Meet Monty. He’s 2 1/2 years old and weighs about 13 stone. He’s just been let out of a cage in the back of a van, and now he’s barking non-stop, straining against the huge stake and hefty chain that are preventing him from leaping into the nearby lake. Monty is one of the giant breeds of dog: he’s a Newfoundland (Newfie), so all he wants to do is swim.
I found Monty at Mepal Airfield lake in Cambridgeshire on a sunny Sunday, where he is one of 28 Newfies. They’re here (with their owners) for the weekly meeting of the East Anglian Working Newfoundlands (EAWN) club. It’s an awesome sight. Females weigh about 10 stone, and males 10 to 12 stone – although when you take into account their long, silky outer fur, they look a lot bigger than even their weight would suggest. They look like giant teddy bears, and have a disposition to suit. What makes them even more special is their talent in the water, which is what EAWN is all about.
The club, which formed in 1989, meets from April to October to train the dogs in water rescue, using ropes, boats and lifejackets. The Newfies aren’t expected or employed to use these skills; the club’s objective is just to preserve the Newfie’s natural talents, and it puts on regular displays for charity.
It’s also highly regarded internationally: in Paris last year, EAWN became the first UK club to have displayed at the European International Working Newfoundland event, which has been running for 25 years. At Christmas, EAWN heads to Elveden, where the dogs cart customers’ Christmas trees back to their cars in exchange for a charitable donation.
Today, it’s all about the water, and I’m the volunteer who needs rescuing. I’ve donned a dry-suit and slipped into the water. First, 3 1/2-year-old Nelson is sent to fetch me in a simple rescue. I bang my right arm on the water, shout ‘Help!’, and Nelson swims to my right side, then round the back of me, so that I can grab his bottom. He then heads to shore with me in tow. Easy, considering that the club record is apparently one dog towing 22 people.
Other exercises involve 12 1/2-stone, six-year-old Bosun leaping out of the boat to save me (keeping my hair dry was a futile plan); Nelson towing the boat that I’m in; and three-year-old Dusty dragging me in by gripping in her mouth the lifejacket that I’m wearing. (The sight of her teddy-bear head bobbing towards me in the water is one of the highlights of the day.) Later, Dusty and eight-year-old Buffy grip each of my wrists to push me back to shore. I’ve been warned that Dusty’s grip is ‘firm’ and, indeed, I can feel the rock-cracking power of her jaw. Not that it hurts – she’s far too careful for that.
Sheer power is just one of the special advantages a Newfie has. They also have webbed feet, with thick, sturdy skin hidden in the fur between their toes. This, in turn, helps them to swim breaststroke, which is much more effective than the doggy paddle. Finally, they have two layers of fur: an oily undercoat that keeps their skin completely protected from the water, and an outer coat to trap air, help them float, and keep them warm.
Sadly, Newfies aren’t perfect, and, as Owain Seymour, President of EAWN explains, they can sink if they end up vertically in the water; they can only swim horizontally or at 45degrees. They also come with a life expectancy of just 10 years. Thirteen-year-old Brancaster, who has sadly passed away since my day at Mepal, was the oldest dog at EAWN and had had his white-and-black coat shaved off to save him carrying the weight. He had almost entirely lost his bark and could barely move on land, requiring the help of his owners and some ropes. It’s heartbreaking, but, once Brancaster was in the water, he was like a puppy. He will be missed.
‘They change your life for the better,’ says EAWN member Rosemary Young, who has owned Newfies for 29 years, ‘but they should come with an addiction warning.’ Indeed, judging by the Newfie jewellery I’m shown, a personalised Newfie numberplate, and the sheer passion of the EAWN club members, I can see what she means.
As I head off, smelling slightly of wet dog, with my ‘I’ve been Newf’d’ rosette, I realise just how much I want one.