Friday, August 21, 2009

Dog Paddling

Lucky and I, off on an adventure
(All photos by Deborah L. Schneer)

A dog can definitely be a swimmer's best friend. I knew this, in theory, because I had the pleasure of developing (with my colleague Sarah and many others here at Storey) our kids' book Dog Heroes. Among many stunning images it shows an enormous brown Newfoundland leaping from a helicopter into the sea somewhere off the Italian coast. He or she was a rescue dog, trained to save drowning sailors and tow life rafts through choppy waters to shore.

So far in life I haven't needed rescue, but dogs don't necessarily realize that. I was recently vacationing on a small island on Moosehead Lake, Maine, with my brother Stewart, his romantic partner Deb, and their young, much-adored golden retriever Lucky. We arrived on the island by motorboat at dusk as a light rain fell across the placid, glassy lake. Within 15 minutes of tying up, I slipped into the water, silently swimming, gazing at distant misty mountains all around, hearing a loon's nearby laugh, everything as tranquil as could be.

Loons have nested and called on Moosehead Lake since time immemorial.

Suddenly, the blueberry bushes cloaking the shore began to quiver and then churn, and Lucky came hurtling out, flew through the air, and landed with a huge splash in the lake, golden tail thrashing. He swam enthusiastically toward me, head held high, dark eyes fixed steadily on me. "Don't worry, I'm coming!" he was clearly saying.

"Hey, Lucky, I'm okay," I assured him, and we swam a few strokes together along the rocky island shore. He found a shallow place, scrambled out, shook energetically, spotted me again, and immediately plunged dutifully in to rescue me once more. How many times did he repeat these steps? At least 20 as I circumnavigated the island.

Swim buddies

Lucky’s a retriever, of course, and a water dog, hardwired to fetch things, especially anything floating tantalizingly out of reach, such as a disembodied human head. Stewart began swimming with him last summer and has trained him in a couple of very good habits: to refrain from clawing his human partner and to go somewhere else to shake.

For our part, we humans (especially women) are hardwired to worry about our fellow creatures, and Deb and I fretted about whether Lucky had the strength and stamina for a long swim with Stewart in deep water. I concluded that he was totally fine (at the healthy age of three), truly in his element, and much safer and savvier than we; Deb wasn’t entirely convinced and never took her eyes (and, happily, her camera) off him any time dog and man were out there together.

Stewart and Lucky on, or in, the high seas

Lucky rose to a new level when I took off in my kayak, launching himself off the dock and paddling out to assist me. (I didn’t tell him that there is a canine sport called Dock Diving [see our book Canine Sports & Games], in which dogs are judged on the distance of their flight — that could be a very slippery slope.) We spent lots of happy time exploring. When he came along I was careful, of course, not to paddle more than 20 feet from shore.

Swimming and kayaking may never be the same. Without Lucky they'll be serene, but something deep yet playful will be missing: the special bond with an eager, bright-eyed canine companion by your side. In that watery world you are everything to each other, and that’s a surprisingly glorious sensation.

Now if we could just train him to find my towel and bring it to me wherever I choose to get out of the water....

This is a dog who will sleep well tonight.

Deb Burns, Acquiring Editor


Mattenylou said...

Nice... Our Newman is in the water every time he gets a chance!

Kathleen C. said...

My husband has a canoeing friend who takes his big Newfy with him, especially when they're going for longer camping trips.
Duke just loves it! He sits (or stands) proud and tall in the bow. He knows to keep still when they hit whitewater, and swims at every stop they make.
Though he's an excellent swimmer he does have his own flotation device... worn when they're doing rapids.