A dog indelibly part of our history

In Newfoundland and Labrador it evolved to fill an important role

Published on July 14, 2014

There are treacherous reefs near Martin’s Point not far from Bonne Bay. It was here 95 years ago that the captain of the coastal steamer Ethie struggled in the midst of a fierce winter storm blowing in from the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

He struggled with his choices: veer away from the point and try to ride out the storm, or find a place where the ship could be driven onto land in an effort to save some of the 90 souls aboard.

The story of the tribulations of the Ethie in mid-December of 1919 is well known. The main players are Capt. Edward English and purser Martin Young, who knew the region. And it was Young who guided English to what was considered the “one spot” that might offer a safe landing. The critical part played by a Newfoundland dog in the subsequent rescue of passengers and crew is also a part of the story.

Joseph R. Smallwood described the frightening episode in his “Stories of Newfoundland,” which he co-authored with Leo English as a school text in the 1930s. More than likely, Smallwood told it on air, too, during his “Barrelman” series.

Here is a quote from the text: “a line was attached to a lifebuoy and as it floated landwards a Newfoundland dog swam out amid the breakers and took it to ready hands that waited on the beach.”

Fiction could be no more dramatic. Smallwood’s account makes that clear: “the vessel was turned towards the shore and Martin Young, the purser stood at the captain’s side as great waves hurled the lurching ship through foaming bars to certain destruction. Engineers stood at their post until grating rocks tore the bottom from the doomed Ethie and the rush of water and blinding steam threatened explosion of the boilers.”

The Ethie’s experience is one of many Newfoundland events in which our famous name-dog participated. The big, black animal is known for its gentle nature; it is protective of children and will tow a sleigh with passengers or logs like any self-respecting goat or pony; perhaps better. The dog demonstrates understanding, perhaps wisdom, too, for it has performed many amazing acts.

Interestingly, in her account of the Newfoundland Dog (ref. Smallwood’s “The Book of Newfoundland, Vol. III,” 1967) Megan (Moores) Nutbeem (1928-2012) told the Ethie’s story slightly differently.

The dog was the ship’s very own Newfoundland; its name was Tang. He was given a rope and ordered, “to shore!”

Tang is said to have jumped overboard with the rope in his mouth and struggled through the roaring waves to bring it within the grasp of men on shore. This made possible a breeches buoy.

Nutbeem’s account contains an error in the number of people aboard. Initially she writes “92” but says there were 119 saved. Admittedly these are not major variances but they do show how history, as it is researched, rectified, verified and glorified, can, alas, suffer change.

There is the story (which Smallwood also tells) of Capt. Hillier who refused to leave his fishing schooner after it was extensively battered and damaged off Cape Freels late one year around the early part of the 20th century. His crew abandoned the schooner and were surprised when they were safely in the smaller boat to find that Hiller would not leave his schooner or its precious cargo. The captain remained on board to struggle alone.

Strictly speaking, he was not alone. Also staying on board was his Newfoundland dog. If Hillier refused to leave, the dog refused as well. It stuck by him through perilous storm, hunger and thirst. It was not until a week had passed that Hillier managed to bring the schooner limping into Catalina.

In an American handbook of household management published 117 years ago, there is a segment on dogs — not just any dogs, but “breed” dogs. The Newfoundland occupies an honoured place in this canine social register.

It was written of the Newfoundland, “there are several varieties — a smooth breed with small head, white spotted with black (which seems to be extinct); a large breed with broad muzzle, head raised, noble expression, curly hair, thick and bushy tail; he is the water dog par excellence; his education comes by nature. In his infancy he may be taught to bring a glove and lay it down; and by practice, his various duties will follow. With judicious exercise of authority, he becomes very docile. They have been known at four months to fetch a duck, but they should not be put too early at hard service.”

Megan Nutbeem traces for the Newfoundland an intriguing history, placing them (or their clear ancestors) with the Beothuks and the Norse (Vikings) and declaring that they descended from the Tibetan Mastiff. Whatever their far-flung family, they evolved beautifully for this challenging island.

Nutbeem also shows how the dog adapted well to the demands of life upon man and beast in Newfoundland:

“Years ago, tackled together in teams of three or four they were used to haul catamarans (sleds) of firewood and lumber from the forests to the towns over drifts and barren wastelands, sometimes accompanied by the owner but just as often alone, leaving their owner in the forest cutting and his son at home who would unload the sleds and send the team back to his father for yet another load.”

 Eighty-five years ago, a British dog expert published “The Practical Dog Book,” a very popular 350-page compendium of advice, stories, drawings and photographs. In a segment on the Newfoundland, Edward C. Ash included this anecdote which I, for one, do not believe:

“One of the pleasures of being a hero is that one is supposed to live up to a line of conduct above reproach, so that the story which was published in the daily press relating how Lord Louth’s Newfoundland dog had behaved caused many people to hurriedly write to the press stating that the Newfoundland dog in the matter related was a very different dog indeed from the rest of the noble race.

“Lord Louth’s Newfoundland had lived in great friendliness with an Italian Greyhound. This friendliness was well known. They were painted reclining in an attitude of extreme affection, side by side, their legs crossed. On a certain day these two friends had a disagreement over a bone. The Newfoundland had finished his meal and was seen to go across to his friend, the Italian Greyhound, and suggest that the bone the Italian was engaged on was to be surrendered to him. The Italian Greyhound refusing to let go, the Newfoundland ate the Greyhound and the bone!”


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: psparkes@thetelegram.com.