Lifeguards dog saves stranded swimmers

Leaping out of helicopters into freezing water these are the incredible doggie-paddling life guards: Like canine David Hassel-woofs these fearless dogs scramble to the rescue of swimmers off the coast of Italy's popular beaches. They leap from helicopters or speeding boats, bringing aid to swimmers who get into trouble off Italy's popular beaches. Hundreds of specially trained dogs from Italy's corps of canine lifeguards are deployed each summer to help swimmers in need of rescue. In the same way that a helpful St.Bernard might rescue an Alpine hiker in distress these 'sea dogs' are saving the lives of dozens of swimmers off Italy's crowded beaches.

Instead of a reviving cask of brandy the 'lifedogs' tow a buoy that victims can grab, or wear a distinctive red 'Baywatch' harness connected to a raft the swimmer can ride back to shore. Unlike their human counterparts, the dogs can easily jump from moving helicopters, boats or even jetskis to reach swimmers in trouble.

It can take up to three years for the 'rescue dogs' to reach operational status, and currently 300 dogs are fully trained for duty, said Roberto Gasbarri, who coordinates the Italian School of Canine Lifeguards programme at a centre just outside Rome in the seaside resort of Civitavecchia.

'Dogs are useful in containing the physical fatigue of the lifeguard, to increase the speed at which casualties are retrieved, to increase the security of both the casualty and of the lifeguard,' Gasbarri said.

'The dog becomes a sort of "intelligent lifebuoy". It is a buoy that goes by itself to a person in need of help, and comes back to the shore also by himself, choosing the best landing point and swimming through the safest currents.'

Of the millions that flock to Italy's golden beaches every Summer some 3,000 swimmers require rescue after getting into difficulties and the lifeguard dogs are at the forefront of the rescue effort. Each dog works as part of a team with a human handler who is also a fully-trained lifeguard.

The Civitavecchia center is one of twelve centres around the country for a school founded more than 20 years ago in the northern Italian province of Bergamo by Ferruccio Pilenga, who piloted the scheme by training his own Newfoundland.

The school can train any breed, as long as they weigh at least 66lb, but Labradors, Newfoundlands and golden retrievers are most commonly used because of their natural swimming ability.

'Being retrievers, they set out to pick up anything we tell them, be it a human being, an object, or a fish, and they bring it back to the shore,' said lifeguard Monica Luciani. 'They do not associate it with a physical activity, but it is rather a game for them.'

Best of all, in these cash-strapped times, the only reward that these ocean-going heroes require is a pat on the head.

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