Five dogs took to Scarborough Beach State Park last week, but not to play fetch or go for a walk.
Beacon, a 14-month-old Newfoundland, is training to help lifeguards save lives. Two visiting dogs were there to train Beacon and the two other canines.
“(Beacon) won’t be a first responder; she’ll be a second responder,” said Park Manager Greg Wilfert. “What her job will be to help the lifeguards bring the people back in. I have all my lifeguards working with her.”
Beacon has been working with trainers from the American Academy of Canine Water Rescue, based in Massachusetts.
It’s quite a spectacle when Beacon trots along the shore wearing her life jacket. Beachgoers stop to pet and take photos of her and ask Wilfert a lot of questions. The idea of a professionally trained water rescue dog is, quite literally, foreign.
“I had seen the groups from Italy and Croatia that use dogs as water rescue dogs,” Wilfert said. “I just thought it was another tool that could be utilized like our Jet Ski is. You don’t use it all the time, but you have it there for a purpose.”
Italy has certified 400 water rescue dogs via the Scuola Italiana Cani Da Salvataggio, or Italian School of Rescue Dogs. Two of them — Angel and Oakley — and their owners were invited to Scarborough Beach on June 30 to help train a Beacon and the two other dogs, a German Shepard named Athena and a 4-month-old Newfoundland named Orso.
The latter spent the morning soaking up the sun and studying his peers.
Angel, also a Newfoundland, was the first dog from the United States to be certified in water rescue in Italy.
“That’s one of the reasons why I founded the American Academy of Canine Water Rescue,” said Maria Gray, who also owns Angel. “I want to bring their techniques and their philosophy and their methodology here to the United States.”
Over 10 people drown in the United States every day, Gray said, a statistic that doesn’t account for those who suffer severe injuries and brain damage from accidents on the water.
“It’s 100% preventable if you follow basic rules, if you swim with a buddy, if you wear a life jacket on open ocean water,” Gray said. “We strive to educate, but we also work to train these dogs to actually be able to conduct a rescue.”
Oakley, a black and white Newfoundland, also known as a Landseer, was also there to teach the dogs some new tricks. She drew quite the crowd in Scarborough Thursday, in part due to her eyewear.
“The goggles are probably the most noticeable thing,” said George Abraham, lead instructor at the American Academy of Canine Water Rescue, and Oakley’s owner. “They’re made specifically for working dogs.”
The goggles function as sunglasses but also help protect Oakley’s eyes from sand and salt water, which is often kicked up when she and Angel jump out of helicopters in the Mediterranean Sea as part of their open-water rescue training.
Beacon will not be jumping out of any helicopters on Wilfert’s watch, but she does ride on a personal watercraft.
“Beacon’s been out on the Jet Ski, she’s made simulated water rescues,” Wilfert said. “(Lifeguards) have to work with her four to five times a day on certain training aspects.”
Much of that includes obedience, like staying when told and walking alongside her assigned lifeguard on patrols. While those may seem like simple tricks, it’s important for water rescue dogs to instantly follow commands. Fortunately for Beacon, Oslo and Athena, they are learning from one of the best: Oakley.
“She’s traveled around the world, 99.9% of the time off-leash,” Abraham said.
Throughout the interview, and for much of Thursday morning, Oakley didn’t move in the midst of the crowded beach.
“She always keeps eye contact; If I go somewhere, she’s going to start looking,” Abraham said, taking no more than three steps across the beach. “She looked. She always knows where I’m at, she’s always waiting for her next command.”
While any dog of “sufficient size” and strength can be trained, Newfoundlands are often in a class of their own when it comes to water rescue. They have webs between their toes, use a swimming style more similar to a human’s than a doggy paddle, and have three coats of fur, “which keeps them dry even in the coldest waters.
“The Newfoundland is the only dog that can swim in Arctic waters without dying of hypothermia,” Gray said. “They’re incredible.”
Working with Angel and Oakley, Wilfert said, requires Beacon to do a lot of watching and studying. When Oakley performed a simulated rescue mission, Wilfert made sure Beacon was watching.
In the simulated mission, a lifeguard plays the role of a drowning swimmer. Another lifeguard, the first responder, swims out to help and signals back to the beach for backup. That’s when the second-responding lifeguard comes to the rescue along with a dog.
The dogs are trained to tow the lifeguards and distressed swimmers to shore by tugging on a rope attached to the floating devices lifeguards bring out to support the victim. It’s a strategy that permits one lifeguard to give their full attention to the swimmer and increases the speed of the rescue
“The dog allows me to, much more quickly, get to a person in distress and helps me get back to a boat or the shore,” Gray said.
The dogs also help the lifeguards navigate. During Oakley’s simulation, she did not swim directly to the shore, but at a slight angle. Using their intuition, the dogs are able to find the path of least resistance, Wilfert said, accounting for the wind and waves. When it was Beacon’s turn to simulate the mission, she used the same tactic, alongside Angel as her mentor.
The session at Scarborough Beach was also a learning experience for Angel and Oakley. They usually train in the open ocean or lakes and ponds, so the experience at the beach trains them to overcome the waves crashing on the shore.
In Italy, where water rescue dogs have been trained and certified for 30 years, Gray said, dogs are responsible for saving hundreds of lives each year. In an effort to make rescue dogs more widely used, Angel and Oakley have performed demonstrations for US Coast Guard bases across the country.
Meanwhile, Beacon is progressing at a fast rate, and it seems Scarborough Beach lifeguards will have a four-legged, tail-wagging companion to lean on for some time.
“Beacon’s only 14 months, going on 15 months old,” Wilfert said. “She’s very young to be at this stage, and she’s learned a lot with Angel and Oakley … that’s why they’ve been invited here to train on the beach; so that Beacon can see their dogs in action.”
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