One of the most fascinating aspects of the Newfoundland dog is his amazing instincts in the water and people often wonder if they need to be trained for this. The answer is simple – yes and no. Stories abound of Newfs with no aquatic training saving people from watery graves. In fact, the most famous living Newfoundland life guard, Mas, the Italian Newf who jumps from helicopters, started his career without training. Ten years ago Mas rescued his master’s daughter, Valentina, and her friend. The Newfie swam out to the kids and Valentina grabbed his fur and her friend held onto his leash and Mas then pulled them in to shore. This incident inspired, Dad, Ferrucio Pilenga, to set up a canine lifeguard school where the dogs train for years.
One reason to train a Newf is to enhance their lifesaving skills since doggy instincts don’t include leaping from helicopters. However there is another important reason to train a Newfie for the water. It helps to undo some of the general training that we routinely give to all dogs. What may be appropriate on land is not necessarily good in the water. The most obvious example of this is when swimming with a Newf. A Newf that swims in a proper Newfoundland dog style does not do a dog paddle, but rather a modified breast stroke. This involves the front legs going out to the sides instead of straight down. When you couple this swimming stroke with the traditional heel position (front shoulder of dog close to left side of handler) the person swimming next to the Newf is going to get badly scratched. So in a training seminar you are taught how to untrain this habit when your dog is swimming. One way is to slip a rigid plastic tube over the leash to help keep the Newf at a proper distance from you.
Sometimes the untraining is more for the human member of the team. When a Newfoundland is towing a person or boat to shore, they instinctively work with the current or waves rather than against it. This allows the dog to conserve energy and to land the person or boat more quickly. Unfortunately a handler with obedience training on land tends to stand in one spot on the shore and command the dog to return to him rather than follow along the shore and meet the dog. Every time this happens I always think how frustrating this must be to a Newf who knows exactly what he is doing.
To see our Newfies in action in the water, check out the official pages of the CKC for the Water Rescue Dog Test closest to you or the website of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada.