Once the idea was accepted, serious thought had to go into every aspect of this daunting enterprise. Since Pets In Need and the Giants were involved, the dogs’ safety would be a major concern. What breed would be up to the rigorous task of fetching balls in the often-turbulent waters? Clearly, a very special dog would be needed to swim in the cold and choppy waters of San Francisco Bay. A dog with the endurance and strength to swim for long periods of time without tiring.
The Portuguese Water Dog Club of Northern California quickly offered the perfect solution. For centuries, Portuguese Water Dogs—Cão de Áqua—have been used by fishermen to herd fish into nets and send messages from boat to boat. It’s not uncommon for those working dogs to spend hours in the cold water of the Atlantic. With their webbed paws and rudder-like tails, they were the perfect choice for this demanding big league chore. Still, extra training for such a special duty was required.
The animals would need a Doggie Spring Training.
Sue D’Augusta, owner of the eldest B.A.R.K. team member, Shadow, spent months getting her eight-year-old dog ready for her first Pac Bell outing. Shadow had already graduated from various programs like Apprentice Water Dog and Working Water Dog, but more training was necessary before she would be ready to swim in McCovey Cove.
“Baseballs bob in the water in a unique way,” says D’Augusta. “I practiced with Shadow in the San Francisco Marina so she could get the hang of it. The first few times she tried to swim up and grab the baseball, it got away from her.”
But like any big-league player, Shadow was soon snatching them up with the aplomb of a veteran. By the time the Los Angeles Dodgers showed up in San Francisco for a three-game series right before the Fourth of July, all six dogs were more than ready to make their debut.
Meeting the Fans
It was a classic baseball Saturday.
Don Novello, dressed in the vintage vestments of his legendary alter ego, Father Guido Sarducci, was on hand at Pac Bell Park to toss practice balls into the bay and introduce the dogs to the fans. On the morning before the game, the B.A.R.K. team was stationed on its yacht—The Good Ship Jollipup—a nifty powerboat equipped with a doggie diving deck. One by one, the Portuguese Water Dogs dove into the water after the baseballs. When Shadow got her turn, she neatly grabbed the ball and swam toward the media and fans on the dock rather than immediately returning to the boat.
“Shadow seems to really like to play to he crowd,” D’Augusta says. “Sometimes she just does her own thing. But you’ll notice she finally brought the ball back to the boat like we wanted her to.”
Unfortunately, on the dogs’ first day, batting practice was canceled due to an old-timers’ home-run-hitting contest. Because the dogs will only work on Saturdays and special holidays, those in the baseball know say most of their ball retrieving will take place during pre-game batting practice. That’s when the baseballs really fly into McCovey Cove.
Not that the dogs didn’t have plenty to do at their debut. Once they finished their warm-ups, they held a press conference with print and television media. The word was out. The dogs were a hot news item. Rumors were flying that Jay Leno was eager to meet the B.A.R.K. team and maybe even have them on his show. But all that would have to wait.
First, the dogs had to meet the Giants fans.
Novello stood on the pitcher’s mound in a ceremony before the game and introduced them. Over 40,000 people, a sold-out house, were on hand to watch these regal canines and their proud owners jog onto the infield like All-Star heroes.
Rio, the five-year-old superstar of the group who is the team’s captain and driving force, pranced out first. He was followed by Surfer, the only chocolate brown and the youngest at nine months; Shadow; Kyma, 20 months and a spectacular jumper; Topper, three, the barker; and Justy, 13 months, who was used to pawing through the ice to swim in her Connecticut pond.