Newfoundlands Excel at Water Rescues

Story at-a-glance -

  • Newfoundlands were once valued by fishermen for pulling nets out of the water and in ancient times were popular companions and protectors on sailboats
  • At the Italian School for Rescue Dogs, dogs train for at least one year, starting with obedience and recall, then learning how to retrieve and tow someone using a harness, be pulled into the air and out of the water, and even jump from a helicopter
  • Newfoundlands have been trained to operate on naval and air force helicopters and work with the coast guard, fire and customs departments, and police
  • In addition to their webbed feet, Newfoundlands’ oily fur helps them stay warm and afloat in the water, whereas their personalities drive them to help people, often without being told

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Newfoundlands, or Newfies, are an adored member of the working dog group, one that’s often associated with mountain rescues. Yet, these strong and intelligent “pack horses” were once valued by fishermen for pulling nets out of the water1 and in ancient times were popular companions and protectors on sailboats.2

Despite their large, lumbering frames, Newfoundlands are excellent swimmers and, in fact, according to Ferruccio Pilenga, founder of the Italian School for Rescue Dogs in Northern Italy, “its fur is waterproof and the shape of its whole body is really designed for swimming.”3 They even have webbed feet, perfect for propelling their bodies through the water, and immense strength, which is capable of towing in six to 10 people at the same time.4

At Pilenga’s school, where dogs learn the ins and outs of how to rescue people from the water, all breeds of dogs are accepted, provided they’re over about 66 pounds and confident in the water, but he believes Newfoundlands are among the best. “The Newfoundland breed started as a water rescue dog,” he told ABC News.5

Dogs Volunteer Their Time Assisting the Coast Guard and Port Authority

At the Italian School for Rescue Dogs, dogs train for at least one year, starting with obedience and recall, then learning how to retrieve and tow someone using a harness, be pulled into the air and out of the water, and even jump from a helicopter. Handlers jump into the water along with their dogs, acting as a team to rescue people in need. Often, the handler will hold onto the dog’s harness while swimming to the victim, thus being pulled along and conserving energy for the rescue.

“[The] big advantage is that in this way I save a lot of energy, I am not tired when I reach the person,” Pilenga said to ABC.6 That, coupled with their eagerness to help and their ability to pull in multiple people at once, makes them invaluable in water rescues.

Ellie Bedford, a volunteer and trainer with Newfound Friends, a U.K.-based charity that uses Newfies to help teach water safety, told Barcroft TV, “No human can do what these dogs can do. I’m a lifeguard myself and I would struggle to tow two people whereas these guys can pull in 10 people at ease.”7

Graduates from Pilenga’s school have been trained to operate on naval and air force helicopters and work with the coast guard, fire and customs departments, and police. They have saved over 100 people from the water in the last few years alone.8 One of Newfound Friends’ dogs, Whizz, is credited with saving at least nine people, often children who were stuck in deep water or trapped by strong currents.

A member of the Royal Navy Reservists’ Swansea rescue team and a promoter of water safety with the Royal Life Saving Society, it’s said that Whizz, who weighs in at 180 pounds, can pull 12 people from the water at once.

In addition to their webbed feet, Newfoundlands’ oily fur helps them stay warm and afloat in the water, whereas their personalities drive them to help people, often without being told. They also have drop ears, which help keep out water, and droopy upper lips that allow them to breathe even while carrying something in the water.9

These dogs, which stem from Newfoundland, Canada, where they were bred to rescue people from the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean, are even affectionately known as “Saint Bernards of the sea.”10

In the U.S., the Newfoundland Club of America holds several water rescue tests, including one for title of Water Rescue Dog Excellent, or WRDX, which is awarded to Newfies that demonstrate working ability in the water beyond most Newfoundlands. To earn the title, dogs must complete the following challenges in the water:11

Searching for an abandoned boat and returning it to land

Rescuing multiple victims from the side of a boat

Rescuing an unconscious victim

Rescuing a victim under a capsized boat

Delivering a line to shore from a stranded boat

Taking a line to multiple drowning victims

Dog Owners: Make Opportunities to Let Your Pet Swim

If you share your life with a Newfoundland, you may be interested in learning more about water rescue training opportunities in your area, but if you’re looking for something a little less rigorous that will still allow your dog to carry out his instincts and natural behaviors, make opportunities for him to swim. If you have access to a pool, you’ll find all dogs can be trained to learn to swim, and it’s one of the best forms of exercise.

There are also agility courses that involve water exercises and, of course, natural bodies of water to let your dog explore, once he’s mastered swimming training. Even with many breeds’ strong predisposition to the water, however, if your dog is swimming in unfamiliar water, beware of strong currents, steep drop-offs and any other potential dangers that could pull your pet under or sweep her away before you can get to her.

Click Here and be the first to comment on this article
Post your comment