Probably the first thing that strikes you about the Newfoundland when you first meet is the size of the animal. They really are big! It wasn’t for nothing that the natives of Newfoundland in ancient times referred to them as “bear dogs.” As long ago as 1000 AD the forebears of the Newfoundland dogs of today were the constant working companions of those early inhabitants of what we now know as the Province of Newfoundland, Canada.
The dogs have evolved since then partly through the usual sequence of selective breeding and way back in those early days they soon developed an instinctive talent for retrieving objects and people from water. They quickly proved indispensable, especially to the native fishermen earning a living from the treacherous icy waters off the island’s coast. They took the dogs with them on board their boats where they earned their keep by retrieving items of equipment that was lost overboard and fishermen themselves who were so unfortunate. The dogs’ ability to get a man back on board swiftly would have been the key to survival. Life expectancy after falling into such icy water is measured in minutes and not many of them!
Quite apart from rescue and retrieval these amazing dogs were tireless helpers in hauling in heavily laden nets and carrying lines from boat to boat when required, in addition to their lifeguard duty. Their work was not over when the boats returned to port either. The day’s catch had to be hauled to market and who pulled the carts? That’s right, the faithful Newfies!
Down through the centuries this partnership between men and dogs continued. When Viking explorer Lief Erickson sailed to North America he is said to have been accompanied by a Newfoundland, Oolam. Legend has it that during a North Atlantic storm, Oolam rescued five of Erickson’s Vikings when they were washed overboard. As Newfoundland became settled with immigrants from Europe, many of them from Scotland, trade with the rest of the world developed and sailors from elsewhere began to appreciate the work of the Newfoundland dogs. Sailing ships often carried a Newfoundland on board to recover anyone who fell overboard at sea, a practice that was still common at the beginning of the 20th Century.
When the explorers, Clarke and Lewis set out to try to find the fabled Northwest Passage they took with them a Newfoundland by the name of Seaman as lifeguard and helper. Down through the ages, stories abound of lives being saved by these gentle canine giants, well known personages among them. Napoleon I for example was once saved from drowning by a Newfie for better or worse, depending on your point of view. As recently as 1919, just off the coast of Newfoundland, a small steamship stranded on rocks. The rocks combined with the heavy surf to render rescue boats or the ship’s lifeboats useless. Fortunately for all on board, among the ship’s company was a Newfoundland dog. The dog swam ashore in conditions which no human could have survived with a line which enabled a bosun’s chair to be rigged. As a result the entire ship’s company were saved from certain death.
In the 21st Century, Newfoundlands work regularly with beach patrols in many countries. At the Molveno Dog Show in Italy, the Italian School of Dog training put on their annual water training demonstration. They demonstrate rescue situations where Newfoundlands, with their human handlers, jump from helicopters as they hover at a height of fifteen feet above the surface of the water and then carry out a rescue.
The French coastguard have carried out exercises which demonstrate that a fit and healthy Newfie can tow an inflatable life raft carrying twenty people two miles to shore without any signs of over exertion. Bear in mind that a life raft is not a normal boat shape and is not at all easy to tow, even empty, especially one that size!
Some of the Newfoundland’s lifeguarding instincts are quite uncanny. For example they seem to instinctively take special care of children or a family group. They seem to sense when danger threatens in the water and will often circle the group, shepherding them to shore. Their apparent ability to sense when someone needs help seems almost supernatural. Without being prompted a Newf will swim out to the potential casualty almost before the person realises they are in danger!
Their method of rescue seems to vary between dogs. Some will swim around the person until they feel him or her grab hold of them and then swim to shore. Others will actually take hold of the person’s arm in the mouth and tow them ashore that way.
Evolution has equipped the Newfoundland unusually well for its role as the world’s only truly amphibious dog. It has a double coat which is remarkably water resistant, providing a sort of hairy wetsuit! The ears cling close to the head helping to keep water out of them and aiding streamlining. His tail is strong and muscular and he uses it as a rudder but the most unusual feature for a dog is the feet. The Newfoundland actually has webbed feet, perfect for swimming. The style of swimming is unusual for a dog too. It’s more like a breast stroke than the ”doggy paddle,” adopted by most dogs.
If you live and work on the sea, you couldn’t have a better companion than a Newfoundland. You do need quite a big boat though!
Article provided provided by UK copywriter, Pete Hopper of Write For You.
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|Sunday, September 26. 2021|