Newfoundlands as Service Dogs

Newfoundlands as Service Dogs

This post is a part of our series Digging Deeper – Exploring Specific Breeds as Service Dogs. In this series, we analyze the strengths and weaknesses of various breeds in the context of being a service dog. In this article, we consider the Newfoundland.


by Rachel Moseley

“Do Newfoundlands make good service dogs?”

This question shows up frequently in various service dog groups (and even in Newfoundland breed groups). If someone posts in a service dog group asking for recommendations for a large breed dog people are quick to suggest Newfs even if they know little to nothing about the breed. The recommendation is always made with good intentions but Newfoundlands are by no means a breed for the average handler.

Why You Don’t Actually Want a Newfoundland

More often than not people consider the breed because of their trademarked gentleness and intelligence. They fail to think about everything else that comes along with those traits (and that gentleness is often a learned trait not present in young and adolescent puppies). Let’s go through the list of other breed traits.

The Drool

When I say they drool I don’t mean they slobber a bit around food and after drinking like most “drooly” breeds. I mean they DROOL. Constantly. It’s a breed trait caused by their loose jowls that were designed to help make water retrievals easier for the dogs. There is rarely a moment where they don’t have at least one string of drool dangling from their mouth. And guess what? If they shake their head you’re going to have to wash your walls and your ceilings because they’re going to sling drool (with fur mixed in typically) all over everything.

Drool, drool everywhereTheir drool isn’t even the consistency of regular dog drool. You know how most dogs that drool have almost water like drool? Not Newfs. Their drool is more of a glue than a drool. It sticks to absolutely everything and, frankly, it’s quite disgusting.

Going past being a pet to being used as a service dog, imagine for a second what would happen if your Newfoundland shook his head in a restaurant and slung drool all over the buffet. You absolutely have to keep their faces wiped for sanitation reasons. Which can easily mean having to stop whatever you’re doing every two minutes to get out the slobber cloth and wipe them down depending on the day and the individual dog. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a hurry or you’re doing something that you can’t easily stop at the moment. You can’t have him drooling buckets inside of stores.

A note about dry mouth Newfoundlands:

Be aware that anyone claiming to breed dry mouth Newfoundlands is someone you should avoid. I see people in the service dog community with horribly bred Newfs constantly talking about how you can just get a dry mouth Newf and solve the drool issue.

Here’s the thing though. To get a “dry mouth” you have to intentionally be breeding for a different head and jowl shape than a proper Newf should have (and even then, there’s no guarantee a puppy won’t grow up to drool) which is a sure sign of a bad breeder and it almost guarantees that you’re not really getting a Newf. Breaking standard and breeding specifically for head and jowl shape (against standard especially) means that they aren’t going to care about the rest of the breed standard. Which means, in many instances, you can say goodbye to that fabulous Newfoundland temperament.

If you don’t want a dog that drools then find another breed. Some well-bred Newfs will drool more or less than others but that’s impossible to tell in a puppy.

Exercise Requirements

For some reason, Newfoundlands have developed a reputation as a breed that’s perfectly content to lay around and do nothing all day every day. This fallacy is hurting the breed and every dog that’s treated as such. They will become a couch potato if they have nothing to do but they should not be allowed to. They are a working breed and you should treat them as one. You shouldn’t just expect a Newf (or any dog really) to just lay around and do nothing all the time. They have to have physical exercise and care to be happy, whether it’s regular (long) walks, hiking, swimming, carting, anything at all. A Newfoundland needs a way to expend their energy to be the happiest version of themselves possible.

Training

Don’t forget about exercising their brain too. Never forget that this is a working breed designed to learn and do. They need constant training and, in most cases, a lot of it. Some Newfs require upwards of two or three hours of training a day. Some are lower drive but they still need at least an hour of training every day.

It never stops either. Feel like you’re too sick to train one day? Too bad, they need to be trained or they’ll find something on their own to stimulate their brains (and trust me you won’t like whatever they find to do). Just because you’ve fully trained their service dog tasks and behavior doesn’t mean that you can stop training new stuff. That just means it’s time to start training other things – whether it’s tricks, drafting, nosework, or any other dog sports – they have to have something consistently or they’ll become bored and unhappy.

Keep in mind that although Newfs are brilliant dogs they do occasionally have an independent and slightly stubborn streak so training won’t always be a walk in the park. Training a Newf is a lot different than training something like a Golden Retriever. They tend to be prone to thinking about what they’re doing instead of just blindly following commands like more biddable breeds do. These combined traits can make training frustrating if you aren’t aware of their quirks.

