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Real Water Rescue Work in Italy

by Donatella Pasquale (14/07/1959, Milano)
Degree in Veterinary Medicine

translated by A. Salmelin & SICS

About the Author:

Donatella Pasquale started water rescue in 1992. She has been the vice-president and a founder of the “National School of Canine Water Rescue” (Scuola Nazionale Cani Salvataggio, S.I.C.S) since 1995. S.I.C.S is an organization, which is a member of the Lombard federation of civil protection and qualified in the region of Lombardy and acts in their civil protection department. Donatella has also been the vice-president and a founder of the “Italian Canine Water Rescue Team” (Squadra Italiana Cani Salvataggio) since 2000. She is qualified in the province of Bergamo, region of Lombardy and works in their civil protection department.

Donatella has acted as an S.I.C.S. instructor since 1994, APNEC instructor since 2004 and ENCI (FCI) dog trainer since 2007. She is the National judge for the issue of SICS Advanced and Operative Rescue Certificates, acknowledged by the Ministry of Transport and Navigation together with the High Command of Port Authorities – Coast Guard since 1995.

She has participated in two real rescue interventions with her Newfoundland Alyssha, which have been reported in both domestic and foreign media. Donatella received the “Heroes of the Sea” award in 2004, which was given to her for the water rescue interventions she carried out. In 2005, she received a commendation (Papyrus) for her 10 years of service in the region of Lombardy.

Donatella is an expert in helicopter flight ( in
AB212, AB412, AB206, Lama, Aluette 3, HH3F, NH500, Ecureil B2, Ecureil B3, PZL Sokol, A109) and because of her years of training with the port authorities and the coast guard, her qualifications encompass operative services on cutters Class Alfa, 1000, 2000, 2000 new, 6000, 200, 400, 500, 800 ogni tempo, G.C., 300 -Gregoretti e Cavallari.

Donatella has been an active member of SICS and coordinated many campaigns with the aim of uniting Italian rescue organizations and bringing dogs’ usefulness to beach patrols. She has participated and coordinated K9 units in numerous practical exercises in the civil protection department with Carabinieri (flight and nautical department), Police (flight, nautical, rescue and scuba departments), Finance (flight and nautical departments), Firemen (flight, nautical, river service and amphibian departments), Coast Guard (flight, cutters and scuba departments), Italian Air Force SAR, Italian Navy (ships: Palinuro, Amerigo Vespucci, San Marco, Cruiser Duran de la Pen), different groups of the civil protection (scuba, life guards, public assistance services), the Red Cross (Opsa and nautical means of transport), Auxiliary Coast Guard, Sovrano Ordine di Malta, REGA Switzerland (flight department).

Her dogs have received various water rescue patents from different countries. SICS has recently started a program “Post-traumatic dogs” in the camp of Paganica 5 (L’Aquila earthquake in 2009).


Working in Water – not for fun, but for real-life-saving purposes

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.

After a lot of cooperation the first patents for the rescue SICS were drawn. The patents, which undergo constant reviews and adjustments due to real-life experiences and suggestions from the Coast Guard and Air Force officers, led the SICS rescue dogs to European summits and global rescues, allowing them to participate in numerous combined efforts with specialists such as the Coast Guard, Air Force Rescue and Fire-Rescue SAF.

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.

The Patent Rescue SICS aims toward realism. This can be seen in the distances that the Canine Unit has to swim. If the distances were kept short, the pair would not be physically or mentally ready to work in real conditions where accidents may be hundreds of meters from the shore. The Coast Guard officers, who have had a lot of input in designing the rules, recommend long distances to fully evaluate the pair’s ability to work in realistic conditions. The patent requires the pair to start each exercise quickly and with great enthusiasm.

The dog is never left alone in rescue situations, but it is always with the handler. The handler has the task of calming the shaky, panicked, drowning person, supporting them and preparing them for the tow back to safety, which is done by the dog. The handler must reach the person about to drown before the dog, in order to make sure that the dog’s life is not put in danger. If we sent a dog to save a person in panic without any help form the handler, the task would be extremely dangerous for both the person in need of help and the dog. A person in panic may cling onto the dog pulling both underwater. By calming the drowning person and making sure they are secure before the dog arrives, the whole rescue is instantly made safer. The handler is responsible for ensuring that everything runs smoothly.

The dogs are therefore used more for their ability to swim over long distances without fatigue rather than for performing rescues alone. When the dogs are used for towing, it saves the handler a lot of precious energy. In addition, 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.

