Guard Dogs: Newfoundlands' Lifesaving Past, Present
for National Geographic News
|February 7, 2003|
Newfoundlands are large, sturdy dogs known for their intelligence and gentle dispositionand 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.
The man was a deaf-mute and couldn't call for help, said Janice Anderson, Boo's breeder. He had fallen into the river while gold dredging.
"Boo had no formal training in water rescue," explained Anderson, a Newfoundland breeder for 30 years. "It was just instinct. He picked up on the fact that there was someone in distress and then dealt with the situation."
The Newfoundland Club of America, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, awarded Boo a medal for his heroism in 1996.
Water Search Dogs
Today only a few Newfoundlands officially work as lifeguards. In England, Bear helps train teen lifeguards at the Cotswolds Water Park. In Italy, Mas has been coached by trainer Ferugio Pelenga to leap from helicopters into the ocean to rescue people from drowning. And in the United States, Moby, a crew member on Rapture Marine Expeditions in California, watches up to 150 young people on board at a time.
Newfoundlands are one of the most versatile of all dogs that work. In addition to saving people from drowning, their sweet disposition and gentle nature shines through in therapy work. The breed's beauty and brawn has also made it a successful competitor in the show ring as well as in drafting, obedience, and water trials.
In keeping with the breed's love of water, Nicki Gundersen of Lenexa, Kansas, found the perfect job for Calvin. The 10-year-old black Newfoundland is a trained water search dog and uses his powerful sense of smell to locate bodies of drowned victims.
"The fact that we can help people bring some closure in an unhappy situation is a bonus, Gundersen said of the volunteer work.
Newfies are good in this field because they don't need to be trained how to swim, or overcome a fear of water, like some other breeds. While there are no official numbers on how many Newfoundlands are certified in water search-and-recovery, Gundersen estimates there are less than 50 throughout the United States.
The Kansas resident responds to several calls each year, most of which are alcohol-related boating and swimming accidents.
In this part of the country Calvin's skills are especially needed because the lakes and rivers have silt bottoms, which makes the water black. Dive teams have limited visibility underwater and need help narrowing down where to look.
These highly trained canines also make recovery efforts go faster. Gundersen recalled one case where a man had been dared to swim across a turbulent river but didn't make it to the other side. The victim's family and park rangers searched eight hours for the man. No luck. Then Calvin was called. It took the dog 45 minutes to locate the body.
At the scene of an accident, Calvin doesn't jump into the water and search for the victim. Instead, the 125-pound (47-kilogram) dog rides in a small inflatable boat, sniffing the water's surface for oil and skin particles that have risen to the top.
When Calvin picks up the scent, he barks once or twice. Gundersen concentrates the search in that area until Calvin scratches at the bottom of the boat, indicating he has found the victim. A dive team is then sent to retrieve the body.
Nationalgeographic.com Resources on Dogs
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National Geographic magazine's "Wolf to Woof: The Evolution of Dogs"
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