By Susan Spisak
On August 13th, Rockland’s Museum of Maritime Pets hosted a Canine Water Rescue demonstration at Snow Marine Park. It was presented by the 501(3)(c) organization, American Academy of Canine Water Rescue, based out of Southborough, MA. Their certified instructors, George Abraham, Kate Abraham, Artemis Tsagarakis, and Maria Gray, the founder and president, participated with their three Newfies and German Shepherd. While demonstrating several rescue techniques, it was apparent that safety for their dogs and themselves is paramount.
The Academy’s mission is to bring the intensive training techniques from the organization, SICS, Scuola Italiana Cani Salvataggio, The Italian School of Rescue Dogs, to the US. (SICS utilizes four hundred certified dog teams who’ve been through their extensive training to patrol busy Italian beaches.) Maria explained that there are three levels of training/certification for human/canine teams. Level One is patrolling beaches together—or shore to water. Level Two is deploying from a fast-moving water vessel to water to save a victim. Level Three is air to water rescue, i.e., jumping from a hovering helicopter to a victim.
The Academy’s goal is to train and certify American dogs of sufficient size to patrol unguarded lakes, rivers, and ocean beaches to save lives. They also would like to work in conjunction with local lifeguards at all beaches, the United States Coast Guard, the Navy and the Marines, and local law enforcement as requested.
Water safety education is also key. They hold seminars and demonstrations like the one in Rockland to reduce or eliminate accidental drownings. Maria stressed that children must learn to swim. Lifejackets need to be worn on boats, river tubes, kayaks, jet skis, paddleboards, etc. And mixing alcohol with water-related activities is non-negotiable. She added that the public is not aware of these astounding facts: the World Health Organization reports that approximately 400,000 people across the world drown annually. The CDC reports that ten people or more in the US drown daily, with many occurring at lakes and ocean beaches without lifeguards.
Initiating the Academy
As a child Maria was “always about the dogs,” but she became hooked as a teen when she saw a documentary on Italian canine water rescue. “I thought this was the greatest thing in the world.” A dream was born, but the timing wasn’t right. There was college, pursuit of a PhD at UC Berkely (she even had a Newfie there), a daughter to raise, and a career in Chemical Engineering.
At about 50-ish with a good nest egg built, she retired from her demanding career and pursued this passion. She didn’t go into building the Academy blindly--she’d also been self-employed as a dog trainer, specializing in water work, for decades. She reached out to SICS and attended courses in Milan, Italy beginning in 2016. Several arduous years of training paid off, and in 2018, Maria was evaluated and obtained her International Instructor certification from SICS, along with her dog Angel. Additionally, she is affiliated with the Newfoundland Clubs of America and New England and has a water dog level of certification (WD) from the US. With all those certifications and affiliates, she was ready to open the Academy, complete with a Board of Directors.
George and Kate of Thornhurst, PA became interested in water rescue after attending an interactive Newfie club event, and their black and white Landseer girl proved to have a knack for it. They discovered the Academy and attended Maria’s first workshop. George said it quickly went from a sport to something that they embraced seriously. They continued traveling to MA to work with Maria and became excellent students and good friends. They also trained with Oakley and other teams several times a week on a nearby PA lake, and still do. George, a Technician Manager at a Proctor and Gamble facility, said they warm up by “getting the dogs wet.” Then on to exercises including endurance swims, pulling boats, circling victims, and holding rope bumpers and lifejackets.
The Abrahams were excited to travel to Milan in March of 2020 with the hope of being SICS certified, but the pandemic cancelled that trip. To continue their training and building their all-important human-canine bond during this time, they became creative. Maria discovered charter boats with open time so they could sharpen their Level Two water rescue skills. They even utilized a FL helicopter company with few tourists to fly--they agreed to take teams out and simulate the Level 3 method. “I never thought that at 41 I’d be a certified lifeguard and jumping out of helicopters,” he laughed. Both George and Maria agreed they wouldn’t be involved with the last scenario often, if ever.
Finally in September of 2021, the couple went to Milan with Maria. They were there for three weeks, “It was absolutely amazing,” George said. Oakley passed, making her the second “elite” certified and trained SICS dog in the US alongside Angel. “It’s changed my life,” George shared. He travels extensively educating on the Academy, and Oakley takes her abilities in stride. She recently towed a stranded 2,800-pound pontoon boat to safety.
The Academy has had good attendance at their workshops and are holding their first certifications in the spring of 2023. Maria said while they have no intention of mimicking SICS, they’re striving for the Coast Guard and other US agencies’ support by traveling to their posts to demonstrate their abilities. She’d like to hear them say, “Yep, these dogs should be on beaches and lakes [where no lifeguards are.]” And while she is pursuing this dream of training water rescue dogs, she’d prefer people follow their safety and educational tips, “It’s cool and I love it, but I never want to have to save anyone.”