Biggest Dog

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Figure 4

Newfoundland dog (1789)

Bewick's Newfoundland dog shows a taller dog with shorter hair

Wood engraving by Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), from A General History of Quadrupeds (1800), BHLsiki (2010).

Thomas Bewick drew this portrait of "a very fine" specimen of the Newfoundland breed at the village of Eslington, Northumberland, England, in 1789. It was notably large, being of the size characteristic of the species native to the Channel Islands, especially Newfoundland. He reported its dimensions as follows:

From its nose to the end of its tail, it measured six feet two inches; the length of its tail, one foot ten inches; from one fore foot right over its shoulders to the other, five feet seven inches; girt[h] behind the shoulder, three feet two inches; round its head over its ears, two feet; round the upper part of its fore leg, nine inches and a half. It was web-footed (Fig. 6), could swim extremely fast, dive with great east, and bring up any thing from the bottom of the water.

Those figures clearly substantiate Taplin's description of the dog's use as a draft animal on Newfoundland Island. It was frequently observed, however, that the breed as it was known in England and America at the turn of the 19th century, was somewhat smaller than its North Atlantic forebears but still displayed the essential qualities of its canine heritage.1

Figure 5

"The Newfoundland Dog, Original Breed"2

Canis Terrae Nova, H. Smith

The original breed is much taller with much shorter hair

Jardine, The Naturalist's Library

Drawing by Charles Hamilton Smith (1776-1859)
Engraving by William Home Lizars (1788-1859)

The breed of these handsome and powerful dogs, now (in 1840) common in Great Britain, wrote Col. Smith, especially the hound, "and therefore differs somewhat from the original indigenous race of [North] America." Newfoundlands of the 1840s in England were larger than those of the original stock in the American colonies, and were generally white with black spots (Fig. 3). The original Newfoundland was smaller, the body more slender, forehead more arched, the muzzle sharper, and "nearly all of a totally black colour, excepting a bright rust coloured spot above each eye, some fulvous [reddish-yellow, tawny] towards the nose, throat, and upon the joints; there was also a little white about the feet, and in the end of the tail."

But those superficial details aside, the breed bore some unique attributes that clearly fitted it for a large, mostly water-borne expedition that expected to meet new strangers frequently. The "true breed of this race," Smith continued, "is almost semi-palmated [Fig. 6]; and, consequently, they swim, dive, and endure the water, better and longer than any other dog in existence." Joining the chorus of praise and admiration for the breed, he emphasized, "no dog is better qualified to serve in harness, or fitter to watch and guard property on shore, or vessels in the coasting trade, rivers, or canals. As a waterdog, he can be taught to execute almost any command; and his kind disposition makes training easy, when used in the field."

Smith also invoked the history of these dogs not as pets but seasonal helpmates to generations of fishermen in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland from sometime in the 1400s until the end of the 20th century. Before the 1840s, he wrote, there may have been as many as 2,000 of them around the seaport of St. John's, Newfoundland. Throughout the entire annual cod-fishing season, for nearly 300 years, they were left to shift for themselves while their masters were out on the Grand Banks. Traditionally regarded as descendants of wild dogs and wolves, they were allowed to remain starving, diseased, and even dangerous to the human population. When the fishermen returned, the surviving dogs took up their work again, pulling carts or sleds loaded with firewood, fish for the table, and other bulk supplies until the next cod season began.

Aware of the steadily growing fear of epizoötics of rabies in heavily populated areas in America as well as Europe, Col. Smith added the note that that dreaded disease did not afflict the untended Newfies, but only that a kind of plague, originating in the neglect and misery they suffered, occasionally destroyed great numbers of them.3

Figure 6

Knight, the Newfie

photo of a modern Newfoundland: a large dog with long hair

© 2005 VIAs Inc.

Play Knights "voice"

Courtesy of Danette Paige and Knight, Missoula, Montana.

Figure 7

Powerful Paws

Webbed paw

Courtesy of Danette Paige and Knight

Large semi-palmated (webbed) paws on sturdy legs beneath muscular shoulders qualify Newfoundlands as eager, strong swimmers, equal to the challenges of fast rivers and heavy surf.

Barking—"giving tongue"—just for the noise of it did not come naturally to the breed. "The Newfoundland Dog in his native country, seldom barks," wrote Thomas Doughty (1793-1856) in his Cabinet of Natural History, "and that, only when much provoked."4 "His utterance," the author continued, "appears an unnatural exertion, producing a noise between a bark and a growl." That may have been true of the Newfoundlands within Doughty's acquaintance, but it doesn't sound that way today, coming from a descendant many dog-generations distant from the early 19th century. Nevertheless, it is still very difficult to tease a Newfoundland into barking for no apparent reason.

Knight, only five months old when this photo (Fig. 5) was taken, would sound a full-throated woof when the doorbell rang, or when someone unfamiliar entered his environment, but his master was present here today, so he was fully at ease and making friends with the stranger.

We can only surmise that Seaman's "note" was similar to Knight's, and if so, that his gruff, resonant voice would have startled most Indians, as well as their characteristically quiet dogs.


Lewis's "very active strong and docile" canine companion also possessed another of the breed's much-vaunted attributes, a "partiality for water, in which he appears in his proper element, diving and keeping beneath the surface for a considerable time."5

On the day (5 July 1804) the expedition "came to for Dinner at a Beever house," Seaman, apparently unbidden, "went in & drove them out." It may have been the dog's very presence in the water that spooked the rodents, but it could be he actually dove down to one of the submerged entrances and stuck his head in to browbeat them into flight.

