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Baseball Goes to the Dogs

By: Chris Cosgrove

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With a bark and a belly flop, a dark bundle of fur dives over the side of The Good Ship Jollipup, paddles through the chilly chop of San Francisco Bay, snags a bobbing baseball and heads back to the cabin cruiser. With a few strong strokes, the curly-haired dog is back aboard the Jollipup with a valuable catch: a baseball that a local animal adoption facility can auction off for big bucks.

It's all part of a day's work for members of the Baseball Aquatic Retrieval Korps (aka BARK), a team of six Portuguese water dogs trained to retrieve homers slammed into the cold water beyond the right-field wall of the San Francisco Giants' stadium, Pacific Bell Park.

The crowds love it, and its all done for a good cause: helping to fund the no-kill animal shelter Pets In Need. The shelter gets to keep any balls the dogs retrieve and auction them for a pretty price. The dogs are rewarded with chicken and fish treats.

The BARK program is in its second season. Though the team has yet to retrieve a homer, BARK has succeeded in helping to save the lives of more than 800 dogs and cats. The money raised saved these animals from euthanasia. And adoptions skyrocketed, as more people became aware of the no-kill shelter.

Man's Best Friend Meets Baseball

"What the BARK program is all about is combining America's favorite pastime with man's best friend. It's an inter-species marriage that could only happen in San Francisco," said comedian Don Novello, better known as Saturday Night Live's Father Guido Sarducci. When Novello came up with the idea of training dogs to retrieve the balls in 1996, however, the Giants thought he was joking.

"I wrote them a letter saying I wanted to station dogs out by the bay, watch the game on TV and when I'd see a ball knocked over the wall I'd punch a car door opener to free the dogs so they'd fetch the balls," Novello told PetPlace.com. "It was an idea most people thought was not serious," admits Larry Baer, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Giants. "But the more we explored it, the more we realized it could be outrageously fun."

Novello and the Giants teamed up with Pets in Need, which was charged with finding the appropriate breed for the task. After checking out the cove's water temperature (cold, usually in the 50s) and currents (strong), Brenda Barnette, director of Pets in Need, thought Newfoundlands were the breed for the job.

"But when we considered how we'd get these huge, wet dogs back into a small motorboat, we had to rethink it. Years ago I'd had a Portuguese water dog, so I was familiar with the breed and knew what fantastic swimmers they are."

Water Dogs Bred to Help Fishermen

"Portuguese water dogs, equipped with webbing between their toes and short, strong tails that act like rudders, were bred to help fishermen by retrieving tackle, carrying messages between boats, and even herding fish into nets. They average about 60 pounds – less than half that of Newfies - and are also able to pull themselves out of the water and into the boat without too much help from their human counterparts," said Barnette.

"Once we decided on the breed, we had to find the talent," said Barnette, which included not only the dogs, but also owners willing to give up Saturdays and holidays, as well as many hours spent training. A visit to a local lake by a staff member turned up a group of Portuguese water dogs being put through their paces. Pets in Need had found its team.

Meet the Team

Rio, a 6-year-old prize winner with numerous awards for obedience, agility and water competition, is captain of the BARK team. When he's not swimming, he works as a therapy dog visiting hospitals and convalescent homes.

Another champ, Shadow, is an 8-year-old master swimmer. Both dogs are at the top of their game. "They're trained to follow hand signals toward the ball even when it's out of sight behind a swell," said Barnette. Two other dogs, Justy and Surfer, were rookies last year but now are solid members of the team. Newcomers this year are Buoy, Georgie and Quarry.

No one knocked a ball into the cove where the dogs were stationed except during batting practice, but one of the balls retrieved was hit by Barry Bonds, whose 73rd homer broke Babe Ruth's slugging percentage record.

In addition to the dogs in the bay, Pets in Need brings its adoption van to the port walk along the right-field wall where Barnette hopes dogs and cats needing homes will meet humans needing some animal companionship.

For the water dogs' protection, police boats keep boaters, who jump in the bay to grab balls, away from the Jollipup. But Barnette said the reaction has been so positive that Tom Hoyne, the self-proclaimed mayor of McCovey Cove and a man who's retrieved four balls knocked into the bay by Barry Bonds, has put up a warning buoy. "Portuguese Water Dogs at Work," it reads.

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