A team of five Newfoundland dogs belonging to Paramedic Pete Lewin have been named as finalists at the annual Kennel Club Hero Dog Awards.
Storm, Sonar, Walker, Bob and the latest addition to the family Ralf the puppy (who at only 16-weeks-old already weighs in at an impressive 30 kilos) provide support for staff from frontline emergency services, essential services and military personnel.
Newfoundlands are natural water rescue dogs and Pete utilises these fluffy gentle giants to provide a unique and calming open water experience to support people with mental health needs.
Pete, who has worked for EMAS for 25 years, said: "I’ve had people attend an open water session who have been scared of both dogs and open water but once they start to swim with the dogs the results are amazing.
"They may be experiencing struggles with their mental health and battling anxiety and depression but when they are being ‘rescued’ from the water by the dogs they begin to feel a sense of calm.
"I make the swims as quiet as possible and ask the person being pulled back to shore to close their eyes and go along with it.
"They experience is feeling of weightlessness as they float on the water while hearing the noise of the environment around them – the water splashing, the dog panting as it swims to shore while it pulls the person with them, the whistling noise of breath travelling through the dog’s nose, an airplane flying overhead. Basically, anything other than hearing the voice of another human being, and it relaxes them.
"I’ve had people express a range of different emotions such as giggling; falling asleep, as they feel totally safe to let go and trust that myself and the dog have them; and some people burst into tears and all these responses are perfectly ok."
Pete and his dogs offer a safe and non-judgemental place to de-stress to anyone who may be struggling with their mental health..
Back in 1981, Pete nearly drowned in South Africa while swimming out to reach a boat that was not that far away from the shore. It was his discovery of the Newfoundland breed of dog 15 years later that helped him move on from an event that had a detrimental impact on him for a very long time.
Pete added: "I still have nightmares to this day about the fact that I almost died in the water that day, as I still imagine the vividness of the ripples of the water as I started to thrash my arms around.
"Luckily a man spotted me in distress and was able to pull me out of the water. From that moment on I didn’t swim properly again until I was introduced to my first Newfoundland dog called Gruff."
Pete got Gruff after his wife suggested getting a Newfoundland dog after learning of their water rescue capabilities. It was a couple of years later that Gruff gave Pete the confidence to attend an open water event.
It was during this event in 1998 that Pete got chatting to a man who hosted open water training events at Bosworth, which led to Pete and his dogs making a difference to numerous different people’s lives.
Pete said: "Without meeting Gruff I would never had regained my confidence to enter open water, meaning I wouldn’t be out with my dogs today providing this service to people who say it really helps them find peace.
"Feedback I’ve had from the sessions is that the dogs really help take the metaphorical weight off people’s shoulders and this is because the dogs never condemn or criticise anyone for feeling the way they do.
"Their sole purpose in that moment is to swim out and bring people to shore.
"I know four people that are still alive today because of what we do. One person bravely told me that if it wasn’t for an interaction they had with Storm, then they wouldn’t still be here.
"They said that the moment that made them change their mind was when Storm looked at them with his eyes in a way that told them that everything was going to be ok and he put his paws on their shoulders."
Pete is so proud of his dogs and the team of people who are supportive of his mission, which he says will continue whether his dogs win the award or not.
He added: "We’re already winners as far as I’m concerned because we get to help so many remarkable people.
"If I hadn’t discovered these wonderful dogs 25 years ago, I would not have been a Hazardous Area Response Team (HART) Paramedic for EMAS because I would not be able to enter open water, which was an important part of the role.
"These dogs really do change lives and also save them, and they deserve to win this award."
To vote for Pete’s dogs, visit: https://www.crufts.org.uk/whats-on/the-kennel-club-hero-dog-award/?fbclid=IwAR1bsYsvTTBqrLaErXNOhxIphm02yQMAagBE4r8XyZYElISe_yYqL