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Real Water Rescue Work in Italy
The Italian S.I.C.S. rescue dogs are based on an idea by Ferruccio Pilenga, who founded the Italian Dogs Rescue School (Scuola Italiana Cani Salvataggio) in 1989 and began training his female Newfoundland “Mas”. At this time, the first Italian Newfoundland Club’s waterworking groups (C.I.T.- officially recognized by ENCI – FCI) arose. They were based on the French experience, a country where established regulations and specific sports tests for Newfoundlands' waterwork already existed. Initially Pilenga and his coworkers trained their Newfoundlands for these tests and for obtaining patents in Italy and later in France and Switzerland. However, they soon realized that this was not the right way for those, like them, who wanted to spend their time in water saving human lives with the aid of their dogs.
In the end of 1980s Pilenga and his
coworkers turned to the Coast Guard and Air Force officers to develop
a better suited system for Italy with the main aim of involving dogs
in real rescue work. They wanted a new system which would better suit
their needs. As an example, the international rescue organization’s
(IRO’s) work is mostly based on working on land, not water. In
addition, in the IRO patent the handler has to be able to carry their
dog alone and this is usually impossible for a dog the size of a
Newfoundland. The SICS patent does not require this, as in real-life
situations there would always be two people patrolling on the shore,
and if the dog was injured it would be carried to shore on bars.
In rescue SICS patents, it is not
important to be the first, in fact there are no final standings. It
is important to demonstrate to the examining board (which consists of
three members) good teamwork between handler and dog, the ability to
overcome difficulties together without impeding each other, the
calmness of the handler, the ability to reason in critical
situations, and the shared desire to carry out the rescue at all
costs. The rescue work must always be completed. In order to make the
dogs more recognized as rescue dogs, the Italian rescue dogs are
subject to annual reviews , which occur from January to December,.
The patent lasts for only a year after which it has to be renewed.
The patents are personal and only the specific handler is allowed to
work with the specific dog with which they passed the patent with.
One reason for failing the patent can be because of insufficient
organizational skills when performing first-aid on the victim.
In the very rare cases where the dog has to perform the rescue alone, the dog should always work with a floating rope tied to its’ floating marine rescue harness with a quick safety release clip. In case of an emergency, the handler can pull the rope and the dog and the drowning person will glide over the surface, keeping the dog’s head above water. Though one cannot use this technique in situations where there are flooding rivers (where the currents are too strong).
The handler is also required to know how to use fins and diving equipment as these are used in the majority of the exercises. The equipment is not always the same. E.g; the boat can be an ice-rescue boat, an inflatable boat like a raft, or a fiberglass boat. Also in some cases, the handler is allowed to start the engine and drive the boat in order to reach the person in need of help.
The techniques used for the rescues are decided by the handler in all cases except the combined swim. The SICS trainers do not believe that patents should impose or judge training methods. For a Canine Unit to work efficiently and in a positive manner, there must be good communication and teamwork between the pair. The patent requires excellent handler-dog relationship, as without this it is impossible for the pair to pass the tests. Particular attention is paid to how the pair reacts to each other.
The number of variables in the tests have been tried to keep to a minimum, so that the patents may be held in the same manner with the same conditions keeping the standard required to pass the patent the same. The Judging Committee consists of at least three people, in order to make the judging fair, unquestionable and not limited to a single point of view.
Italian Rescue Dogs’ School (SICS) are the result of the advice, experiences and collaborations of many experts of their respective fields. After sixteen years of experience, I believe that only these professionals can truly define operational tests. The patents undergo constant reviews and adjustments due to real-life experiences and suggestions from the Coat Guard, Air Force and other professionals.
1. SICS Water Rescue Certificate® (The first patent to be completed)
Test 1: Obedience on land (Dynamic Test)
The dog and his handler must run 200-400 meters on the beach in order to simulate with maximum reliability their ability to work on shore. The other participants to the test will form a group near the shore and the unit performing the test will have to run through or near them. The purpose of this test is to demonstrate the mutual understanding on dry land in a dynamic action, how well the pair works in unison. During the test, one or more “stop” commands may be also given among the other K9 units. After completing test 1, the pair will immediately continue on to test 2, to verify that handler and dog have the necessary physical conditions to work in real situations.
