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.”