Ready, Set, Play Ball! A Throwback to the B.A.R.K. Days

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Although Portuguese water dogs, or PWDs, are not one of the most popular dog breeds for Americans to own, they have increased in popularity since Bo became the First Dog of the United States. President Obama had two PWDs. Affectionately nicknamed “Porties,” these large dogs have boundless energy and enthusiasm. They’re smart dogs that like to play, are good with children and other animals, and don’t shed very much.

As their name implies, PWDs love to swim. In fact, experts say that if you don’t want your dog to get wet, you shouldn’t get this type of breed. If you have a Portie, you’ll understand these words of warning very well. Moreover, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that a few lucky members of this water-loving breed were trained to retrieve Major League baseballs from San Francisco Bay.

Slobbery, Shaggy Baseball Retrievers

The Baseball Aquatic Retrieval Korps, or B.A.R.K., was the brainchild of comedian Don Novello. Novello, who played Father Guido Sarducci on Saturday Night Live, thought it would be funny to train dogs to retrieve baseballs from the water in McCovey Cove behind the San Francisco Giants’ Pacific Bell Stadium. ESPN reports that Novello initially wanted to use a combination of funny-looking dogs dressed in wetsuits. He soon learned that it wasn’t so easy to get a typical dog to retrieve a ball from icy waters.

That’s not the case for PWDs, though. This breed is perfectly suited to retrieve balls from the 50-degree ocean. With a thick coat of curly hair and webbing between their toes, Porties were bred to work with fishermen. Historically, they would bring messages to other boats, recover equipment, and guide fish toward nets.

Novello and Giants executives joined up with Pets in Need, an organization that promotes pet adoptions, to figure out which dog breeds would be best for the job. Soon after, the Portuguese Water Dog Club of Northern California learned about the effort and offered up a perfect team of four-legged candidates. And with that, the Baseball Aquatic Retrieval Korps program was on its way.

It Wasn’t a Joke

Unsurprisingly, many people didn’t take the idea of B.A.R.K. seriously when it was first announced. Regardless, the program was officially launched in 2000. Before each game began, the dogs would gather on a boat called The Good Ship Jollipop. They would hang out in the bay until a player made a Splash Hit. Then, a dog would be sent out to belly flop into the ocean, grab the ball, and swim back to safety.

Splash Hit baseballs have always been valuable. Even before the program, people would congregate near the bay during games, hoping to snag a baseball in their nets. Afterwards, they would often sell or auction off the prized balls for substantial profits. However, once the B.A.R.K. dogs were introduced, human ball hunters had to rent private boats to compete with the canines for these coveted spheres of yarn and cowhide.  Balls captured by the Porties were auctioned off by Pets in Need for fundraising purposes. The Giants also donated money to the pet-friendly organization.

Major League Canines

The PWDs were the first animals to be part of a Major League Baseball team.  It made sense to bring in this element of fun to America’s favorite pastime. After all, people love animals, and Americans love baseball. Connecting the two was a genius move.

The B.A.R.K. dogs didn’t just follow their natural instincts, however. They had to undergo rigorous training, according to The BARk. The oldest member of the team was Shadow, an eight-year-old Portie who was a graduate of a few other water dog training programs. Shadow had to learn how to snatch a baseball from the water. The floating balls bob around and can easily get away from the dogs. The animals had to become accustomed to this behavior, which might otherwise prove frustrating.

At their debut, Novella threw practice balls into the bay for each dog. Fans lined up to watch. When it was Shadow’s turn, the canine swam over to the raving fans before heading to the boat. She knew how to work the crowd. The dogs opened their season to a sold-out house. Batting practice became even more fun once the canine team joined the Giants. The dogs usually had a better chance of seeing balls fly into the water before the games.

Only about seven home runs were hit into the water during games each season. If you weren’t Barry Bonds, you had a hard time getting a ball into McCovey Cove. The team of water dogs was released after the 2002 season. They didn’t see a lot of action. Also, some people thought that it was dangerous to have dogs in the water with all of the boats even though police kept them separate.

Training a Portie

Not all Porties like the water. If you choose a PWD because you want a dog that can swim with you, you’ll need to train it. The Portuguese Water Dog Club of America offers several programs to encourage this working breed to develop their innate skills. This training helps dogs perform tasks on command and bond with their owners.

PDWs like to have jobs to do. They thrive when they’re productive, and they love to be rewarded. Because they’re so smart, Porties learn new tricks easily. However, they can also learn bad habits quickly. Consistent positive training can make your Portie a well-behaved part of the family. If you don’t keep a PWD busy, its guard dog instincts and strong affinity for chewing can make it hard to handle.

Animals in Baseball

Porties aren’t the only animals to have graced a baseball field. A skateboarding dog has appeared in the concourse at Giants games. The Arizona Diamondbacks brought a lamb into the locker room to rally votes for Jake Lamb for the All-Star Game. The Rockies had a family of hawks make a nest above the scoreboard. Although these animals aren’t trained like the Giants’ Porties, they add an element of excitement to each game and elicit a big “awwwww” from the audience.

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