Water rescue dogs

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As with other types of search and rescue, dogs make good use of their physical traits and drive to please in water rescue situations.

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Breed of choice: the Newfoundland

Newfoundlands have a number of traits that are well suited to water rescue:

- Strength: they can pull several people or tug a boat weighing several tonnes

- Stamina: they can swim for several hours, covering long distances

- Resistance to cold: they can withstand low temperatures thanks to their luxurious coat

- Calmness: they remain unruffled in all circumstances, which is very reassuring for the people they are trying to save

- Tenacity: they always complete their mission

- Readiness: they are ready to get to work immediately without extra equipment, unlike a diver who needs around five minutes to prepare

Selecting the right dog

A good water rescue dog will have the appropriate physical and mental traits to begin with, although they do need extensive training too. Lack of the swimming instinct and an inability to swim strongly are important disqualifying traits, although hip dysplasia is the number one problem.

The best water dogs will be blessed with dynamic musculature and strong bones. The parents of candidates are screened for hip dysplasia.

Training

Whether training a puppy or an adult dog, the watchword is “slowly does it”. An adult dog will have to get used to its new life. Due care needs to be taken to ensure its muscles and joints are not put under too much stress, which is why its swimming, climbing and trotting skills are worked on gradually. Its character will also have to be handled carefully too.

Puppies need to be trained gradually, in short sessions, based on how well they can concentrate. Training sessions should be held in different places at different times of the day to prevent habits forming.

Risks during training

Dogs can experience physical or psychological problems during training. If puppies are asked to do too much jumping, climbing and swimming at an early age they can damage joints or ligaments or aggravate an existing dysplasia.

Forcing a young dog to do things that it finds frightening can cause it to lose the desire to learn. It would be a great pity if a Newfoundland developed a fear of water after being forced to jump in as a puppy. It can take several months to restore the dog’s confidence if something like this has happened.

The handler uses play to encourage the dog to do things it is otherwise wary of. This helps build up the dog’s confidence and overcome any natural timidity, reserve, apprehension or fear. Dogs can be trained to overcome their inhibitions, whether innate or nurtured, and to compensate for any inherent genetic imbalance.

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The versatility of the Newfoundland

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On its own

Newfoundlands can be used in any water rescue situation. They can deal with fully conscious or exhausted victims, haul boats and equipment, get tow ropes out to where they are needed in the event of floods or other scenarios and guide boats to shallow water or rocks in fast-flowing water.

With its handler

When the dog works in a team it assists the handler. In the water, it will do the pulling while the handler deals with a struggling victim. It can also pull a boat out to open water away from a danger and help people when their boat capsizes or is in danger of sinking. On an area search, the dog will pull an inflatable dinghy, following the trail of air bubbles produced by divers.

Activities

Water rescue dogs can be deployed in all aquatic environments.

• Seas: emergency response; lifeguard duties in hard to reach spots. Restriction: beaches with heavy waves.

• Rivers: immediate emergency response by vehicle to back up local rescuers regardless of any obstacles. Restriction: locations upstream from lock gates.

• Lakes and stretches of smooth water: emergency response; lifeguard stations in tourist areas. Restriction: locations upstream from dams.

• Floods: emergency response to back up transport teams to recover equipment, getting lifeboats and food to victims, getting support ropes out.

• Natural disasters: helping victims and similar tasks to flood situations.

• Nautical surveillance: regattas, triathlons, water sports requiring short-term surveillance and rapid response in the event of an incident.

Just like other search and rescue environments, dogs are also used to assist lifeguards because of their swimming skills and attraction to water.

The Newfoundland: an outstanding water dog

The Newfoundland has helped fishermen and other water-based workers for centuries. Nowadays it is the most popular water rescue breed, due to its many outstanding qualities:

- Power and endurance, enabling it to pull heavy loads (small boats, people) for several hours.

