Select Page

Just as it is undisputed that a Newfoundland is the strongest swimmer in the dog world, so too is the fact that this breed is unmatched for distance swimming. Of course quantifying these facts is no easy matter. The Guinness Book of World Records does not have such categories nor anyone else. No one has ever set up tests to formally measure the unique swimming capabilities of our Newfie dogs.

I had to resort to some ingenuity to quantify the swim strength of Newfs. This was done initially in one of my Carting Corner columns entitled Tractor of the Sea. The article concluded with the fact that the record for a Newf was “towing 40 people at the same time”. You can read the column in the May/June, 2011 issue of the Newf News. Shortly after I wrote Tractor of the Sea, Quebec breeder, Marie-France Drolet, was preparing for a TV interview about Newfoundland dogs and asked me how much weight a Newf could tow in the water. To answer her query I simply used the rule of thumb for passengers in elevators and multiplied the 40 people in the raft by 160 pounds to get an amazing 6400 pounds (2900 kilograms).

Getting a handle on how far a Newfoundland can swim was even more difficult than figuring out how much weight they can tow. One interesting fact that I mentioned in the Tractor of the Sea article was that the Italian Dog Rescue School training includes “…pulling a boat containing thirty people between three hundred meters to two kilometers.” Amazing as that is, it does not really tell us just how far a Newf can swim although it strongly suggests that unencumbered he could go much further.

There are a number of factors that make a Newf an incredible long distance swimmer. Most commonly mentioned are the large lungs, fully webbed feet and oily, insulated coat. However in a an online article entitled Mechanism of the hock in Newfoundlands, Belgium Newf breeder and renown water rescue dog trainer, Bettina Salmelin, has pointed out that hocks (heel) of the Newf must be close to the ground to achieve, among other things, endurance. Here is her concluding summary:

People often overlook the importance of the hock, as it is often not the first thing people notice. The structure of the head, even though important, does not contribute to strength, power, endurance or physical ability in such a way as the hock.

When one understands the mechanisms of the hock, the trend of longer hocks in show rings becomes more worrying. From our study of the hock, we know that high hocks go with high initial speed and low hocks are for endurance. By physics alone, a Newfoundland with high hocks will not have the breed typical endurance and power. It will not be able to swim far out into the stormy ocean and it will not be able to pull heavy loads efficiently.

When reading the Canadian breed standard you will find a call for hocks close to the ground in the phrase “The hocks are well let down…”

While all of the above factors are crucial, there is one more that I consider most important of all. It is something unique to the Newfoundland dog and is connected to the breed’s ability to do a modified or full breast stroke rather than a dog paddle. Other breeds of dogs solely do a dog paddle and this keeps the head up out of the water but at considerable expense of energy. To get the endurance in the water, a Newf has to abandon the dog paddle and allow his body to reach its natural flotation point. Then, using a breast stroke, at least with the forearms, he is directing all his energy to propulsion and none to keeping high in the water. The extra fat that a Newfoundland is supposed to carry for warmth also aids in this natural flotation.

Still the question remains – with all his special talents in the water, just how far can a Newfie dog swim?

In the Victorian era the amazing attributes were well known and documented. Here is an excerpt from June 21, 1866 issue of The Mercury:

He has no equal in the water. He appears to endure immersion in the coldest weather for any length of time without injury, and is hardly ever affected by rheumatism in old age. Ho will jump into a rough sea from a height, dive many feet to please his master or to amuse a child, and seems to float without exertion to please himself.

Many wonderful tales have been told of his floating powers, some undoubtedly true, but others apocryphal. Colonel Hamilton Smith, a good authority, relates one, which we give in his own words. He says: -” I possessed one picked up in the Bay of Biscay. The dog had been observed by the man at the masthead, the ship whence he must have come being out of sight. When taken into the boat which was lowered for him he gave no signs of extreme fatigue.”

The Bay of Biscay is part of the Atlantic Ocean and borders France and Spain. It is a very large body of water and is known for its rough waters. The story above affirms the floating ability of the Newfoundland and his amazing ability to stay afloat for long distances and time. Unfortunately folks in the 1800’s were not as obsessed as we are today with numbers and we still do not have a swimming distance in units.

Not one to quit easily I kept on searching. Finally I got a numerical distance. In Stanley Coren’s book The Modern Dog: A Joyful Exploration of How We Live with Dogs Today, there is this tale:

Then there is the story of Neptune, a dog that tracked his owners for over 50 miles. …this might not seem like much of a distance, but the dog swam all the way. Neptune was a Newfoundland dog, which is a powerful breed with strong swimming abilities. While the dog was on board a boat being towed down the Mississippi to New Orleans, the craft hit some obstruction that caused it to lurch violently and tossed Neptune overboard. The owner of the boat couldn’t stop since it was being towed along with some barges by a distant tugboat. Thus Neptune’s family could only watch as Neptune fell farther behind and disappeared in the distance. Rather than immediately swimming ashore, however, Neptune kept paddling downstream, following the boat that contained the people he loved. Three days later, much to the amazement of his family, Neptune appeared, swimming alongside their craft, having tracked them to their mooring in New Orleans. The great black dog casually jumped on board as if nothing unusual happened.

While this is not likely the extent of a Newfoundland’s distance swimming ability, we now know it is at least over 50 miles (80 kilometers).

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.

Newf News

May/June 2013