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Real Water Rescue Work in Italy


You cannot compare the SICS Water Rescue Certificate to any other type of existing certificate. We do not worry about absurd precision in the tasks, but about the completion of the action taken. With us the dog will not receive different points if it brings the boat to shore by keeping the rope in its mouth or if it’s tied to the dog’s harness. The most important thing is for the dog to be able to tow the boat back to shore without the handler's assistance, as he is otherwise occupied with giving first-aid to the injured and has no time to take care of the boat.

You will be asked to work on a more detailed and exhaustive training later on. After you pass the SICS Water Rescue Certificate, you and your dog are asked to work with more precision. The dog is taught to hold a rope in its mouth and go in any direction you indicate. It could happen to anyone that an injured person has to be put on a floating stretcher and the dog has to bring the stretcher to the victim and tow it to the rescue boat or to shore. Also don't forget that one of the tests in the SICS Operative Water Rescue Certificate is sending the dog tied to a rope to rescue a victim. The dog must reach the victim and turn just in front of him. The victim can then easily take the rope, hold tightly onto both ends: one end tied to the dog's harness, the other one pulled by the handler. This way the handler's pulling counteracts the downward pressure that the drowning person inevitably causes over the dog's body. By tugging the muzzle of the dog, its head is kept above water at all times, it is able to breathe in all conditions and the rescue is much faster than it would otherwise be.

Let’s be clear on one thing. Precision is not excluded from our work, it is simply postponed to a later time when a special bond already exists: this is the distinguishing feature of our K9 rescue dogs. The handlers are taught to work calmly and without causing stress for the dogs. The stress that often accompanies tests and competitions does not exist in our school.

Our aim is to train K9 which are athletic, physically fit, able to operate on crowded beaches and know how to deal with the local people and institutions and acts with humility in their essential preventive work while being perfectly aware of their own responsibilities, skills and limits.

Personally, I take off my hat for the dogs who have reached the maximum degree of any patent in European sports certificates. They are great dogs! They work flawlessly, but at a maximum distance of 50 meters from the shore or boat. This is what differentiates our tests where the dogs have to swim 200 meters – 2 kilometers compared to 50 meters!

Also, what really upsets me is the fact that the dog is expected to work when his handler is only able to walk in water until their knees. Even the swimming exercises are done behind a boat. The boats often have engines and the dogs are made to swim and breathe the boat's fuel waste, which is a disgrace! Every once in a while the technical board should swim in such conditions. They should allow the dogs to swim alongside the rubber dinghy or use inflatable boats with oars. Unfortunately, this will never happen: it is difficult to teach a dog to swim alongside a boat and it is hard to row the boat if the dog is swimming right next to it. So, if only the dog works, this seems to be the best solution. I may even accept all this, since we are talking about sporty tests in the end.

What I find harder to understand are those tests which are essentially sporty, but which are defined as operative. I personally know only two operational rescue patents, an Italian certificate – recognized by ENCI and another issued by an international organization -IRO.

The first, the Italian one, comes from C.I.T. (The Italian Newfoundland Dog Kennel Club). It is substantially a sporty certificate, it is derived from one of our certificates. The certificate does not have any right distances and no unnecessary repetitive exercises are required.

I.R.O. is an international global rescue organization and it deserves a separate remark: it employs very good trained dogs for area and rubble search; but as to water rescue, it only exists on paper and has not resulted in any operative water rescue dogs.

Once we tried to approach IRO as a school. I, with three other dog units, began to study all the required exercises and worked on them. One thing which drew our attention immediately: the test had never before been practically done and there were only a few pictures and a handbook (downloaded from the Internet) which served as our reference.

The test is divided into two grades, one of which was slightly geared to water work, while other parts were equal. The dog is asked to pass three tests; failing one test means you are not able to continue onto the next level. The dog has to have an Ipo3 obedience grade, including ‘shooting’. There is a part dedicated to dexterity in which the dog has to jump up and down a rubber dinghy upon the handler’s command and stand still on a surfboard which is placed on land, while the handler moves it around. Then, there are the water exercises, which are easier for us. In these it is basically enough for the dog to stay calm while towing drowning people and surfers.

This is bordering on a paradox. How can you define a “water test” as something that is essentially executed on dry land and, which is worse, by using unnecessary heavy devices. Dexterity is undoubtedly useful, but all this is merely working in water (just like the other sporty European certificates) and not real water rescue work. I would say that this is tough competition which tends to diminish rather than encourage the initiative and independent decision making required from a good rescue dog.

Someone should explain to me how a Newfoundland or a Leonberg is useful when they act like a German Shepherd during an obedience test! If you consider the reaction time of the first two breeds, well, you've already lost in this. It would be a waste of resources and time. There is even a test in the IRO in which the handler has to pick up his dog and carry it for 30 meters and then pass it onto a stranger. I cannot lift my 55 kilogram dog or my other 60 kilogram dog alone and carry them for 30 meters. Yes, you understood me, alone. We asked for clarification: alone or by using a wheelbarrow? Waste of time and efforts. The person who designed the water exercises is probably used to working with German Shepherds and Border Collies on dry-land and has never worked in water.

The difference between SICS Certificate and the other ones is clear. SICS certificate arose from people actually doing the work and knowing what needed to be trained. We do not sit down and just write on paper what comes to mind.

All tests and their subsequent changes come from gained experience and suggestions we then put into practice. We do not have any teacher’s pets at school but we have real K9 Units able to carry out a rescue. If the dog is not perfect, the handler must recognize the limits and work on them. If my dog is hurt, I would never try to pick him up by myself. There would always be at least two people lifting him with the aid of a stretcher. As Ferruccio Pilenga, the founder of the SICS rescue dogs in Italy and the pioneer of the Rescue Certificate always says: Water Rescue Certificate is the minimum level a dog has to achieve in order to be defined a rescue dog.

