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Making a splash: Dogs are trained on Balm Lake to conduct water rescues

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Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Deuce, a 200-pound Newfoundland, welcomes visitors when they come to Dancing Bear Resort on Balm Lake.

And now, he's bringing in business, too.

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A group of Newfoundland dog owners drove to Dancing Bear last weekend with their seven dogs. They found the dog-friendly resort online and were quite taken with Deuce, who is displayed prominently on the resort's home page.

When the group contacted resort owners Steve and Kathy Vitcak, they said, "This has to be destiny."

While the humans have also enjoyed fishing this week, it was a working week for the dogs, who practiced water rescues off Dancing Bear's sandy beach.

The seven dogs range from puppies to adult males and females. They came, along with their owners, from Illinois.

"There's not many dog-friendly resorts," said Steve McAdams of Green Valley, Ill. "(The Vitcaks) were really happy we were coming. They're so pet-friendly."

Another plus, McAdams said, is that Balm Lake has clear, clean water.

"That's a big deal," he said. "Otherwise, the dogs may have skin problems."

On Wednesday the seven dogs - Maddie, Callie, Cambriol, Cheers, Tyra, Willie and Mickey - each took turns "rescuing" swimmers in trouble and retrieving items from the water, including a full-sized fishing boat.

While all of the Newfoundlands are working dogs trained to conduct water rescues, most also are show dogs. Cambriol's father is Josh, the Newfoundland who won Best in Show in 2004 at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Tyra, 2, was named after Tyra Banks, a supermodel, and also is a show dog.

The dogs have been training this week about two-three hours a day, Steve McAdams said.

All of the humans there were members of the Newfoundland Club of America, and its smaller regional clubs, River King and North Central, both of which operate out of Illinois.

The Newfoundlands were practicing for their upcoming tests in which they will attempt to earn a specific level of water rescue. There are three levels: junior, senior and excellent.

"It's hard to get time to get practicing in," said Jean McAdams, who owns Shadrack Newfoundlands kennel along with Steve Adams. She said coming to Dancing Bear worked well because the dogs were able to train - and the Vitcaks were pleased to have them.

The "callers" were the men and women in the water hollering for help or there to assist the dogs when needed.

In one exercise, Maddie, an 8-year-old female and grandmother to Callie, 9 months, was positioned in the fishing boat and jumped out to help Jean McAdams, who was calling for help. Maddie swam around Jean, offering the woman her tail. Jean grabbed on, and Maddie took her to shore.

Steve McAdams said water rescuing is in Newfoundlands' blood. They have webbed feet and a double coat, like a duck, he explained. Their coats also dry quickly.

"We train them once it's warm enough to get in the water until fall," McAdams said.

In another exercise, three humans sit out in the water in their life jackets. Just one of them shouts for help. The dog, then, is expected to pick out the human in trouble and bring her a life preserver, again offering its tail. Cheers, a 7-year-old female, quickly found Vitcak splashing around and asking for assistance.

In a tandem, Tyra and Cheers took part in an exercise from the edge of the dock. The caller tossed a "bumper," a toy-like floating device, into the water and the duo jumped in to retrieve it.

The bumper, Vitcak explained, is the key to many of the exercises. From the time a Newfoundland is a puppy, she is trained to want the bumper. It's used first as a toy, and then a rope may be attached and she is trained to retrieve the bumper and the rope.

This way, no matter where the bumper is - floating in the water, attached to a boat, etc. - the dog knows she needs to retrieve it, Vitcak said.

But while the seven dogs spent Wednesday afternoon working on their skills, they also got to relax and splash around the water.

"We go through the exercises and then let them run, swim - have fun," Steve McAdams said. "They play games and compete."

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