Once the test is finished, the K9 unit will return into its group that, meanwhile, has to remain near the shore for all the duration of the test (an exception is allowed only in the event that a dog shows physiological emergencies).
The final judgment is based on a positive execution of the whole test.
This dynamic test has a few distinctive features; it aims to verify whether the handler and his dog are able to work as a team in a quick run action which is a characteristic that, on the contrary, cannot be seen in a static heeling on-leash test.
Dogs used for rescues must be able to run for 200-400 meter distances with sudden stops, to pass through crowds and dogs, to come to shore while being still perfectly able to dive into water and swim to the person about to drown.
Therefore, K9 unit is asked to carry out a “sporty performance” which is exactly what the pair has to be able to do in real situations.
In addition to the physical test, the
character of the dog is also assessed. Dogs must not be aggressive
towards other dogs or people during the course of the dynamic test
and the dog’s character is further assessed throughout the duration
of the examination.
Test 2: Saving using the Dolphin
technique without fins
This is the first real water rescue test that the handler and his dog must carry out. The distance the K9 unit has to swim is more than 110 meters. Shorter distances are not considered as reliable or trustworthy. The Coast Guard officers highly recommended such distances to be done soon after a 200-400 meters run to fully evaluate the pair’s sports/technical ability to work in realistic conditions.
The dolphin technique, which the K9
unit has to demonstrate, is very important to know as the dog tows
his handler directly to the person in danger, saving the handler’s
precious energy. The dog is asked to do the most demanding and hard
work: tow the handler and the victim to shore while sometimes facing
strong currents and winds. As the handler is released from having to
swim back to shore with the victim, they can dedicate their time and
energy for giving first aid and if necessary, mouth-to-mouth while
still in water.
Test 3: Saving two drowning people
Two people, located at least 110ms from
shore and at least 40ms apart, simulate drowning in a realistic way.
The distances may be made longer at the discretion of the judges. The
dog will start from shore and the handler is required to wear fins.
The handler must put on the fins in 8 seconds. The handler may swim a
bit in front of the dog, never losing sight of the people about to
This test features longer distances and two victims, one of which with a ‘negative attitude’, who will not be willing to cooperate during the rescue action and the handler has to know how to address and calm the person simulating panic.
This test resembles a real situation
more than the previous exercise. The handler must know how to use
flippers and diving equipment.
A person at least 200ms from shore will
simulate drowning in a realistic way. Often in real situations the
drowning person is situated at distances exceeding 200ms from shore,
requiring the handler to use a boat or raft. The handler and dog will
jump into the boat and the handler will paddle the boat 100 meters
from shore, after which they encounter “natural barriers” such as
rocks, waves, nets, swimmers, shallow reefs…The Unit must dive
using any technique they see fit and swim to the person in need of
help, never losing sight of the victim. The dog will tow the handler
and drowning person to the raft/boat or if the handler sees fit, to
shore. The type of geographical area the patent is held in,
determines whether the pair has to return to the boat. There is an
assistant in the raft/boat who will do everything they are asked by
the handler, except help the dog into water. If the handler decides
to direct the dog to tow them to the shore, the assistant will paddle
the raft/boat back to shore. In this part of the tests, the ability
to arrange and co-ordinate other people and to complete the rescue
The test is performed at a distance of 200 meters and this requires the handler to use a boat. The ease at which the dog jumps into the boat and the handler’s paddling ability will be evaluated (this is not merely a paddling test but it deals with paddling in the realistic situations).
Rocks, fish nets, bathers, sea
undertows, low sea beds may disrupt the whole rescue operation; in
this case the handler and the dog have to dive with the technique
they deem most appropriate and swim to the person in need of help who
is at least 100 meters far away. The type of geographical area the
test is held in, determines whether the pair has to return to the
boat. The nautical ‘vehicle’ may be a lifeboat, a life raft, a
fishing boat, a fiberglass boat or even a motor life raft (if it is a
motorized life raft, the handler has to be able to start the engine
and drive to the area in which the unit has to dive from). Damaged
or undamaged oars, paddles or emergency oars will be used. The test
aims to fully evaluate the handler’s ability to arrange and
co-ordinate other people and to complete the rescue action.
