Rescuing people struggling to stay afloat at sea is very challenging and potentially dangerous work. Sometimes, lifeguards or Coast Guardsmen need to use speedboats, hydraulic winches, and even helicopters to pull people from the water.
When it comes to something as important as saving lives, there’s no shame in getting a little help from man’s best friend. A special school in Italy specifically trains skilled dogs to perform incredible water rescues. Because of this program, even the Italian Coast Guard uses the dogs’ services.
It All Started With A Newfoundland
Ferruccio Pilenga, President of the Italian School for Lifeguard Dogs, has been working with dogs for years. He founded the training school in 1989 when he adopted a Newfoundland named Mas. Now, he has another Newfie named Reef who continues the work Mas was doing.
Simonetta Andreoli, Pilenga’s partner and Reef’s co-owner, explained why this particular breed is perfect for the job:
“The Newfoundland breed started as a water rescue dog. This breed is meant to swim [because] its fur is waterproof and the shape of its whole body is really designed for swimming.”
In addition to their strength and size, the Newfoundland’s easy-going personality makes them especially fit for this role. About Reef, in particular, Andreoli said:
“She’s a dog that has lots of will to work. This is very good when we have to work in the water because she expresses all her potential in the water.”
Though the school started small as four friends working with one dog, it expanded to training nearly 400 water rescue dogs, and in other countries beyond Italy too. According to Pilenga, Reef works as a teacher, helping other dogs learn how to do water rescues.
Why A Trained Dog Makes A Great Lifeguard
Dogs, in general, make water rescuers’ work easier. They remain calm under pressure, and they instinctively choose the safest path through the water currents back to shore during rescues. Once in the water, the dogs are able to keep both the rescuer and the person in need of help afloat.
Pilenga explained how lifeguard dogs and humans work together:
“To be able to use a dog in a water-rescue mission gives the rescuer a leg up. The rescuer operates on his own, alone. We are never alone; we are always in a team with our dog, so it’s a six-leg unit.”
With the assistance of a dog’s strength, human rescuers can put more focus on securing the person they’re saving. They can even rescue more people this way.
“The fundamental thing is to use the strength of these dogs. It takes six dogs to pull a sleigh, but one dog can pull six people in the water.”
Ultimately, training water rescue dogs relies both on teaching technique and using the dog’s natural instincts. Pilenga explained:
“[The philosophy is to] have a dog with the rescue instinct and so when its owner goes into the water, it takes off and goes to save and bring back to shore. This is guided by us obviously with training techniques.”
Working With The Italian Coast Guard
Training water rescue dogs takes a fair amount of time. They have a lot to learn, including how to be lifted on a winch with their harness on.
After about 18 months of fly and water training, the lifeguard dogs learn how to jump from speeding boats and helicopters. They even learn how to pull boats with rope.
Italy is the only country that recognizes these skilled K-9s as actual certified lifeguards. According to Fabio Moro of the Italian Coast Guard:
“The dogs assist our operations during the summer months, especially in those areas of the beach we cannot monitor all day. These rescue dogs help us keep these areas under control.”