Newfs are amazing in the water, but, as discussed last month, so are many other breeds. What makes a Newfoundland remarkably exceptional in the water is the unique combination of swimming ability coupled with a rescue instinct. There is at least one other breed that has a rescue instinct, the St. Bernard, but this dog is specifically suited for Alpine rescue.
A lot of anecdotal evidence is available concerning the special water rescue instinct of the Newfoundland dog. Often these stories take the form of a Newf who hated going in the water suddenly becoming a hero by rescuing a person who was in danger of drowning. Such stories supposedly prove the water rescue instinct because the dog wouldn’t normally go in the water and is only doing so because of a human in distress. The tales also are meant to verify natural water ability since the Newf, hating water, would not have any training or practice in swimming or retrieving. Even if such stories are true, they do not necessarily confirm characteristics for the whole breed since very few Newfs encounter the opportunity to actually save a drowning victim.
In order to claim a true water rescue instinct for our breed, we need to able to verify this with most any Newf. Since it would be unreasonable to deliberately put a human in danger, we also need to find situations where the Newf believes a human is at risk when, in fact, they are not. Fortunately there are many such instances where you can observe a Newf’s rescue instincts in the water. One such example was given last month and another follows.
In the mid-80’s when I first got involved in formal water rescue dog training, I watched my son, Allan, get frustrated as he tried to teach his Newf, Sweetheart, to do the Swim With Handler exercise. She would turn to shore as soon as he started to swim out with her. So we spent much time trying to get her more relaxed in the water hoping that this would get her swimming out further. It didn’t work. Further observation revealed that Sweetheart and many other Newfoundlands not only turned to shore as soon as their handler started to swim, but they always turned towards the handler so as to herd them to shore. Continued study of this phenomena revealed that the Newfs only did this when the handler was a weak swimmer. The solution was then obvious – Allan had to improve his swimming abilities. He did and once he met the safety standards of his Newfie, Sweetheart let him swim out and happily accompanied him.
Peter Maniate has been writing columns for the Newf News, the magazine of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada, since 1979. In 1996 he started writing a Newfoundland dog column in the Breedlines section of Dogs in Canada magazine on behalf of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada. When Dogs in Canada ceased publication at the end of 2011 he continued the Breedlines column in the Newf Newfs.
Permission is granted for re-publication of the preceding article or excerpts from it as long as the author is credited and the name of the original publication and date of first publication is included.Dogs in Canada