- Resistance to cold and alertness, which ensure it is immediately ready to work in any conditions, unlike a diver, who needs five minutes to get ready.

- Great calm and tenacity, which commands confidence in all situations (people in a panic, surf).

Other breeds used in water rescue, although not to such a great degree, include Landseers, Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Leonbergers, Polish Tatra Sheepdogs and Bernese Mountain Dogs.

Gently does it with training

Like all other giant breeds, Newfoundlands complete their growth phase fairly late, which means that intense physical training must be avoided in the early months, due to the risk of serious orthopaedic injuries.

Initially, the emphasis is put on work on dry land and obedience. The dog is gradually introduced to water, primarily as part of a game. Handler and dog learn to swim together and to cover difficult terrain, such as steep cliffs and slippery surfaces. Training is completed with a series of rescue exercises, such as towing people and small crafts and passing on objects (ropes and buoys). Handlers are also given first-aid training, ensuring they are able to provide immediate care once the victim is out of the water.

The tenacity of the Newfoundland can sometimes make things difficult for the handler during training, but pressure should never be put on the dog and training should be presented as a game wherever possible. This is the way to produce a motivated and confident dog, qualities which are essential in emergency situations.

Training Newfoundlands

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Every training session should start with a short period of play to help the dog get rid of excess energy and prepare it for the work to come.

Training takes place on land and in water. The first stage is obedience, when the puppy is taught to heel, stay and come from a few months of age. The commands gradually become more complicated – including voice commands and remote commands – and sessions are also held on slippery terrain, much like those the dog will have to cope with on a mission. The puppy is also familiarised with its environment, including potential problems such as crowds, traffic noise and lifts.

Work-related training is split into two stages:

- The dog learns to retrieve objects and tow first its handler, then people it does not know and finally sailboards and small boats.

- The dog and handler learn to trust and work with each other in a team. Once the dog reaches fifteen months of age it starts rescue training, which gradually becomes more complicated. The dog learns to climb to get into the water, it learns to haul increasingly heavy loads and it gets used to being submerged under large waves.

The frequency of sessions depends on the dog’s motivation and physical prowess. Basic obedience is worked on every day.

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The two members of the dog team have to advance at the same pace. A close bond between them is essential, but it will only be possible if the handler learns to read the dog like an open book and is able to anticipate its responses.

The handler uses a different tone of voice to indicate the beginning and end of a work phase. Commands are communicated dryly and abruptly. Encouragements should be communicated in a lively, cheerful way.

The most important thing to remember when it comes to training is that when things go well it’s down to the dog, but when things go badly it’s down to the handler.

Water rescue dogs in action

The dog is almost never sent into the water on its own. It would be irresponsible to leave a dog to deal with a person in distress without assistance, as it could easily be pulled under in the panic. Handler and dog therefore work as a team, complementing each other. The handler holds and reassures the victim, while the dog does the pulling work. This enables the handler to concentrate fully on the victim without exerting too much physical effort, bearing in mind that the victim may require intensive care once dry land is reached.

Caron

Water rescue dogs can be used on beaches and shores (sea, lakes, rivers), but they can also be used in the event of flood, to pass on ropes, get heavy equipment into place by boat and pull small crafts. This lightens the workload of the rest of the rescue team. An added advantage is that water rescue dogs can work just about anywhere (steep slopes, rocks just above the water surface), unlike motorised craft, which are much bulkier.

The only places they cannot be used is in the vicinity of weirs, dams and locks and on rough seas.

Water rescue dogs around the world

In reality, dogs are rarely used in water rescue in most countries. Canine lifeguards are only active in Austria and Italy. The Italian School of Rescue Dogs (www.canisalvataggio.it) trains dog teams recognised by the state (around 150 dog teams are currently accredited to patrol bathing areas). Some dogs are even trained to jump out of helicopters into the open sea.

Noémie Caron
Veterinarian (France)
Author of a thesis on Newfoundlands
as search and rescue dogs (2009)

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