Moral Dilemma For Owners Of Newfy Dogs

French Hero

Back in 1998 I wrote about a marvellous Newfoundland or should I say Terre-Neuve that made the front page headlines as a hero in France.

For those of you don’t read French, here is what an English language paper, the International Herald Tribune, wrote:

Tuesday, July 28, 1998, Maui, a courageous and loyal Newfoundland Rescue Dog, became a French national hero after giving his life to save three tourists, two Dutch and one British, from drowning in rough Mediterranean waters off the southern tip of Corsica.

He swam out with a lifeguard’s surfboard and with the exhausted swimmers hanging onto it, he was able to tow them to shore.

Just before reaching the beach at Propriano, crashing waves separated the group. Fireman called to the scene were able to haul the tourists ashore but the exhausted dog went under and drowned.

To make matters more disturbing, the area had been posted as “no swimming” and the tourists ran off as soon as they were rescued. Maui and his master were members of a French canine supported lifesaving society and were in Corsica on vacation but true life savers are never off duty.

This story prompted some heated discussions in the months that followed especially at the National Specialty Show the following Spring. To my surprise and horror, many Newf owners said they would never risk their Newf’s life to save a person. Most adamant on this point was a lady with a water rescue titled Newf who was featured on the front cover of a lifeguard magazine.

Jump forward 14 years to 2012 and the story of Maui is brought up on the internet, both on Facebook and Newf-L. I was astonished to find out that almost no one would subject their Newfoundland to risk to save a human even if their fur baby was trained and/or titled in water rescue. What astounded more than anything else was the revelation that the US water tests, upon which we modelled our Canadian trials, were never intended to certify lifesaving skills. The original introduction to the US test regulations read:

Keeping in tune with the ideals of our beautiful breed, we here present what we feel is the best set of exercises to help our working Newf be a useful animal to its owner, and to depict to the world at large the diversity and unique talents of the Newfoundland dog.

In the early 1980’s I was the secretary of the committee that set up the first water rescue dog tests for Canada and I naively assumed that we were going to certify our Newfs as life guards. In the 1990’s my family ran demonstrations for the public and modified the first two exercises, the simple retrieve and the directed retrieve, by substituting a life size baby doll for the usual retrieval objects of bumper, boat cushion and life jacket. After seeing our demos, no one ever questioned that these were life saving exercises.

In 2010 Rita Lo and I went to Quebec to run a water rescue dog seminar and Rita’s Newf, Remington, came along as the demo dog. A few weeks before the seminar, I asked Rita to practice saving the baby so we could put some realism in the pre-seminar demonstrations. Again there was no doubt that these were life saving exercises.

To me the problem of not considering the water rescue dog tests to be real is that they will merely become another form of obedience trials rather than a working test. A good example of this is the US exercise where a paddle is retrieved. Most handlers use a toy paddle that makes it seem like an irrelevant exercise. If it were me I would use a large oar. Above is a photo taken by Sandra Nicholson of her boy, Neptune, bringing in a full size oar; need we say more!

Peter Maniate has been writing a column about Newfoundland dogs since January, 1996, originally for Dogs in Canada magazine and now for Newf News. The preceding column originally appeared in the September/October, 2012 issue of Newf News. 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.