If you find yourself at Maine’s Scarborough Beach State Park this summer, you might be greeted by a very special trainee lifeguard: a 16-month-old Newfoundland named Beacon. A group of committed Newfoundland enthusiasts, including Beacon’s owner Greg Wilfert, is working to train more Newfoundlands as canine lifeguards.
Wilfert is a lifeguard at Scarborough Beach State Park, and Beacon accompanies him to work. Dog lifeguard training began early for this puppy. Wilfert explained that when Beacon was 12 weeks old, she started greeting the public at the park. At five months old, she began her formal training. He sees Beacon as “another important tool to keep the public safe.” Beacon trains daily on land and in the water from June to August.
Much of her training has been with the American Academy of Canine Water Rescue. AACWR’s president and founder, Maria E. Gray, Ph.D., notes that “Beacon is an incredible young Newfoundland dog.” A fast learner, Beacon has shown a natural aptitude and interest in being a water rescue dog.
“Beacon has amazing drive and rapidly took to the basic water work exercises. She was with us for 45 days and then returned to work with Greg on his beach,” Gray explains. Then for the next stage of her training, “three head instructors from the Academy traveled to the beach in Maine where Greg and Beacon work to train with several other water rescue dogs,” Gray explains. Throughout, Beacon’s drive for the work has increased.
A Lifesaving Legacy
Using Newfoundlands as part of a lifeguard team helps preserve these giant pups’ working nature. Historically, Newfoundlands were Canadian fishermen’s working dogs. Newfoundlands were bred to pull fishing nets and boats, and to be strong enough to save adults from drowning. Their natural swimming ability makes this breed a natural choice for the AACWR.
Gray says, “They are ideal for water rescue work due to their triple coat, with a layer like goose down close to their skin and an outer coarser layer of fur. This helps their skin to stay relatively dry and allows them to swim in very cold water if needed. They have webs between their toes, which helps their powerful paws to swim and they don’t do a ‘doggie-paddle’—they reach out with their front paws. Their large, droopy jowls allow them to hold a rope or a line in their mouth, while swimming, as it permits the water to pour out the sides of their mouths.”
In addition, Newfoundlands “have tremendous endurance and can swim for miles; they can pull thousands of pounds in the water,” explains Gray. Other breeds like Labrador Retrievers work as water rescue dogs, and Gray notes that any dog of the right size with a strong bond to their handler and a drive to work can be trained to do water rescue.
Water rescue dogs primarily serve “as a force-multiplier, allowing the human first responder to conserve their energy for when it is truly needed,” she adds. When working Newfoundlands are deployed alongside a lifeguard, “the dog can pull up to 50 times its body weight in the water, so can be utilized to tow a small boat with passengers if needed.”
Canine safety is a priority. “The dogs utilize a specially designed harness which serves as a PFD (personal flotation device) for the dog and allows the lifeguard to ‘ride’ the dog, holding onto handles, which permit a trained dog to be steered,” Gray says.
Training Water Rescue Dogs
A lot of training goes into preparing a dog for professional water rescue work. Gray notes that candidates “must have a deep bond with his/her primary handler, basic obedience skills, and a gentle disposition. The dog must exhibit drive and should have joy in working. We seek out dogs that display overt friendliness to humans, even strangers. Dogs that are highly motivated through positive training techniques to learn new skills.”
Gray advises that it usually takes anywhere from one to three years before dogs can conduct a rescue with a first responder. Water rescue dogs are continuously training through their working careers. The Academy utilizes what Gray describes as an “instructor dog” to teach student canines more efficiently and effectively. She adds, “There is the human trainer, but we demonstrate to the new dog with one of our top instructor dogs. The dogs can learn from other dogs.”
The AACWR completed its first helicopter deployment training exercises in July 2022. In this mock rescue, highly-trained Newfoundlands jumped out of helicopters to reach people simulating being in distress. Gray says that the AACWR enlisted “our top two instructor dogs” who were capable of doing land to water rescues, which start from the shore with a lifeguard to a person/s in distress, and water-water rescues, which involve “deploying from various types of water crafts.” In advance of this training exercise, the AACWR had trained the pups to fly on helicopters. This included boarding and unloading while the helicopter was on.
The AACWR puts significant time and effort into training the dogs to be comfortable around loud sounds and distractions prior to their first flights. The organization conducts these mock rescues in the same style as the Italian School of Water Rescue Dogs, which utilizes Newfoundland helicopter deployments from helicopters as part of working water rescue efforts.
Beacon Loves Her Public
When she’s not working, Beacon is a beloved pet and friend to Wilfert. During the summer, the two live across from the beach, and in the winter, they call Carrabassett Valley home.
Wilfert explained that Beacon is “a people’s pup.” Extremely outgoing and friendly, Beacon also takes her water rescue work very seriously. If you find yourself at Scarborough State Park, Wilfert encourages you to approach him and ask to meet Beacon. “We encourage meeting and petting; Beacon loves her public!” he says.