Guard Dogs: Newfoundlands' Lifesaving Past, Present

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.

Image: Barnabus the Newfoundland

A Newfoundland named Barnabus rests during a disaster training seminar. The large, sturdy breed is known for its intelligence and gentle disposition—and centuries of service rescuing people from drowning.

Photograph copyright Nicki Gundersen

Tune in to our cable television channels in the United States and worldwide to watch the regular series Dogs With Jobs.

Now in its third season, Dogs With Jobs focuses on our best friends in the animal world, from canines that help people cope with and recover from illnesses, to those that search and rescue people in danger.

Dogs help children learn to read, star in movies, herd livestock, and search for landmines. They come in all shapes and sizes, but all of them have loyalty and dedication to serve in common .

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. Resources on Dogs

News and Features
A Love Story: Our Bond With Dogs from National Geographic magazine
"Detector Dogs" Sniff Out Smugglers for U.S. Customs
Bear Dogs on Patrol for Problem Grizzlies
Veterans: Dogs of War Deserve a Memorial
Therapy Dogs Seem to Boost Health of Sick and Lonely
Life Is Serious Mission for Rescue Dogs
Crisis-Response Dogs Offer Comfort After Tragedy
Dogs Are "True Heroes" of Iditarod, Race Champ Says
Brooklyn Dog a Rising Star in New York Art Scene
Canine Companions May Help Kids Learn to Read
U.S. Beagle Brigade is First Defense Against Alien Species

Science and Dogs
Scientists Start Deciphering Dog Genome
Human Gestures Fed Dogs' Domestication
Animal Acupuncture: More Pets Get the Point
National Geographic magazine's "Wolf to Woof: The Evolution of Dogs"

News and Features About Other Canids
Coyotes Now at Home in Eastern U.S.
Rare-Dog Search Meets With Success, Then Tragedy
Hi-Tech Tracking Tool Tested in Wolf Recovery Efforts
Scandinavian Wolves on Road to Recovery, Study Says
Most-Endangered Wolves May Be Saved By Vaccine
Is U.S. Safe From Foxhunting Debate?

Related Lesson Plans:
Use National Geographic News articles on dogs in your classroom with these Xpeditions lesson plans.
Lesson Plan: Little Red Riding Hood Meets—A Golden Retriever?
Lesson Plan: Geographical Dog Show
Lesson Plan: From Wolf to Woof
Lesson Plan: The Human Role in Dog Evolution

More About Animals
National Geographic Animals and Nature Guide

Other Web Sites
List of Dog Breeds (American Kennel Club)

 Related Websites

More Information

Pioneers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark included a dog in the "Corps of Discovery" that ventured into uncharted territory to reconnoiter and map the American West two centuries ago—a Newfoundland they called "Seaman."

The dog was frequently mentioned in the expedition journals and it was recorded that it acted defensively when confronted by a grizzly bear. Seaman also swam out to retrieve a beaver wounded by one of the explorers, and the animal bit him so severely that it was feared that he would not survive.

He did and went on to many more adventures with his human companions. The expedition journals said Seaman so impressed an Indian they met that they were offered three skins in exchange for the dog. They did not make the trade.

It is not known whether Seaman completed the entire journey.

Newfoundlands are named for their place of origin in Canada. The American Kennel Club registered 2,911 dogs for the breed in 2001.

Newfies live about eight to ten years. They are large dogs, standing 26 to 28 inches (66 to 71 centimeters) tall, and weighing as much as 155 pounds (58 kilograms). Their thick water-resistant coats are black, brown, gray, or black-and-white.

02/10/03:  Reproduced by permission of


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