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Search and Rescue Newfoundlands

Updated on September 19, 2014
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The Newfoundland Club of America - responsible for the preservation, protection and welfare of the Newfoundland Dog in America since 1930.

Scent Detectives - Newfoundlands with a Nose for Work

It was a love at first sight . . . for the dog. It started when I was a young girl in a small pulp and paper mill town in the Northwest and met a man and his dog, Bear. This was no ordinary dog, quite the contrary; Bear was a supersized, solid black Newfoundland that would take strolls on warm, summer nights with his master on the streets near my grandparent's home. Little did I know that my youthful love would grow over the years for these gentle giants and begin to change the perception within the K9 Search and Rescue (SAR) community of Newfoundlands as being just draft dogs.

by Theresa Barnet - reprinted from NewfTide 1Q 2012


The star of this tale is my two-year-old, 155 pound, male Newfoundland, Popeye. His supporting actress is his daughter, Tinkerbelle, who at five months and 60 pounds just started her training in K9 SAR trailing and human remains detection (HRD). But, it was daddy Popeye who started it all and continues to write his own story in the world of K9 SAR, with little Tink following in daddy’s paw prints.

In 2004, I started in search and rescue as a “lost victim” or brush monkey. Two close friends, who were already volunteers and handlers for the Kitsap County All Breed Canine Search and Rescue (ABCSAR) here in Washington State, suggested that I join the unit. Before I knew it, I had a pack on my back, was sleeping under a tarp tent, and doing land orientation. After a short time, I became a subject, fondly called “bait,” for the ABCSAR team. I think there were times some of the dogs wondered why I got lost so much! During the same time, I was on a quest to find my own Newfoundland since I was now retired, never to move again. As luck would have it, I helped at a dog show, which led me to meeting my breeders, now good friends, Sandy McFarlane and Nancy Wheeler of Norwest/Finnigans. As his breeders, they have been two of Popeye’s greatest fans in his growing fan club and are rooting for Tinkerbelle as she begins her own story in K9 SAR.

Getting Started in Training

How do you start with Newfoundlands in Search and Rescue? While I would love to say it was a snap, it was a long, long snap, mixed with tenacity, pointed research on what Newfoundlands have done in the past (such as avalanche work), and lots of support from Sandy and Nancy when the naysayers got me down. To make a very long, and at times discouraging, story short, I approached Auntie Ronda, an ABCSAR trainer, and asked for a chance. The worst that might happen was Popeye and I would have great training, he’ll have a lot of fun, and I would still have my companion at the end of the day. The best that might happen is the unit would have a new Airscent dog and handler. A win-win situation. “Well,” said Ronda, with a slight shrug, “All dogs have a nose” and that was the beginning of what has become a wonderful adventure, not only for Popeye, but for the entire SAR and ABCSAR team. After all, how can you not love such an adorable, gentle face— drool and all!

Now at age two and with 20 months of training, Popeye is ready to be tested for his certification as a K9 Airscent SAR dog, and with the prestige of being what is believed to be the first Newfoundland in the history of K9 SAR in the Northwest to certify Airscent. From his beginnings with puppy run-aways, where none of his body parts moved in the same direction, with hair flying and accompanied by drool, he had others chuckling at the sight. He has continued to wow all who work with us on training evolutions with his methodical, steadfast approach to finding the “lost” subject.

By his own intuition, he “clears intersections” without a single word from me; he “returns” (comes back to me and goes back to the subject, until I catch up); and if he loses sight of his mommy, he waits patiently until he has made eye contact with me. Then with his trademark Jackie Gleason Dance, swishing of his white tipped, upright tail, off he goes, nose in the scent cone or to the ground trailing the scent, knowing he will get the greatest reward a Newfie can get—love and hugs from a human. If I suggest we go a certain direction and I get the look, “You can go that way, but I’m going this way,” being a smart handler, I just carry the water and follow my faithful friend with the nose; he hasn’t been wrong yet.

Without question, Popeye loves doing SAR. I think he even grins as he trots down a path or crashes through the brush in his brilliant orange vest and clanging cowbell to find those “lost” souls. Auntie Ronda is thrilled and says, “He’s got this stuff down.” Not bad for being just a draft dog.


First Timer Gets to Work

Following in her daddy’s legacy, Tinkerbelle has already shown she has a penchant for specializing in HRD work. Naturally everyone in the SAR groups is in love with her cheery personality, and I get many volunteers to puppy sit while Popeye and I train. On her first formal training day, the trailing dogs were in HRD training, so that’s where Tinkerbelle started. Up to that point, she had only been doing normal puppy training (sit, down, etc), socializing, and learning to stay in the vehicle until it was time to come out. In her bright pink harness and leash, she was all puppy and off to visit everything and everyone.

A bright orange box was in the middle of the area. In this box was a very special container that held the scent article, a piece of human remains. As Tink made her rounds, Rachelle, another ABCSAR trainer, slowly reached into the box and took out the container. “Let her leash go slack,” Rachelle quietly directed me. I let the leash fall loose in my hands. When Rachelle cracked open the container, Tinkerbelle’s body posture instantly changed; she was no longer the wiggly puppy but all business and her nose was immediately within inches of the container, which had her full attention. Slowly Rachelle rotated to the right with Tink’s nose following closely, never losing contact. and again to the left, then back to the center of her body. She closed the container and back came the wiggly Tink as though the container had never been seen.

In the same area were three warm up specimens. It was now time for Tink to find them. Taking her downwind of the articles, I again let her leash go slack and gave her the special HRD command. Nose to the ground, my wiggly puppy again became more serious, and as she approached each specimen (which she found one right after the other), her body posture changed as it had with the initial specimen. Day one and my little girl was already starting to amaze those around her, mommy included.

Emma and the Night Dogs
Emma and the Night Dogs

Heartwarming story with beautiful illustrations featuring the SAR Newfs from the Connecticut working group


Keep Trying!

The moral of this story is you cannot judge a dog by its “cover.” When given the chance to show what they are made of, Newfoundlands can be more than just a draft dog. Maybe I was just blessed with two wonderful Newfies that have a natural penchant for doing K9 SAR, but I suspect there are many more out there that would love to show their stuff to the nonbelievers, just as my Popeye and Tinkerbelle have done. To each one I say, go for it! Let faith and trust in your dog’s skills take you on new adventures. You never know until you try.

Leave us a comment and let us know how your Newfs work...

© 2014 Newfoundland Club of America

How do you work with your Newfs?

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    • Michelllle profile image


      6 years ago

      This is my parents' dog. He is a busy therapy dog working in hospitals and libraries with kids. He loves to swim too.


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