By Susan Spisak
Water Dogs were developed to work in the water, often for hunting, retrieving, rescue, or as all-around helpers. While happy on land, they thrive when they hit beaches, lakes, rivers, even family pools! There are many Water Dogs, from Newfies to New England’s beloved Labs, so let’s look at some popular, well-known breeds as well as a few lesser-known breeds.
Newfoundland’s, aka Newfies, are gentle giants known for being loyal, trusted family members. Part of the AKC’s Working Group, they’re big-boned and among the world’s largest at over 100 lbs., making them an obvious choice for water work. They have a natural lifesaving instinct, can swim long distances, have a large lung capacity, and can pull a victim to shore. Patricia Sullivan, founder and chair of the Maritime Museum of Pets in Rockland believes they’re the hardest working breed. “For versatility, stamina, strength, and focus on the task at hand, they're pretty amazing.”
Greg Wilfert, Park Manager at Scarborough Beach State Park in southwest Maine utilizes his own Newfies, Beacon and Buoy, who were intensively trained and certified by The American Academy of Canine Water Rescue, to add another layer of safety for beach goers there. George Abraham, one of the Academy’s trainers explained the Newfies certification process. “They both received training from Maria Gray at the Academy and then on the beach with Oakley (Abraham) and Maria’s dogs. They also attended two of our rescue workshops. Maria Gray did a lot of the foundational training with them as she is much closer (geographically) and was able to board and train them.”
During training, Greg and his team of lifeguards served as the Newfies’ handlers. As the only canine lifeguards in the country, they’re second responders behind the human lifeguards. Once lifeguards get to the struggling swimmer and place them on a floatation device, one of the Newfies will pull them all back to shore.
Many of the AKC’s Sporting Group Retrievers were purpose bred to be Water Dogs. They are the Labrador, Chesapeake Bay, English Curly- and Flat-coated, and the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling aka Toller.
Always coming near or at the top of the most popular breeds in this country are intelligent, loving, and family-oriented Labrador Retrievers. Like Newfies, they have origins back to the Canadian Province of Newfoundland (not Labrador as I assumed), where they were bred to retrieve ducks and assist fishermen in the icy waters. They use their tails as a rudder, their waterproof coats protect them, and their webbed feet help their speed. Because they’re excellent swimmers, they’ll happily spend the day retrieving from water. Having pleasing personalities and a strong ethic, they’re natural team partners for therapy, service, search and rescue, and police work.
Chesapeake Bay Retrievers are excellent duck dogs of the Mid-Atlantic. Bright, friendly, and sensitive, these Chessies as they’re referred to, are loyal, upbeat, and strong. These gundogs were bred for withstanding the rough, often frigid waters of the East Coast’s Chesapeake Bay. They’re loyal, well-socialized, and energetic, making them good companions on expeditions and a great family pet.
Curly- and Flat-coated Retrievers possess similar traits. Confident, proud, and smart describes their personality. The durable Curly, black- and liver-furred, is a gun dog with English origins. Their waterproof, curly coat allows them to withstand thorns, brambles, and icy lakes. They need lots of exercise continually. The Flat-coats, most commonly black furred, were bred to hunt on land and water. Today they’re known as happy, energetic, and wonderful family companions.
Last, but not least, is the medium-sized Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, aka Toller. Tollers were developed to attract waterfowl’s attention--their playful activity along the shoreline would draw the prey within gun range. They’d retrieve the dead or wounded birds from the water.
Dr. Marlene Groman, (or Marlene as she asked me to refer to her), has a 2-year-old Toller, Foxy Lady (along with an 11-year-old Amstaff.) Marlene purchased Foxy Lady as she was drawn to her smaller size. “They are 30 to 40 pounds, high energy, good for agility, and intelligent.” Shy at first, they’re friendly, a very good family pet, great with children and other canines. She added they need attention and a job to offset that energy. “However, couch potato is definitely part of their personality repertoire.”
A breed not considered a Retriever today but was initially bred to be a duck and bird water Retriever are Standard Poodles, part of the Non-Sporting Group. Their name is from the German word, “pudel” or “pudelin,” which means “to splash in the water.” They like having a job and are terrific as guide, service, assistance, and therapy dogs.
The Spaniels are water lovers and workers. Irish Water Spaniels are one of the largest and oldest of the breed. They’re intelligent, persistent, companionable, and eager, making them versatile gundogs. They are in the Sporting Group along with the energetic, merry, and eager, American Water Spaniels. They were bred to work the icy waters on small boats or on marshy banks of the Great Lakes region. Spanish Water Dogs are an ancient breed classed in the AKC Herding Group. Used for herding and hunting on both land and water, they’re referred to as rustic charmers who will make great family pets.
English Setters originated in England over four hundred years ago as bird dogs because they pointed at and retrieved them on the moors. Irish Setters are the results of combining the best traits from several breeds, including the English Setter, the Pointer, the Irish Terrier, and the Irish Water Spaniel. Irish Setters have just as much fun out in the field as in the water, and like the English Setter, are classed as Sporting Group dogs.
Portuguese Water Dogs enjoyed special notoriety during President Barack Obama’s administration when he gifted his daughters “first dog” Bo, then added a sister for him named Sunny. These intelligent, athletic, Working Group dogs are native to Portugal. They were utilized to herd fish into the nets and to swim out to retrieve broken nets and/or lost equipment. They thrive with attention and water play.
Robert Burnett, Director, Otterhound Club of America, Inc. shared that friendly, affectionate, and intelligent Otterhounds are an ancient breed dating back to the Middle Ages. “Unlike today's mixed breeds, the Otterhound was purpose bred for just one task: to hunt otters by tracking them, then pulling the large, strong otters from lakes and rivers to protect the fish. As such, they have a highly developed sense of smell, and their long, folded ears reach the ground, bringing scents to their nose.” In 1981, otter hunting was outlawed in the UK, where this Hound Group breed originated. Since there are fewer than 1,000 in the world, they are becoming rare due to designer dogs, and are rarer than the Giant Panda.
Otterhounds have shifted to being delightful, comical companion animals. (Robert said they’re often called the clowns of the Hounds.) They do well in tracking, agility, scent work, dock-diving, and simply chilling on the couch. Otterhounds pack instinct makes them great for families, even those with other animals. He added, “Health, history, dependable breed traits... it's all there… People just don't know about Otterhounds… To see an Otterhound is to love them! He invites readers to visit the Otterhound Club of America Inc. website (otterhound.org) and follow the "Otterhound Lovers" Facebook page.
There’s more Water Dogs—the AKC list seventeen. And of course, there are many other various breeds that love water. As Pat pointed out, “Although not strictly ‘Water Dogs,’ Huskies, Malamutes and Samoyeds do serve as sled dogs for transport across the ice.”
For more on Water Dogs and upcoming demos, visit museumofmaritimepets.org/. Or stop in at 75 Mechanic St. in Rockland, Room 106W in the Sail, Power & Steam Museum complex.)