Photos by Glenn Lesher/Colonial Newfoundland Club
Some dogs jump, tunnel or track another animals’ scent during performance trials. Others rescue people. Dogs like Beacon, Buoy and Sonar do anyway.
They belong to Christie Smith, a landscaper who lives in Manakin, Va., and competes with her three dogs in Newfoundland Club of America water rescue trials.
The Newfoundland’s origin is as fisherman’s assistant, pulling nets full of fish from the sea onto land, then from the shore to market by cart. But that’s not all they did. They also rescued equipment dashed to the water by waves and even men who fell overboard.
So, it’s not a stretch for these big, hairy, web-footed, dogs to do it today. Their tails help steer them, and their back legs keep them level.
“It’s not like something we’re dragging out of the past,” Smith says. “Most of the dogs have the instinct in there somewhere. Once they’re in the water, they’re incredibly powerful swimmers. These guys use like a breast stroke, more like a polar bear. They don’t dog paddle.”
In fact, Smith says, “All over Europe, they use them at lifeguard stations – Britain, Italy, France and Spain.” U.S. beaches have had their share of Newfie lifeguards, too, more so in the past and mostly at private beaches, she says.
“I have one who came out of his mommy to do water work,” she says. “It’s what people say about Border Collies and herding.”
Smith didn’t get her first Newfoundland to do water rescue, though. She simply wanted a companion while she was fly fishing, hiking and camping. That was in 1990. She’d adopted a “poorly bred” or “part” Newf, Sam, while in college, and decided that if she was ever going to buy a purebred dog it would be a Newfoundland. She taught Steamboat to pull her in an inflated inner tube. That was just the beginning.
She found she loved the training part of having a dog.
Smith read about water rescue tests, then went to a Colonial Newfoundland Club water rescue demonstration in Annapolis, Md. She remembers saying, “My dog could do a lot of that stuff.” So, she looked up the regulations and started training her dogs.
She has an advantage over many others who have the breed – a one-acre pond on her property that her brother helped her build as a swimming hole and training facility. Dummies outfitted in wet suits are “rescued” from the pond by her dogs. A rowboat allows her to practice other skills with them.
To earn titles in water rescue, dogs demonstrate a variety of behaviors. Junior Water Test exercises, which lead to a Water Dog title, begin on land with basic commands, such as Heel, Down Stay and a reliable recall. In the water, beginning Water Dogs do such things as retrieve bumpers and boat cushions, tow a boat with a rope held between their teeth and swim calmly next to their owners.
The exercises escalate from there to fetching a paddle that’s fallen from a boat, identifying a swimmer in distress, jumping from a boat to save the handler, rescuing multiple victims and an unconscious swimmer, and taking a line to multiple victims.
At 8, Beacon has his WRDX, Water Rescue Dog Excellent, title. So does Buoy, who is 4. Sonar, now 18 months, got his WD in the summer of 2011, and Smith expects him to add WRD this year. He loves the water so much that he threw himself off the dock into Smith’s pond when he was just 2 months old. Fortunately, she keeps the pond area locked up when she can’t supervise the dogs’ aquatic enthusiasm.
Smith’s not in it for the titles, though. “It’s the training I really love,” she says. A group of training friends get together most weekends during the summer. “Sometimes they come here to train. Sometimes I go to Pennsylvania. Most of it you can’t do alone. You need victims, someone to row the boat. It does take a village.”
Water rescue training isn’t for the faint of heart, the impatient or those short of time. Smith and her dogs are on the pond from May to October.
“It is a lot of work,” Smith says. “I usually say go to a water test, meet some people who are training, see what they’re doing.”
“You can’t just go out and do it once or twice, and your dog is going to be able to do it. You kind of can’t do it a little bit. Just jump in with both feet, and all of a sudden you can’t imagine doing anything more fun,” she says.
Despite her 12-hour work days, Smith manages to keep all of her dogs, including two mixed breeds, in shape and lean with morning runs and evening outings. At 5:30 each morning, “everyone goes for a run in a big field in front of my place. We do a little training, jumping, a little heeling. I’m almost anal about exercising these guys and keeping them conditioned. We get at least half an hour of running and training in the morning.” When she gets home at 7 p.m. or so, it’s time for “much more of a run. I’m just a big believer in getting enough exercise and not feeding them too much.”
Some might consider Smith’s work with her dogs an obsession, but she says, “It’s a great obsession to have. My family thinks I’m insane.
“It gives me an excuse to go out and do the training,” she says.
To learn more about water rescue, visit the Newfoundland Club of America website.