Could dogs working as official lifeguards become a thing in Wisconsin?

They are one of the few breeds that don’t doggy paddle but instead will do a modified breaststroke and could end up saving your life at the beach.
Posted at 11:52 AM, Sep 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-29 18:21:49-04

PLEASANT PRAIRIE — They are one of the few breeds that don’t doggy paddle but instead will do a modified breaststroke and could end up saving your life at the beach.

At the Northcentral Newfoundland Water Rescue Test in Pleasant Prairie on Sept. 24, dog owners like Dona Baker-Austin hoped to get their Newfoundlands rescue certified.

“They were bred specifically for water rescue,” Baker-Austin said. “The majority of them will just stay in the water. They’d rather be out in the rain and wet and enjoying life as a wet dog.”

Baker-Austin is the group’s former president and currently has five Newfoundlands of her own at home. She said the breed has a long history of working alongside fishermen dating back to the early 1800s and most recently lifeguards.

“I believe that it is a 100 percent possibility that in the states that they could accompany humans for lifesaving ability,” Austin-Baker said. “It’s pretty awesome if it could be that’s what drew me to the breed itself is their passion for the water.” 

Currently in the United States, the Newfoundland water rescue title is mostly honorary, outside of one beach in Maine but in countries like Italy and the UK they’ve been actively working alongside lifeguards for years.

Austin-Baker said what makes the breed especially equipped for the water is their double coat. The first to repel water and the second to keep them warm, not to mention they also have webbed feet.

On Sept. 24, Austin-Baker joined a few dozen Newfoundland breeders to test their dogs’ skills in the water. Her 135-pound Newfoundland named Willow along with several other four-legged participants were asked to do things like hauling a boat with a line, grab a flotation device, and rescue a swimmer in a drowning simulation.

For Austin-Baker, however, it’s not just the Newfoundland’s strength, pulling more weight than the average lifeguard, or ability to handle subzero temperatures that drew her to the breed.

"Most of all their expression and their sweet temperament is what is the best thing about them,” she said.

Fellow enthusiast Cissy Sullivan and proud owner of her own Newfoundland called Bonham agrees. Sullivan said she’s come to learn that her 13-month-old puppy’s rescue skills aren’t limited to the water.

"Being a lifesaver in my life,” Sullivan said. "Providing the support constantly and that provides great—great positives in anybody's life, so that's my Newfoundland."

According to the American Kennel Club, the average male Newfoundland is about 28 inches tall and can weigh up to 150 pounds. Average females are 26 inches tall and usually weigh around 120 pounds.

In the U.S., two Newfoundlands called Buoy and Beacon have worked alongside lifeguards at Scarborough Beach in Maine as second responders. While there are no official plans to allow similar use in Wisconsin, area Newfoundland enthusiasts are hopeful.