Interview by Kate Calamusa
The American Academy of Canine Water Rescue is a non-profit organization that breeds and trains dogs to perform water rescues. How did the organization get its start and what is its core mission today
MG: The original inspiration stems from a special I saw on National Geographic when I was very young that featured highly trained dogs jumping out of helicopters on rescue missions. I found it so inspiring and always had it in the back of my mind throughout the course of my life. I later even became a dog trainer. It all came full circle when I had the opportunity to travel to Italy and train with a very well-renowned organization known as SICS (Scuola Italiana Cani Salvataggio, The Italian School Of Rescue Dogs) that trains dogs to patrol the Italian coastline and currently has over 400 certified dogs in operation. After working extensively with them and training my own Newfoundland, Angel, to do the same rescue work, I brought the idea back stateside. Today, we not only work to train our dogs to work as first responders, but also help promote water safety and use our dogs to educate young people about how to stay safe in the water.
GH: I personally got involved after we also got a Newfoundland named Oakley that I wanted to smartly introduce to the water as my family lives on a small lake. I happened to watch a movie called “Super Power Dogs” that featured SICS and it was so impactful that I had tears running down my face. I got in touch with Maria and got involved, and down the line, Oakley was also selected to go to Italy to train. It was a mind-blowing experience; these dogs are capable of things you wouldn’t imagine; both Oakley and Angel have jumped out of helicopters! Currently we are helping to patrol a couple of beaches on the East Coast, and we think there is incredible potential to grow the program, especially given the huge lack of lifeguards in the nation. These dogs can help fill that gap and help prevent drownings.
Tell me a little bit more about the on-water dog rescue demonstration you will be holding at Bell Harbor Marina on February 8th. What can showgoers expect from the demo, and what do you hope they take away from the event?
MG: The biggest goal for the demonstration is to help remind boaters and non-boaters alike about the importance of on-water safety and preparedness, as well as share the amazing cold water rescue skills of our dogs—both Angel and Oakley will be on hand to show you their stuff. I always hope that people will leave with a feeling of wonderment after watching the dogs work the water. These dogs are real and they perform a real job, and they do so magnificently. And also, maybe someone will learn to follow the dogs’ leads: Angel always swims with a buddy and always wears his life jacket. You can and should do both of those things, too.
GA: We do these demonstrations throughout the country and each one is tailored to the surrounding environment. For example, in the Seattle area, the water temperature never gets below freezing nor does it ever get very warm; in fact, water temps hover on average between 40-45 degrees. But this means that a person exposed to water will get very cold, very fast, so we’ll definitely be talking about some of the safety precautions you should take in the Northwest, like investing in a neoprene wetsuit and that sort of thing.
Many of our readers bring their dogs onboard their vessels, whether it’s for a day trip or an extended cruise. What are a few of your best safety tips when it comes to preparing your pooch for the water?
GA: First and foremost, never assume upfront that a dog can swim, especially in open water. Oftentimes, people just assume that a dog will figure it out and throw a dog in the water and that’s just plain unsafe. You should always practice in a safe space, like say a pool, first to determine their acumen. Also, make sure that you and your dog are appropriately attired for the elements. You should have a life jacket and so should they; you don’t want to have to go in after a dog in your jeans.
MG: I would add that you also should make sure your dog has basic manners before trying them out in a water situation. If you have a dog that doesn’t come when called on land, they probably aren’t going to come back from their swim either when called. Also, take it slow: A dog that hasn’t been on a boat before probably shouldn’t get thrown on a speedboat on day one. Once a pooch is out in the water, we also always advise dog owners to watch what we call the top line or the shoulders to the tail, as the dog swims. If they are staying nice and vertical, with shoulders and tail all aligned, they are probably doing well; but if you start to see the rump go down, that’s a sign they are tiring and to get them out of the water. During our demo, we always leave time for Q+A for pet owners to quiz on water safety, and the day after the demo, on the 9th as part of the Dogs on Deck day, you can also come say ‘hi’ to us and Angel and Oakley in our booth to ask more questions.
>> About the Experts: Maria Gray is the founder of the American Academy of Canine Water Rescue; George Abraham is one of the Academy’s top trainers. The duo, along with their Newfoundland rescue dogs, will be at Bell Harbor Marina on Wednesday, February 8th for an on-water rescue demo as part of the Seattle Boat Show, which this year also includes a Dogs on Deck day on February 9th—so plan to bring your furry first mate along on that date! For more information on the organization, go to: academyofwaterrescue.org; and for more details on the safety demo and Dogs on Deck, go to: seattleboatshow.com.