Tales of Al: The Water Rescue Dog, the Making of a Super Athlete

With her golden eyes and short brown coat, Al is unlike most Newfoundland dogs not only in color. She’s also bigger than a bear cub at an equivalent age and able to pull two to three times her weight. Al is also exuberant, intelligent, and eager to please. But in her overwhelming enthusiasm, Al doesn’t always listen to commands.

In other words, does she have what it takes to be a water rescue dog?

Lynne Cox is an inductee into the International Swimming Hall of Fame who has set open-water swim records around the world including being the first to swim across the Bering Strait which she did in 43° F. water. Fascinated by watching videos of these dogs projecting themselves into the water to save people, flew all the way from her home in Long Beach, California to Lake Idroscalo in Italy to watch Al along with other Newfoundlands, Labradors, German shepherds, and golden retrievers undergo rigorous instruction at the Italian School of Rescue Dogs. Would Al be able to make it?

Cox, who obviously is tough as nails, admires the dedication and strength of these dog and recounts the training that makes them capable of jumping from helicopters and boats as well as swimming through heavy waves to rescue those in peril. All this is recounted in her fascinating new book “Tales of Al: The Water Rescue Dog, The Making of a Super Athlete.”

“I love dogs, I love swimming, I love Italy, and I love people working together to accomplish something,” says Cox about the impetus for her trip to Lake Idroscalo. But there was more than that.

In some ways, she says, it’s because both she and the dogs train and swim under the most challenging conditions. After all, she’s twice set the record for swimming the English Channel. The first time at age 14 and then when someone broke her record, she did it again the following year setting another record.

But the training the canines undergo is no harsh doggie bootcamp.

“I really appreciated the way the dogs were taught,” she says. “There was never a time when anyone yelled at the dogs or hit them. Both the owners and their dogs really love each other.”

Sara Carson: Super Dog Tricks

            Your dog may have been working hard to convince you that old—or even oldish–dogs can’t learn new tricks, but Sara Carson, who with her Super Collies has appeared on such shows as America’s Got Talent and America’s Got Talent The Champions knows better.

            Considered among the best, the Lexington, Kentucky based international trick dog trainer shows how we can easily train Fido to perform an amazing amount of tricks from very simple to what appear to be circus level performances. It’s all in her new book, Super Dog Tricks: Make Your Dog a Super Dog with Step by Step Tricks and Training Tips (Quarry Books 2022, $22.99).

            “Anyone can do it,” Carson tells me when we chat on the phone. I’m a little doubtful because despite my degrees in psychology I never could even get a rat to run a maze. But her book, full of step-by-step explanations and detailed techniques is easy to follow. It breaks down into such categories as Super Simple Tricks (leash training, rolling over, and taking a bow) to Super Trick Dog. That’s the chapter where Carson shows how to train your dog to do a walking handstand, jump rope, and skateboard.

            “It’s really simple,” says Carson, who tells me that this winter she’s already been able to teach one of her dogs to turn the handle on a jack-in-the box toy until it pops open in three days.

            Of course, some dogs take longer at it.

            “They’ve to have the drive,” she says. “Some dogs have more drive than others.”

            To develop that drive, Carson uses several techniques including Free Shaping where she just sits with a big handful of treats and as the dog approximates the right moves, offers one up.

            Carson is a serious dog lover. After getting her first pet when she was 11, she was so determined to add more to her menagerie, that she opened up a pet daycare when she was 14. The first month she had 3 dogs she was training and by the end of the second month she was training 40 in agility, obedience, and puppy tricks.

            But not in her home in Toronto where she grew up. Her parents, less dog loving than she, thought one at home was enough. Now she currently has three of her Super Collies (typically Border Collies) and a cat at home with her. At one time she had six.

            Border Collies and Border Collie mixes, known for being super smart, are easy to work with and good for showing.

            “They have the stamina to learn and perform as they’re bred to guard sheep for hours and hours at a time,” she says.

            Hero, one of her dogs, broke the Guinness World Record in 2018 for most dog tricks performed in one minute by completing 49 in just 60 seconds. That was double from the previous record holder.

            The idea for the book came during the pandemic when she and the dogs—and cat—weren’t traveling to performances in her RV. She wanted to teach everyone how to have fun with their pet and also train them. Whether you want to have your dog jump rope or bounce with four feet off the floor is up to you. But the trick where they put their toys away certainly works for me.

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