The handler and dog are on a boat which
is located at least 100 meter from the shore. The boat experiences
“engine failure”. There are no oars or any other items in the
boat which could be used to paddle the boat back to shore. The boat’s
rope is tied to the boat. The dog will tow the boat back to shore
with the aid of a rope. The rope can be tied to the dog’s harness
or the dog can take it into its mouth. The handler may not enter the
water, but they can help the dog into water and lean with their hands
touching the water. This exercise will evaluate many essential
aspects of the dog’s ability to tow the boat to the shore.
Test 6: Swimming with the dog
According to the judges’ commands and
as per the sequence decided by the board of examiners, the handler
and dog must swim for at least 20 minutes with varying styles:
handler swimming in front (5 minutes), swimming side-by-side (5
minutes) and dolphin-swim (5 minutes). At the end of each swimming
technique, the handler will swim at least 2 minutes of “support
technique” [handler holds the dog in water while standing]. The dog
must not disturb the handler’s swimming or swim in front of them.
The handler must make sure not to swim too far from the dog and stay
at shoulder height when swimming side-by-side. The pair must not show
any fatigue and they must swim calmly throughout the test. This
exercise is performed by all participants at the same
The board of examiners will evaluate the pair’s understanding and swimming abilities for the whole duration of the test (in particular, the “dolphin” and side-by-side swimming techniques). Holding the dog in water in the stand position is also important: the dog stops swimming and remains still in the handler’s arms. A correct execution of this technique is important for judging the mutual trust existing between the handler and the dog, as otherwise the dog’s survival instinct will prevent him from remaining quiet and being still.
The test is not performed individually.
Therefore, the dogs must not interfere with each other and the pair’s
attachment and attention to each other are carefully evaluated.
Handlers may choose to wear flippers, but being a technique designed
to be used in real emergency situations or particular scenarios
(long-distance swimming, dog’s sudden illness, approach of a
helicopter winch), the lack of flippers may compromise the execution
of the swimming.
Test 7: Emergency resuscitation
This test may be carried out between
the second, third or fourth tests. The resuscitation will be carried
out on land, and the dog must not interfere with any part of the
operation. This theoretical and practical test will verify that the
handler has the necessary ability and knowledge to transport an
intensive care patient.
The test aims to verify the handler’s
CPR knowledge and patient’s transport techniques. The handler must
be able to co-ordinate those who are far away such as Coast Guard,
ambulance, police and people nearby, represented by people who only
work after being told explicitly what to do and what not to do, as
often happens in real situations. The handler must have a BLS
certificate or have attended the equivalent First Aid courses.
All tests have no scoring and no ranking.
The achievement of the Certificate is subject only to passing the tests.
All tests unequivocally point out certain facts about the K9 unit’s ability to work in realistic conditions:
For further reliability, the rescue
patent must be renewed every year. It would be absurd to think that a
patent lasts for life. Dependable work, commitment and perseverance
are necessary for preparing and maintaining efficient K9 Rescue dogs.
In addition to the tests mentioned below, the Judging Committee may
include tests suggested by the UUCC which are deemed appropriate for
evaluating the physical condition of the Canine Unit, the harmony
between the pair and the progress on obtaining the patent.
Test 1: Long distance saving
The K9 unit will have to retrieve a
person simulating drowning from 500/600ms away from shore. The
handler may use any technique he prefers, but never lose sight of the
drowning person. The dog must bring the drowning person to the place
at the shore from which they started.
Test 2: 30 minute swim
The dog and handler start from the
shore, and swim for at least 30 minutes using the three basic
swimming styles: dolphin, handler swimming in front and swimming
side-by-side. Each style will be separated by the handler holding up
the dog in water in the stand position for at least 1 minute
Test 3: “Shark”
The K9 Unit will have to swim from the shore to a rescue boat or a patrol boat stationed at least 200 meters from shore and the handler must simulate re-entering the boat. The dog must not attempt to get on board. The dog will have to do the “Shark” swim from the boat’s bow to stern and back for at least 5 minutes without touching the boat. At the discretion of the Judging Committee, after 5 minutes the handler must return to shore with their dog or allow the dog to enter the boat.
Continued in part 2: SICS Operative Water Rescue Certificate (R)