There are few things quite as impressive as watching water rescue dogs at work. Newfoundlands are among the breeds that excel at this, and could be a great asset to lifeguards on British coasts – if only they were allowed to help.
In September 2016, I took part to an event meant to raise funds for vet charity PDSA. The Big Doggy Paddle event, which took place at Canary Wharf in London, had fundraisers jumping in the Thames to be rescued by a Newfoundland. Cold water aside, it was an experience I wouldn’t mind repeating – although I would probably think otherwise had I ever actually been in danger.
The dogs and handlers taking part to the event were from the charity Newfound Friends, which was formed in 1989, with the objective of using the skills of their Newfoundlands’ water rescue skills to raise money for various charities.
One of their water rescue dogs, Whizz, saved the lives of nine people – and a dog! – throughout his career. This outstanding achievement earned him the PDSA Order of Merit.
“I am bursting with pride for Whizz. He was a dog in a million and I am truly heartbroken that he isn’t here to receive his medal,” David Pugh, Whizz’s owner and founder of Newfound Friends, said when he received the award.
“Whizz loved working and had an extraordinary talent. Not only was he strong and gentle – he was also so emotionally intuitive. This made him the perfect rescue and therapy dog and a beloved companion to the hundreds of sick children and adults he met along the way.”
Among the various rescue operations Whizz took part in was the one that saved the life of Toni Curtis, from Bristol, who suffered an asthma attack while at sea during a holiday. A proficient swimmer, Toni is a blatant example of how anyone can find themselves in danger of drowning.
“The asthma attack took me by complete surprise and as I was treading water; my airway closing and struggling to breathe, I realised just how isolated I was,” Toni recalled. “I was sure that nobody would see me and panic really set in. The next thing I knew I heard a muffled voice, telling me to ‘grab the dog’ and before I knew it, I was being pulled to the safety of the lifeboat. Whizz had saved me and I will be forever in his debt.”
According to the National Water Safety Forum, there were 254 drowning fatalities in the UK last year, with July and August as the deadliest months. Inland open waters (such as rivers, canals, lakes, reservoirs and quarries) continue to be the leading locations for accidental drowning, but the dangers is always present on beaches as well – where dogs are often not allowed, lifesaving or not.
David said, “Sadly, we do face restrictions when it comes to beaches, which is why we mainly operate at the Bristol Channel, with the Severn Area Rescue Association (SARA), and in South Wales, were rules are more relaxed. Most local authorities won’t allow our dogs on beaches, and of course the dog and the handler need to be on site to carry out a rescue when needed. If we’re elsewhere, by the time we receive the call and get there, it would be too late.”
The issue of life-saving dogs’ access to beaches is not new. Back in 2008 there was public a uproar when Bilbo – a Newfoundland who patrolled Cornish beaches for years with his handler, lifeguard Steven Jamieson – was suddenly forbidden entrance to the Sennen Cove beach in west Cornwall. The lifeguarding responsibilities for the beach had been taken over by RNLI, who effectively ‘sacked’ Bilbo, while the Penwith council banned him from the beach like any other dog – making Steven liable to a fine if he set a paw on the sand again.
This move prompted a petition with over 20,000 signatures. Bilbo was subsequently allowed back on the beach twice a week, and was named Dog of the Day on the working dogs day at Crufts in 2009. His work didn’t consist of just water rescue: he was also vital in getting safety messages across to beach-goers, and that is what Newfound Friends is also aiming to do as well.
David said, “Newfoundlands are wonderful dogs and children love them, so they’re perfect to get their attention and make sure the lessons about safety in water stick. The vast majority of drowning accidents are completely preventable, and I do think the local authorities that don’t allow these dogs on their beaches are missing out.
“Dogs like these are a formidable asset to lifeguards, and can play a vital role not only in getting someone out of the water, but also to ensure they never need to be pulled out to begin with.”