Guard Dogs: Newfoundlands' Lifesaving Past, Present

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
February 7, 2003

Newfoundlands are large, sturdy dogs known for their intelligence and gentle disposition—and centuries of service rescuing people from drowning. While the hunky breed is better known today as a pet, a few still serve as lifeguards in the United States.

Named for the Canadian province where it originated, the Newfoundland's webbed feet, rudder-like tail, and water-resistant coat make it a natural swimmer. But over the centuries it is the dog's devotion to people that has made it a hero. The plucky breed is credited for pulling so many people in distress from the water that it has earned its nickname "lifeguard dog."

Following an instinctive urge to rescue people in need, Newfoundlands use big, powerful strokes to swim out to a person in trouble and they use their large mouths to grab and tow someone to the safety of the shore.

If a swimmer is unconscious, the dogs have been taught to grab the person's upper arm in their mouth. This rolls the person onto his back, keeping his face out of the water.

Newfoundlands do all this by training. But they also seem to instinctively know when people are in danger of drowning and don't have to be prompted to spring into action, according to breeders.

These innate abilities were so widely respected in the 1800s that the dogs were considered "required lifesaving equipment" along the coast of England.

From Beaches to Boats

The Newfoundland's strong swimming skills and intelligence also earned it a job on European and American sailing vessels. In 1919, when a ship called Ethie ran aground off the Canadian coast, historians credit a Newfoundland named Tang for saving the entire crew. The massive dog is said to have jumped into the turbulent sea and swam to shore with the ship's rope in his mouth. People on the beach secured the line and used it to bring all 92 crewmembers safely to safety.

Tang's good deed didn't go unnoticed. Historians say the dog received a medal for bravery from the famous insurance company, Lloyds of London, which it wore for the rest of its life.

While many things have changed in the world since the Ethie sank, the Newfoundland's uncanny ability to know when people need help has not.

In 1995 Boo and his owner were out for a stroll along the Yuba River in Northern California. As they made their way around a bend, the 10-month old dog spotted trouble. Without hesitation, he dove into the water and swam toward a man, who was holding onto a red gas can, desperately trying to stay afloat in the swollen current. Boo grabbed the man's arm and pulled him safely to shore.

Continued on Next Page >>


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