Seaman surely earned his keep with his affinity for water. He swam into swarms of migrating gray squirrels crossing the Ohio river, picking off a few fat ones for his master's dinner. He chased and caught a pregnant pronghorn doe in "a fair race." He caught another "goat" swimming across the Missouri, "drowned it and brought it on shore." He retrieved wounded deer on several occasions. Waterfowl were irresistible challenges: "My dog caught several [geese] today, as he frequently dose," Lewis remarked offhandedly. On another occasion Seaman's eagerness nearly caused him to bleed to death when a wounded beaver bit him on a leg and punctured the artery.

The downside of the Newfoundland's primary talent is a tendency to be undiscriminating about which rescues are desirable. The painter Landseer illustrated that with his amusing "Friends" (1824), in which a dripping-wet all-black Newfie proffers his frowning mistress a child's toy sailboat he has just fetched from a nearby pond.

Big Dog

Perhaps another feature that impressed the Shoshones on that August day in 1805 was Seaman's size, compared with most Indian dogs. Although Lewis had occasionally mentioned Indian dogs on the way up the Missouri, they must have been rather ordinary-looking, for he took no pains to record any details. Later he penned a concise description of the typical Indian dog west of the Rockies: It was, wrote Lewis,

unusually small, about the size of an ordinary cur; he is usually parti-coloured, amongst which, the black, white, brown, and brindle are the colours most predominant; the head is long, the nose pointed, the eyes small, the ears erect and pointed like that of the wolf; the hair is short and smooth, excepting on the tail, where it is long and straight, like that of the ordinary cur-dog.6

The zoological history of Indian dogs was still a murky subject among naturalists at the time, and the study of it was considered a matter of obvious importance. Benjamin Smith Barton, in an article on "Native Dogs of North America" concluded: "We are not yet prepared to give an exact genealogical history of the Indian Dog. We are compelled to mix conjecture with fact. The anatomical structure of the animal should be examined. But whatever may have been the origin of this breed of dogs, I am disposed to think, . . . that the savages found it in the woods, and that it has existed as a distinct species, or breed, for a very long period of time."7

Lewis left us no clues as to Seaman's physical features, but in the late 1820s John Godman compared a typical Newfoundland with Lewis's description of the Indian dog. The Newfoundland dog, he concluded,

has a broader and more expressive visage, and a blunter nose, . . . the orbits of his eyes have more prominent superciliary ridges, the ears are broad, soft and pendulous, and the whole body is more robust, and covered with long, soft and glossy hair. On the tail the hair is still longer than on the body and forms a handsome brush, which appears to greater advantage when the animal is in motion, as it is then carried slightly curbed upwards at its extremity.8

From a human's perspective, those "prominent superciliary ridges," or eyebrows, undoubtedly lent the dog's countenance a more serious, intense—even thoughtful—expression than that of more ordinary dogs.

Thomas Doughty gave some typical measurements of a Newfoundland, and indicated their significance:

A full sized Newfoundland Dog, from the nose to the end of the tail, measures about six feet and a half, the length of the tail being about two feet; from one fore foot to the other over the shoulders, three feet four inches; round the head across the ears, two feet; round the upper part of the fore leg, ten inches; length of the head, fourteen inches. . . . This Dog is not remarkable for symmetry of proportions, and his motions are heavy; consequently, he is not distinguished for speed.9 In the mid-18th-century mongrel denoted either a mixed-breed dog of uncertain parentage or, more specifically, the offspring of a wolf and a dog.

However, the British traveler Edward Chappell, claimed that by 1818 "the . . . true breed has become scarce, and is rarely to be found, except upon the coast of Labrador."10 "The generality of the Dogs known under the name of Newfoundland, both in England and this country, are only half bred." Lewis left us no specific information from which we might deduce Seaman's size, but he did remark (6 November 1803) that he had paid $20 for him—half a month's salary for an Army captain—which suggests that either Lewis knew dogs well enough to be qualified to make an intelligent choice, or he got some excellent advice.


Originally supported in part by a grant from the NPS Challenge-Cost Share Program

  • 1. At least one 18th-century naturalist rejected the thesis of the breed's uniqueness. Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) wrote of the dogs of Newfoundland in general: "It is not certain that there is any distinct breed: most of them are curs, with a cross of the mastiff: some will, and others will not, take the water, absolutely refusing to go in. The country was found uninhabited, which makes it more probable that they were introduced by the Europeans." Arctic Zoology, 2 vols., 1784 (Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1974), 1:39-41. Pennant's conjecture remains arguably acceptable to at least one authority. Desmond Morris, Dogs; the Ultimate Dictionary (North Pomfret, Vermont: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2001), 670.
  • 2. William Jardine, ed., The Naturalist's Library, 42 vols.; Vol 19, Charles Hamilton Smith, Mammalia; Dogs, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: W. H. Lizars, 1840), Plate 3.
  • 3. Ibid., 133-34,
  • 4. John and Thomas Doughty, The Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1830-32), 1 (1830):54. Internet Archive, (accessed November 11, 2010). The Newfoundland, presented as a retriever, was the only domestic canid discussed by the Doughtys in either volume.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. This is from Biddle's paraphrase of Lewis's original journal for 16 February 1806; that was all anyone had to go on until Thwaites published the complete journals in 1904. Lewis himself wrote "usually," not "unusually."
  • 7. The Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal (Philadelphia: J. Conrad & Co., 1804-1808), vol. I, part 2, p. 3. Quoted in William Guthrie, A New Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar; and Present State of the Several Kingdoms of the World, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Johnson Warner, 1815), 1: 294.
  • 8. Godman, 1: 254.
  • 9. Doughty, 1:53.
  • 10. Edward Chappell, Voyage of His Majesty's Ship Rosamond to Newfoundland and the Southern Coast of Labrador. (London: J. Mawman, 1818), 141.