Reprinted from Cornish World Magazine
Bilbo the dog
Rebecca Chapman meets Cornwall's favourite life-saver
He’s loved by thousands of people locally, and those visiting the Cornish coast. With his long brown locks and cute face, there’s probably not a girl in the world he couldn’t make smile. So, dictaphone at the ready, I eagerly go to meet Bilbo. That’s Bilbo, the famous Life-saving dog, of course.
Bilbo, who turned seven last month, is Cornwall’s first beach rescue dog. After being directly involved in rescuing three endangered swimmers and indirectly involved in preventing many other accidents, the fourteen stone Newfoundland has earned himself the title of Surf lifeguard alongside his RNLI lifeguard colleagues at Sennen Cove since 2005.
Despite his hard work, there was outcry when in 2008 the RNLI, backed by Penwith council, banned Bilbo from his work in line with the rule disallowing dogs on Cornish beaches during the summer months. To his owner, Steve Jamieson, and the rest of the life guarding team’s delight, members of the adoring public rallied together to get Bilbo his job back. Various petitions were set up and around 20,000 signatures were signed. The council, local beach owners and the RNLI worked to come up with a compromise to allow Steve to take Bilbo on the beach twice a week to help promote beach safety as part of the charity's education program.
With several public appearances, local radio coverage, a DVD and a book to boast about, Bilbo is now a household name. Steve, who has recently left the RNLI, and Bilbo, continue to spread the message of beach safety to adults and children across the country.
I’ve come to chat with Steve, known as Jmo, to find out more about Bilbo, our local hero.
How did you come to be Bilbo’s owner?
Having a Newfoundland is a huge commitment. I first met him when he was a puppy, then went back and took him with me for a few days while I worked along the coastal paths. After taking him home I got a phone call from his owners saying he hadn’t stopped howling since I left and wouldn’t eat his food, and asking how I would feel about having him. So I said “yeah of course,” straight away, but on the condition that I could take him to work with me and he would never be left again. Now he’s become my best friend and I just wouldn’t be without him at all.
How did Bilbo start his career as a lifeguard?
He came to the lifeguard service when he was about 14 weeks old and would stay around the depot with us while we trained him. When he was between six months and one year old we started taking him swimming with us when we trained on Porthmeor beach. He just loved the water and we saw the potential there.
What makes Newfoundlands adept for rescue work?
They are natural swimming dogs. The water in Newfoundland is very cold and they have adapted to deal with that. They have a double coat; his top coat is completely waterproof, so when Bilbo did his Newlyn to Penzance open water swim last year (which took 28 minutes) if you lifted up his top coat, his bottom coat was completely dry. They’ve also got extra large lungs for long distance swimming and massive webbed feet. In the past when people went whale hunting there would be two or three Newfoundlands on board to rescue anyone who fell in to the sea. You find that if people have these dogs as pets and have kids, the dog will always try and get between the children and the sea to protect them.
What was Bilbo trained to do if he sensed someone in the water was in danger?
Bilbo has been trained to recognise the international signal for help; waving one arm in the air and shouting. When he sees someone with that attitude in the sea, he can swim through head high surf out to them. He normally wears a harness which we attach a Peterson tube to, which is a standard piece of life guarding kit. Unlike some other dogs, Bilbo does it properly and swims around the casualty so the float is close to them and so they don’t try and grab hold of him. When he feels a weight on the float, he swims them back to the beach.
How did you feel when Bilbo was banned from the beach?
We couldn’t believe it when he was banned and it left us quite demoralized. We knew having him on the beach worked; our rescues fell. In fact, in his last season we only had one major rescue, which is unheard of on Sennen. Using Bilbo we were able to reach the public on a daily basis and talk about beach safety, so he was a real asset. I wasn’t really surprised by the publicity that surrounded this because I knew there was a huge weight behind Bilbo, and he had people coming from all over the world to see him.
How did Bilbo become involved in safety education in schools?
Part of the job myself and Mark, an ex-senior lifeguard at Sennen, did, was to go into schools and deliver beach safety talks; and of course bringing Bilbo along made the talks so much more effective. Children would focus on him and they would be listening to us through him. We deliver the message to them, Bilbo brings the friendship aspect that children need, and then the kids get the clarity of the message.
How is Bilbo rewarded for a hard day at work?
He gets rewarded with treats because that was how I trained him. Of course, every now and again when he’s done a lot of good work he’ll get a whole chicken with rice and peas; he loves that.
Bilbo says "Swim between the flags"