his bloody throat as Max’s sharp fangs ripped chunks of flesh from his arms. The sound of cracking bones filled the air. Mrs. Hoelcher ran back to the house and retrieved a butcher knife from her kitchen. One of the men dropped his shovel, took the knife from Mrs. Hoelcher and repeatedly stabbed Max until the frenzied animal fell dead. Mr. Hoelcher’s neck, chest, and arms were terribly lacerated and before the night was over, he succumbed to his mortal wounds.

The tragic tale spurred people from all over the country to write letters to the newspapers that printed the story. The general consensus was; Mr. Hoelcher should not have kicked a 160-pound dog. However, many newspaper editors were surprised to receive a flood of mail from people who owned Newfoundland dogs. Just about every letter had the same theme, they proclaimed the gentleness and intelligence of the mighty Newfoundland dog.

About ten years after the death of Max in Kansas, a story about a Newfoundland dog in Chicago made national news. On August 20, 1899, The Chicago Tribune printed the story of a young child who was saved by her Newfoundland dog. Within hours of the Tribune story being printed, newspapers across America were spreading the news about the Newfoundland dog who saved his little mistress from certain death.

Newfoundland black whiteThe August 21, 1899, edition of The San Francisco Chronical gave a detailed account of the Chicago incident. According to the article, 6-year-old Alice Pedro, and her dog Don were racing across a busy Chicago street when the little girl snagged her foot on a trolley track and fell. The fall stunned her and she could not move. The article stated that the dog saw a trolley car speeding towards the child and realized the little girl was in a perilous situation. The dog then took Alice’s dress in his mouth and tried to pull her away from the track, but unfortunately the dress ripped. It was at that moment, according to the newspaper article, that the dog turned away from the child and for a few seconds gazed toward the approaching trolley car. Then, according to the article in The San Francisco Chronical, the dog seemed to make a decision. He started barking furiously and charged up the track towards the trolley car. The article goes on to state, “The motorman saw the dog coming and at first thought the beast was mad. He clamped on the brakes and as the car slowed up, Don was compelled to run backward to keep out from under the wheels. He would not get off the track. The instant the car came to a standstill the dog bounded back to his small mistress, who by this time was on her feet and able to realize the danger she had escaped.”

Whoever wrote the 1899 story in the San Francisco Chronicle certainly added some flair and flamboyancy to the story. It was a time when sensationalism and exaggeration sold newspapers. But, thankfully the story had a happy ending.

Newfoundland dogs must have been a very popular dog in 1899. On September 8, 1899, The New York Times printed a story about a Newfoundland dog that was abandoned in the Bronx.

The Bronx in 1899 was a fairly rural area, and the Harlem river, flowing along the west side of the Bronx, was a clean waterway. The river connected to New York Harbor, and was strongly affected by the tides of the Atlantic ocean. The sparsely populated neighborhood on the west side of the Bronx was called Highbridge. The area was named after “The High Bridge” which was built in the 1840s to serve as an aqueduct to carry fresh water from other parts of New York State to the residents of New York City.

In 1899, the Highbridge neighborhood was not the best place to find a job. And, when Edward Jordan’s venture at running a saloon in the neighborhood failed, he decided to move his family to Philadelphia. But, although the Jordan family owned a 2-year-old Newfoundland dog named Dewey, Mr. Jordan decided that they could not bring the animal with them. It was a large animal, and feeding it would be a hardship. So, when the Jordan family left the neighborhood in April of 1899, they left the dog behind.

With no home and no one to feed him, Dewey made the shadow of the granite “High Bridge” his home. It was a good choice. There was a boat-club with a dock at the foot of the bridge, and the bridge blocked out the hot afternoon sun. Plus, several picnic tables sat alongside the shore of the river, and a nearby police station meant food scraps when the policemen did not finish their lunch.

According to the September 8, 1899 issue of The New York Times: The 7th of September was an unseasonably hot day, and Mrs. Dorian, who lived 2 blocks from the river, decided to take her daughter Nettie to the river for a boat ride. They walked from their home on Wolf street to Keenan’s boat-club on the river. There were several children playing on the floating dock in front of the boat-club. While mother and daughter were waiting for a boat to be prepared, Nettie walked towards the front of the dock. The little girl lost her balance and fell into the river. As the strong tidal current pulled Nettie away from the dock, Mrs. Dorian, who was not able to swim, screamed for help.

Newfoundland Rescue Dog

Dewey, who lay sleeping in the grass near the dock, raised his head. He saw the girl frantically splashing in the river and sprang into action. He raced up the dock and leaped into the river. The dog swam to Nettie and seized her dress by the neck. The dog kept little Nettie’s head above water as he swam back towards the boat-club.

Patrolman Shea, who had been alerted by Mrs. Dorian’s screams, arrived just as Dewey brought Nettie to the dock. The Patrolman lifted Nettie out of the water and a grateful mother and daughter went home. Meanwhile, patrolman Shea took the dog to the station house and told Captain Gannon the details of the rescue. Captain Gannon was impressed and he made Dewey the official mascot of the station house. And, from that day forward, all the food and care Dewey needed was provided by the officers and patrolmen of the Highbridge Police Station.

dog swimmingIn a sad way, the sometimes sensational and often heartwarming stories about Newfoundland dogs are no longer appearing in our newspapers. It seems that in today’s world, very few people are suited to own such a large animal. Most Newfoundland dogs weigh upwards of 150 pounds and they have a voracious appetite. Few households have enough open space for a Newfoundland dog. It’s essential for the Newfoundland to have a place to run, or at least to have an area large enough to lope around and expel the copious amounts of digested food they produce. Those necessities alone rule out most urban apartment dwellers. But even people living in a suburban home would find it difficult to own one of these giants. They do poorly in warm weather and they drool like an open faucet. And besides, they have a double coat of fur that’s great for buoyancy but is prone to matting and shedding. Also, times have changed, fishermen no longer need to bring a rescue dog with them when they fish. Modern fishing ships are like floating factories. A large dog on a contemporary fishing vessel would likely be more of a hindrance than a benefit.

So, with all the negative features that the once popular Newfoundland dog possesses, it’s resoundingly understandable that no one, except maybe a nostalgic dog enthusiast, would even consider owning a Newfoundland dog. Perhaps the time has come for the majestic Newfoundland dog to join the Saint John’s Water dog and all the other extinct breeds not suited for modern life. And yet it is feasible that the breed can survive. With all the genetic engineering going on, there is always the possibility that a geneticist will find a way to stop the drooling, curtail the shedding, and eliminate all the other undesirable traits of the mighty and once popular Newfoundland dog.