Newfoundland dogs are primarily designed for water activities. Although many breeds can be successfully trained for water work, such a Labradors and Spaniels who work as gun dogs, the Newfoundland is distinguished by its size and strength, which together with its webbed feet, double coat which assists buoyancy, renders it suitable for boat work and water rescue. Additionally, their swimming stroke is closer to a breaststroke, with the front legs moving sideways rather than a doggy paddle, which means that they appear to glide through the water without splashing at considerable speed.
Here is a video of my dogs demonstrating their ability to retrieve articles.
Our training is done mainly at Lakeside, Eastleigh and in the sea at Calshot. Additionally we cooperate with another group at a water park near Fordingbridge, and occasionally with the French group, Terre-neuve sportif. There are national water tests for Newfoundlands which consist of simulated water rescues, retrieves and boat towing.
Enthusiasm for water work can be seen in their flying leaps into the water.
A typical training session
Although most tests for these dogs consist of requirements to demonstrate a dog’s ability to work with a human handler and respond to commands, I like to see how they can work using their own initiative. Here are two videos which show the dogs engaged with minimum instruction from their handlers.
It requires considerable training to reach the point where the dog can manage without instruction. Despite stories about Newfoundlands being natural water rescue dogs an untrained dog can be dangerous in water. Unaware of their own strength, and of the frailty of humans in water, an untrained dog who swims out to someone might end up drowning the human if its greeting is too boisterous, which is why we train the dogs to circle the ‘drowning victim’ giving a chance for the human to grab hold of the harness which serves as a signal to return to the shore. Should the victim be unable to grab the harness as a result of injury the dog will have been trained to gently hold the wrist and tow its human back to the shore.
There are occasions when the human will panic and possibly fight off the dog. This happened once when I was training with the army on Bodmin Moor. A soldier, who had not admitted that he was unable to swim, leapt into the water and panicked. In these cases a skilled swimmer accompanies the dog and restrains the victim with one hand holding the dog’s harness with the other hand.
Music and water seem to go well together
A principle I always follow is terra firma first, teach the exercises on land before water.
As an example of the Newfoundland’s strength in water here is a video of one of our demonstrations in Wellington Park near Reading where the dog pulls in several people, each one holding another person.
Training for boat work and rescue work requires patience and a willingness to gradually build up the dog’s confidence. Here is a video of young Monty at four months old starting his water training, and learning from the older experienced dogs. In this video he enjoys a boat tow from him mum, Bunny, and another from his uncle, Rafferty, who, incidentally manages with one eye after losing the other to cancer.
We do demonstrations of our dog’s water skills at various locations, including displays for the RNLA at Calshot and at Lakeside and an occasional TV show. Plans are underway for a major demonstration this summer at Eastleigh Lakeside with support from Eastleigh Borough Council and Lakeside authorities.