In some of the exercises, the person simulating drowning will exhibit a ‘negative attitude’ i.e. start to “panic” and thrash around, therefore making the exercises much harder to complete. In such cases, the behavior and calmness of the handler and dog are carefully evaluated. Only after the person is secure and in no danger of drowning or pulling the dog underwater, can they be towed back to safety. The handler is not allowed to start any exercises where there might be a person with a ‘negative attitude’, until it is known and clearly established on land that they know how to address a person in panic in the water. Only by being able to rescue a person in panic, can we talk about a real rescue.

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.

Let us examine the Water Rescue Certificate updated on January 16, 2009

1. SICS Water Rescue Certificate® (The first patent to be completed)

  • The tests will evaluate the Canine Unit’s abilities, knowledge and physical readiness to participate in real rescue operations.

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.

Additional notes:

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

A person simulates drowning in a realistic way at least 110 meters from shore. The handler and his dog will have to carry out this rescue action soon after test no.1 without any interruption. The handler must demonstrate he knows how to use the “Dolphin” technique without the use of flippers. When reaching the water, the dog must follow the handler without hesitation, and tow them through unsafe waters to the person simulating drowning. The handler has to make sure the person they are rescuing is secure before grabbing the dog’s harness again and entrusting the dog with the most challenging part of the rescue, the towing of the two back to shore. During the tow back, the handler must NEVER let go of the victim. They must make sure that the drowning person’s head is above water at all times. On their way back, around 15 ms from shore, the handler will let go of the dog at the judges’ request for at least 3 (three) seconds. On the handler's call, the dog should turn back so that the handler can grip the harness and the dog resumes the pull. The exercise ends when the victim is safely on shore.

Additional notes:

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.

In the “dolphin” technique, the dog must not be forced to work; he must unwaveringly swim to the victim while his handler has his heels an inch above the surface of the water, lying sideways to the dog and holding the rear-ring of the dog’s harness. The handler is required to keep hold of a little part of the dog’s fur together with the harness: the idea is that the dog will “feel” it is not alone and that its handler is there with him.

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 drown.

After reaching the first drowning person, the handler must wait for the dog before heading to the second victim. The handler instructs the dog to tow the first victim, after which they can head to the second one. The second drowning person will exhibit a ‘negative attitude’ for at least 15 (fifteen) seconds and make it impossible for the rescuer to secure them for the tow back. Once the handler is able to secure the second victim, the dog will start the tow back to shore with both victims and the handler. During the tow, the person ‘in panic’ will try and wriggle out of the secure hold. This exercise will evaluate the handler’s reasoning skills and athletic ability as the handler has to reach the drowning people before the dog and start the tow of the second drowning person before the dog arrives. The handler must also stay alert and calm during the whole exercise.

Additional notes:

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.

This part of the test also evaluates the handler’s reasoning and athletic skills as he has to rescue and secure the second victim before the dog arrives with the first victim attached to its harness. If the handler does not manage to calm the situation, the life of everyone will be in danger. In fact, in real water rescue situations, if the dog arrives before the handler, the person in panic will very likely try to roughly grab the dog, which puts the dog and the victim in serious danger of drowning.

Test 4: Saving a drowning person using a boat

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 are evaluated.

Additional notes:

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.

Test 5: Towing a drifting boat

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.

Additional notes:

This exercise evaluates two basic aspects of the dog’s ability: the steadiness by which the dog pulls the boat and the dog’s real towing strength. The evaluation also takes into account the jump into water and the actual strength of the dog. The techniques used for rescues are decided by the handler in all cases. SICS trainers do not believe that these tests should impose or judge training methods and believe that the only criteria is that the K9 unit works efficiently and the handler-dog relationship and good teamwork can clearly be seen. Forcing the dog to work is considered a failure.

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 time.

Additional notes:

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 main techniques used are mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, artificial respiration and cardiac massage, safety position in case of loss of consciousness. In addition, the handler must know how to transport the patient and co-ordinate relief efforts.

Additional notes:

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.

Final considerations:

All tests unequivocally point out certain facts about the K9 unit’s ability to work in realistic conditions:

  • They check the real ability to rescue a drowning person with realism; performances show evident difficulties and distances are considerable.

  • The rescue instinct of the Newfoundland, Labrador retriever and Golden Retriever breed are highly encouraged.

  • The pair must correctly use a boat, a rope; they have to swim together and use some commands in water such as: ahead, turn, go to shore, etc…

  • The number of variables in these tests has been kept to a minimum, so that they may be held in the same manner with the same conditions and keeping the standard homogeneous. 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.

  • For further reliability, the rescue Certificate must be renewed every year. It would be absurd to think that a certificate lasts for life. Dependable work, commitment and perseverance are necessary for preparing and maintaining efficient a K9 Rescue Unit.

2. Exercises in the Annual Renewal of the Rescue Patent

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 (“support technique”).

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)

(c) Salmelin