We must completely change the philosophy of the relationship with our dog. In sporty certificates, the dog is just a “dog”, an object to be used to achieve the goal of “being the No. 1”, of “being the best”. Our opinion is that the dog is not just a dog but an inseparable life-partner whose peculiarities and prerogatives must be respected. Just like a dog thinks the handler is the centre of its own world, in the same way, the handler must think the dog is the centre of his one. Our dog lives, sleeps and plays with us; it come to hotels and restaurants and travels with us on public transport. If the handler has to do something where the dog cannot be with him, he feels something is missing and will try to reassemble the K9 Unit. Only such a deep mutual understanding, made by habits and “rituals”, can make up a good K9 Unit. The relationship is not just between a dog and a handler but between equals who, even though do not even speak to each other, they understand one another and interact together to solve problems. When this combination ends and the less long-aged part, usually the dog, passes away, the handler feels psychologically drained and he feels like he has lost a family member. The hard part is when you get a new puppy and you are faced with the inevitable differences between your old companion and the new one. You have to get rid of the old habits and start from the beginning.

My young Al required me to change a whole series of attitudes that I had with my old and trusted Alyssha.

As we say, this was a “blow to my life”. I had to get used to the new rhythms of a puppy, to its playing rhythms and its needs. This was not easy at all. Obviously the two dogs had completely different characters. Alyssha was introverted and reflective while Al is playful, social and dominant. When arriving on the training area, Alyssha greeted only her friends, while Al is described as “the square caretaker”. This dog does not miss anyone, biped or four-legged creature. No matter what we are doing, she has to greet everyone.

I had to develop new day rhythms when Al arrived. Now, I wake up at dawn and have my first walk at 6.00 a.m. to avoid her soiling the house and train her to only soil outside. At first Zac, my older dog was upset, as he was not used to waking up so early. After about a 45 minute hike, we come back inside and eat breakfast. It is now playtime for half an hour.

Then, the daily grooming session, a true moment of struggle. Al does not like to be brushed, while Alyssha always fell asleep during brushing. Al is stubborn but I am more. To this day, I can say that we are still in the same situation. It depends on the day, but at least now Al knows she has to be brushed, whatever she thinks about it. After this, we go to the office; she knows nothing interesting happens there and for the next 4 hours, she just sleeps and snores. Sometimes, if she is in the shop instead of the office, she wants to greet everyone who enters. I prefer to discourage this behavior because some people may not like dogs and not everyone understands that the big ball of energetic fur is still a puppy.  The two hour break around midday is hike time with Zac and Mafalda, my other two dogs.

Then, I go back home for a small lunch. This is when a real play tournament between the two females begins: they play, bite and chase each other for at least an hour. Zac is a good old boy and keeps out of the way. Sometimes he joins the other two, but most of the time the old gentleman leaves the girls to play and comes and lies down next to me. It is time to return to the office and relax for the next 4 hours. At exactly 18.30, Al’s inner clock starts to chime and she gets excited. We have one hour hike spaced out by an obedience training session. The hardest part is to teach three off-leash dogs that they have to wait their turns to be trained. I’m now at a good point: I can work 10-15 meters with one, while the others wait. You just have to have patience, consistency and you need to be calm to be able to achieve this. Then finally … home, sweet home. Dinner and play with the other females.

At 9 p.m., it is time to sleep for a little while. I can relax and take a breather until 11 p.m., when we go out for our last walk. Once we are home again, my two older dogs fall asleep; Al and I still play for another half an hour.

Around midnight I finally go to sleep.

The weekday schedules differ from those of the weekends. The day starts like any other day, but the dogs come alive from the first instance when they see my wetsuit bag. The older dogs become my shadows as they want to make sure they are not left behind; little Al has not yet understood what is going on and is either engaged in greeting her Shit-zu friends or interested in the table where my brother is having his breakfast. In any case, I manage to explain to her that it is better if she comes with me and doesn't wait for my brother to wake up. And then we are off. The appointment at the lake is at 10.30 a.m. and then throughout the day we work back and forth between water and land. When we started the trainings, there were moments in which Al suddenly disappeared. The search was short: she was always deeply asleep in the luggage van or under a tree. A big difference between Al and Alyssha is that Al did not tolerate the sun that well; I had to drag her into shade or into water. She is clearly Nordic. I have gradually increased Al’s endurance, and now she is able to work until 16.30-17.00 when sleep takes her away.

Working with three dogs in water is complicated. As my older two dogs have faults when working, I have decided to work singularly with them in order to prevent Al’s imitation. It is tiring but profitable, and in this way Al does not learn the bad habits of the other two, which I personally do not like but cannot remove because of the basic nature of the dogs. We will see how to proceed with the training from now on, since we start our dry-land training and will not go into water till March.

The adventure goes on and the passion encourages us to go forward because what you feel is the most important.

The multiple and unique feelings of such a relationship is the reason why we work shifts under the sun, get up at the crack of dawn and have such different responsibilities.

Remember that everything is a game; everything must be fun to both you and your dog.

No matter how hard a rescue and the training are, the drowning person is priceless to you. It should make you proud and give you strength to undertake such heavy training.

Have fun, enjoy your dog and let the passion carry you, whether you want to achieve a sporty test or a SICS water rescue test. If you stop and say “I want to be the best”, you will find yourself trapped; you may even change your dog if it does not meet your own expectations. You will lose the whole world of feelings and satisfactions that only a close relationship with a true friend and companion can give.

by Donatella Pasquale

(c) Salmelin