This Week in History


Newfoundland's Gentle Giants

For the Week of Monday, January 30, 2017

On January 31, 1988, a Newfoundland dog named L’il Bear Skipper was born. A working dog, he welcomed visitors to Cape Spear National Historic Site and served as a safety officer by barking at people who strayed too close to the cliffs.

Newfoundland dogs have thick black coats and are very large. L’il Bear Skipper stood 5’ 7” (1.7 m) tall on his hind legs!
Heidi Mueller / Wikimedia Commons

Newfoundland dogs are an iconic breed of Newfoundland and Labrador, and have a reputation as gentle giants. Their origins are unclear, but they may have been first bred on the island. Records as early as 1745 show that they were prized for their intelligence, loyalty, and gentle nature. Their webbed feet, thick coats and large lung capacity made them excellent swimmers. Stories of Newfoundland dogs rescuing drowning victims made the news repeatedly and several were awarded Royal Lifesaving Society medals. They were also popular as working dogs, hauling firewood and fishnets, and delivering milk and mail.

The Newfoundland dog became threatened in the late 19th century when the colony’s government tried to promote sheep farming by exterminating all non-herding dogs. Attempting to revitalize the breed, Harold Macpherson started Westerland Kennels in 1901. In Britain, however, the breed flourished; authors Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and Lord Byron all wrote about their beloved Newfoundland dogs. The famous book character Nana from Peter Pan is a Newfoundland dog as well.

Sable Chief with his handler Pte. Hazen Fraser. Sadly, Sable Chief was hit by a truck and killed. His body can now be viewed at The Rooms museum in St. John’s
The Rooms Provincial Archive / A 19-26 / Daily Mail

During both World Wars, Newfoundland dogs raised troops’ spirits as regimental mascots. The still-remembered Sable Chief was the beloved mascot of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War. In the Second World War, Gander – a gift of Westerland Kennels – accompanied the Canadian Royal Rifles to Hong Kong. He was killed at the Battle of Hong Kong while carrying a grenade away from the Canadian line, in the process saving numerous lives.

To read more about Gander, read Sergeant Gander Reporting for Duty! in the This Week in History archives. L’il Bear Skipper’s home, Cape Spear Lighthouse, is a national historic site and The Canadian Role in the Defence of Hong Kong is a national historic event.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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