Water Dogs

Muddy dogThis has nothing to do with service work in particular but I’d be remiss to write this article and not mention it. Newfoundlands are water dogs first and foremost. They’ll do anything to get in some water. That water bowl they’re supposed to be drinking out of? Suddenly it ends up dumped all over the floor and they’ll be playing in the water. That’s just as good as going to a lake as far as they’re concerned. Got mud puddles in your yard? Prepare for a muddy monster of a dog because they will play in every single bit of water they can find.

Can you really handle that? It doesn’t matter how nice your floors are, at some point they will dump their bowls on it to splay out in the water on the floor. They’ll track mud all over your house because they found some to play in (even when you didn’t think there was any mud available). I hope you don’t expect to have a perfectly clean house ever again.

Grooming

Those pretty pictures you generally see of Newfoundlands are taken shortly after grooming because they quickly become a mess. That said, grooming a Newf is no small job. They need a proper combing at least once a week (more often as adolescents because that transitioning coat is a disaster). Have you heard of line combing? Look it up. It’s time-consuming but it’s absolutely mandatory for Newfs. You’ll need to run a comb through them every time you leave the house as well to minimize the amount of shedding in public.

Then to make it even more fun, Newfs blow their coat twice a year. For those that aren’t aware of what that means, essentially, they drop their entire undercoat in a short period of time in order to grow a new seasonally appropriate coat. During this time, they’ll need line combed several times a week and you can expect to have little (or huge) fur tumbleweeds all over your precious floors. Line combing takes time and can’t just be put off because you’re having a flare day or feeling too sick to put in the effort to do it. Expect to spend several hours a week grooming them. If you don’t line comb and get down to the skin regularly then they will develop mats that will make your dog uncomfortable and be even more of a pain for you to get out.

Even if you don’t trim anything else you will have to trim the fur in between their toes regularly to keep them from sliding on slippery floors, both in public and at home.

Gentle Giant

Newfoundland Dog

The term gentle giant isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds. While they can be incredibly gentle as adults they are rambunctious crazy puppies just like any other breed except far larger. They get excited and do normal dog things like jumping on you until they learn not too. If you’re physically weak they can seriously injure you while they’re learning how to act. They’re unaware of their size and space when they’re young so they will do things like accidentally run into you at full speed. They have to be taught to be gentle when they’re young so they grow up into a well-mannered gentle giant.

Health

Unfortunately, like most giant breeds Newfoundlands are plagued by a long list of potential health concerns ranging from hip or elbow dysplasia to serious heart defects. They only live 10-12 years on average (although that number does seem to be improving with well-bred health tested dogs). If you get a puppy it should be screened by the breeder at around 10 weeks for a heart defect known as SAS or Subvalvular Aortic Stenosis. Dogs can have severe SAS and never be diagnosed if they aren’t checked by a veterinary cardiologist. Unfortunately, this disease will severely impact their life expectancy and can even pop up in well bred, health tested litters because it has a very complex genetic cause.

Hip or elbow dysplasia (along with other musculoskeletal concerns) are also something to think about. Dogs with any of these issues should not be worked as a service dog in most cases. Most people getting a giant breed as a service dog prospect more often than not do so because they require mobility work. Any musculoskeletal issue would mean the dog would have to be immediately washed out and you’d have to start all over again with a new prospect.

Cost

A well-bred Newfoundland is not cheap, even starting with just the purchase price. Anything under $2000 should be scrupulously judged because chances are there’s a reason it’s that cheap. Cost, to some extent, reflects quality and how much is put into the dogs (although there are plenty of awful breeders with steep price tags).

Giants like Newfoundlands cost far more in healthcare than the average dog too, especially if you get a poorly bred one. Even simple necessities like heartworm preventatives and flea and tick meds cost far more for a dog the size of a Newfoundland. They have a lot of health issues as well like I mentioned above, all of which cost a lot of money to treat your dog.

Still Interested?

If you’ve made it this far and nothing’s turned you off of the breed then I strongly recommend finding a reputable breeder and spending some time with their dogs. Sit, play, and cuddle with them for a few hours so you can really get a feel for the breed. A million words on the internet are not nearly as valuable as hands-on experience and being able to talk with someone who’s been in the breed for years.

