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A weekend of water rescue in Italy with the S.I.C.S.


The whole summer we had been eagerly waiting for the first weekend of September. Italian S.I.C.S. (Scuola Italiana Cani Salvataggio) water rescue team had invited us to participate in their water rescue trainings.SICS is (so far) the world's only official dog water rescue training school. There are roughly three hundred dog and handler -teams in Italy, ready to volunteer and rescue lives. The S.I.C.S. co-operates with the Italian Coast Guard, patrols the beaches and the sea, and rescues those in distress. SICS’s therapy dogs are also an important, albeit a new, part of the school. Al (Kivisilman Multimedia), being trained at the SICS, was one of the school’s therapy dogs sent to the help the victims of the Paganica earthquake. Al is being trained to specialize in helicopter rescues, with her owner and the school's vice president, Donatella Pasquale.


On Friday morning we got into the car and headed to Italy, from Belgium, through France, Germany and Switzerland, with us own dogs Capri (Larinkallion Brysselinblicca), Vera (Larinkallion Huomiongohde), Ruuti (Kivisilman Monitoimikone) and our co-owned girl Scout (Kivisilman Navigaattori). Half of our family and Scout’s owners were to catch the plane to Milano on Friday after work. Cooper (Kivisilman Nestekaasu) and her owners drove from Germany to the shores of Lake Iseo.

On Saturday we headed to the Northern end of Lake Iseo for helicoptertrainings. Meeting and changing to our waterwork gear at ten, then a safety check and explanation of all the equipment we were going to use, and a run through of the day's schedule. The safety is the basis of everything, if the dog did not want to jump, or hesitated in any way, the helicopter team would bring the dog back to the ground safely. It was important to remember to call the dog as the handler jumped (first-timers often forgot such a simple thing!), tap their head after the jump (to signal that everything was OK and the SICS team would NOT have to rush and save us). If you needed help, you had to lift your hand straight up, but that would mean that the entire SICS team would rush out so really save you, not something to laught about ;-) !

The helicopter arrived at exactly midday. The buzz was loud, and the breeze as strong, but none of the dogs seemed to be bothered about the big thing coming down from the from the sky. Vera continued sniffing the other dogs, Capri continued her snore, Ruuti sat next to us quietly, and the puppies Scout and Cooper calmly looked up into the sky at what was happening.

SICS had organized Animal Plantet to come and film and interview me and Vera during the weekend (for the series Extraordinary Animals). Meanwhile we were waiting for the actual helicopter jumps, Al and Mas (owned by the school's president Ferruccio Pilenga) went for a helicopter ride with the Animal Planet's film crew, and the puppies went for a little swim under the helicopter's storm. It was a good exercise for the puppies to learn how to behave and act in “stormy conditions” with the helicopter's buzz, spray and waves.

There were eight helicopter jumpers. Vera and I were going fourth. Vera's plan for the day was to go or a short helicopter ride, I would jump first, Vera would follow behind me, we'd go and save a drowning person, and then swim to shore.

Vera did extremely well, as she wasn't especially bothered about the helicopter. In fact, I was probably more nervous about the whole thing than she was! We flew around for a whole, and while Vera was just watching the scenery, I felt more secure away from the edges ;-) ! Then it was time to jump! Two taps on the shoulder as a sign for me to stand up, then two taps on the leg to let me know it was time to call the dog and “step into nothing” (instead of a jump that would tip the helicopter's balance). And finally, after getting my head above water, tap my head as a signal to let everyone know that everything was OK. The “storm” underneath the helicopter was heavy. I couldn't even hear my own voice and the water and waves were splashing into my mouth..! But a few whiles later Vera was next to me in the water. Together we headed to rescue the drowning person, and then the back to shore. It all went very well, and we can be especially proud of Vera, who preformed the rescue as she would have after a normal jump from the boat!

Al had a special helicopter jump to do; I would jump into the water first, then Al and finally Al's owner Donatella. Donatella and Al would come and save me, and call for a rescue boat. I would be put on a stretcher and pulled into the boat. The boat would take me to the beach, I'd be carried on the stretcher to the helicopter, and the the ambulance team would take me for a short helicopter ride. And that was exactly what happened.

Al was on the helicopter as she would have been on a car-ride, just enjoying the scenery and the little breeze. It was amazing to get to experience how comfortable she was on the helicopter, because it will be a part of her job on the field.

Al was first introduced to a helicopter at the age of roughly four months, and since then the helicopter trainings have been a part of her normal trainings. Al has flown quite a lot, seen other dogs jump, and has even been wired down back to earth 90 meters with her owner Donatella. Al has also been the role-model for a few more timid dogs to show them how to be relaxed in the helicopter situation. But this weekend's jump was the young Al's first actual jump; an unforgettable experience, and an honor to be a part of !

Sunday was as good a day as Saturday, even though the helicopter wasn't going to come. On Sunday we trained rescuing a drowner, jumping out of a (stationary and moving) boat, and jumping off a little cliff. Lifejackets were used due to the big waves during the afternoon (so as not to tire the dogs too early, and the we'd get the most out of the trainings). The Italians normally use water rescue harnesses in their trainings, lifejackets only when the weather (waves, currents, wind) demands it.

The Italians kept their dogs in the water for the whole day. The dogs would follow their owners when they were training or helping other dogs. Therefore there were at least a dozen dogs in the water at the same time for most of the day, everyone doing their own things and not interfering with others' work. It was wonderful to see that in this respect, the Italians train like we do. The dogs' manouverability in water, and the handler&dog's cooperation were the main messages of the day. It was important to never send the dog alone to a rescue, so it was important for the handler too to be at home in the water, and be able to keep the dog under command control in the water element.

It was an amazing experience, and we hope to go there soon again :-).

(c) Salmelin