The Good

If you are still interested here are some good things about Newfoundlands.

Intelligence

Despite their stubborn and independent streaks, Newfoundlands are brilliant dogs. They can learn to do just about anything and excel in many different arenas. For example, they can be found doing water retrievals, drafting, working as therapy or service dogs, and they can even be found in most dog sports. They thrive when they’re learning new things and they are a joy to train once you get used to the way they work. Sometimes it can be a disadvantage when they’re too smart for their own good. As long as you put their brains to work constantly learning new things and improving on what they know you’ll grow to love the way they think things through as they go.

Temperament

A well-bred adult Newfoundland has an amazing temperament. They are by far the most devoted, loyal, loving breed I’ve ever worked with. Once you spend some time with them you’ll understand what I mean when I say there’s truly no other breed like them. They have strong personalities and they’re so much fun to have around.

A note about poorly bred Newfs:
There’s unfortunately been a surge in backyard breeders putting out aggressive Newfs. When you get a dog from a backyard breeder (or a puppy mill) you risk getting an aggressive Newf or one with other severe temperament faults. Make sure you do your research on breeders.
Size

In my opinion, they’re the perfect size for mobility work (assuming they meet your height and weight requirements). They’re big enough without being just way too big to comfortably fit in public places. They don’t get too tall, maxing out for males at around 29 inches (females are smaller, maxing out around 27 inches) so they can easily get under tables or desks without too much difficulty.

Do keep in mind that although people in Newfoundland groups are prone to bragging about their 200-pound Newf that they should not ever weigh nearly that much (most won’t even get near 150). Most of those dogs are grossly obese and it will inevitably shorten their lifespan and cause joint issues down the line which no one wants.

Gentle Giants

Newfoundland Puppy in the SnowI know this was listed in the negatives too but once they grow up and learn to be gentle it’s amazing to be around them. Well-bred Newfs are naturally good with children and more tolerant than many other breeds. Although that does not mean they should be left around children unsupervised in any scenario or that kids should be allowed to be rough or forceful with the dog no matter how patient the dog is.

Even as a puppy my Newfoundland was better with children than some dogs that are years older than him ever have been. He’s gotten gentler with me over time as well like they all do with proper training and stimulation. It’s worth all the hardships with puppy rowdiness to get to the incredible adult inside such spicy puppies.

Naturally Friendly

Newfoundlands are naturally friendly to both people and other dogs which makes socializing easier than it is with breeds that are prone to dog or human reactivity. They still need heavy socialization and exposure, of course, don’t get me wrong here. They just take to it quickly and generally love everyone they meet. There’s no strong protective streak or any other temperament issue you have to worry about counteracting like you would with German Shepherds or other similar breeds.

A Note About Breeders

Sadly, Newfoundlands have become immensely popular with both puppy mills and backyard breeders in the past several years. I’d wager that for every ethical breeder there are at least four terrible breeders. Please take your time researching breeders.

The Newfoundland Club of America has a list of breeders by state that are up to par with what they consider to be ethical and it is an amazing jumping off point. You should also familiarize yourself with the illustrated breed standard so that you can recognize what you’re looking at and tell well-bred dogs apart from poorly bred dogs. Most Newfoundlands in the service dog community are not well-bred (including my first one) so be cautious taking recommendations from anyone in the community. Here’s a full article on choosing a breeder to help you with your choice.

Newfoundlands are great dogs but they’re not for everyone.

Please be extremely honest with yourself when you’re considering getting a Newfoundland. So many Newfoundlands end up in shelters or back with their breeder because they drool too much or shed too much or they’re destructive because they expected it to be a couch potato and never trained or exercised it. You don’t want to go through that heartbreak and the dog deserves better than that. If you spend some time with some well-bred ones and you are completely honest with yourself about all of their quirks then maybe they are the breed for you. In the right hands, they can make an amazing service dog. I know my next prospect will be a Newf when the time comes, they’ve gotten ahold of my heart and I doubt they’ll ever let go.

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Service Dog Society
The Service Dog Society is dedicated to the education, training and support of service dog handlers, their friends and family, service dog trainers and programs, puppy raisers, businesses, the general public, and anybody else who has questions about these marvelous helpers.Our goal is to provide as much information as possible, in a centralized location and in an easy-to-follow format. We know first hand how overwhelming the process of getting and/or training a service dog can be, for everyone involved! Our hope is to alleviate some of the confusion and difficulty that is a part of the process.