Watercubs & Kivisilmän

working show-quality newfoundlands

Introduction Our Dogs News Puppies Working Articles Photo Gallery
Grooming Behaviour and training Coat colour genetics Health and feeding Breed information
and history
Waterwork Miscellaneous

Real Water Rescue Work in Italy


We can conclude this discussion with describing what SICS Organization calls the “Pilenga water training method”. For dogs to become SICS rescue dogs; they have to weigh at least 30kgs, and they have to have remarkable skills in water and a low threshold for inter and intra-specific reactivity.

The training process can start after the first vaccination or anytime after this. The training for obtaining the Rescue Patent SICS ranges from 6 months to 2-3 years. The duration of the training depends on the handler’s experience. In cases where the handler is experienced and a safe swimmer and the dog is exceptionally clever, the training takes a shorter time. On average, in my opinion, the time taken to train is at least 1.5 years. We have had cases where some Newfoundlands wanted nothing to do with water, but if the handler does not let this discourage him, and has the patience and tenacity to carry out the training until both are ready, they will eventually succeed in taking the Certificate. The most difficult case we had took about 5 years.

When attending the course, dogs work on dry land and then in water, both training sessions are divided into groups. The new dogs are placed in existing groups. There are no puppy classes, as they perform the same exercises on dry land the adults do, learning by imitation or by their emulation attitude.

By working on land, the dogs learn basic obedience and they are better socialized. Our dogs, unlike many other waterwork dogs, must be able to work on beaches surrounded by noisy and running children, rolling balls, people playing in the water and hundreds of people wanting to touch and pet them. They must therefore be used to stay focused on what is happening in the water while being completely calm and patience and showing total lack of intra- and interspecific aggression. They must not to react to any other dogs or persons no matter how enticing they could be. Inevitably the dog will learn how to manage the stress that these situations entail. Obviously this ability is learned gradually, and cannot be expected to be learnt over night.

Now, let’s go into details of the waterwork.

First of all, I would like to start with a fundamental and essential premise. I neither use treats nor, if at all possible, objects given as rewards. The ultimate and most desired prize for dog has to be its handler in water.

The first time a puppy comes to the school, it is allowed to approach the water on the leash, or better yet, with a harness if it already has one. The idea is to see what kind of reaction the puppy has. If it is not intimidated, then it already shows advancement. If the dog shows hesitation or worse, fear, we will already know the work that lies ahead will be long and complicated.

Once the puppy is introduced to water, the handler will leave the dog with a stranger or better yet, he will tie the puppy to a pole on the beach while working with the instructor’s dog. It is expected that at first the puppy will feel angry for being ignored, but soon it will realize to watch the instructor’s dog while working.

During the exercise, it is important that the handler continues to call and encourage the puppy from the water.

After this, the handler comes out from water, takes his puppy and gives it to the instructor. The handler takes 5 steps into water; or even better, he heads to water (approximately 2 meters far from shore) so that the depth of the water allows the puppy to swim. Now, he calls the puppy who will enter the water, gently followed and accompanied by the instructor. If the puppy shows no fear in the first on- leash exercise, the invisible barrier represented by the waterline is considered as overcome.

At this time, the handler must learn how to co-ordinate and give the right commands in the right sequence without these become a monotonous chant. The commands and actions in sequence are: “come”-the dog enters the water; “good boy”-positive encouragement; “turn”-the dog must turn 180° around the handler or in front of him. The first few times when the dog turns, it can be physically helped and encouraged with the command “good boy! Turn!” After the dog turns, the command “to shore” should be given with the positive reinforcement of “to shore!” and a positive reinforcement “good boy!” The exercise is done while keeping one hand on the puppy, even if the handler walks alongside the dog. This is done in order to give the sensation that the puppy is pulling something to shore.

Later in the training process, the loss of the handler’s hand may cause the dog to turn around and search for you. This is especially helpful in rescues where the drowning person lets go of the harness. The dog will wonder what is going on and turn back to get the person in need of help. This is one of the exercises in the patent.

In this phase of the training the handler plays a crucial role and the handler will have this role until the dog has reached a sufficient level of confidence. The handler must never be a hindrance or ‘too heavy’ of a burden for the dog, otherwise it will take months for the puppy’s fears to be worked through. It is essential to work on the mutual trust between the handler and owner, which is the basis of all our water rescue training.

Now you have taught your puppy to come into water, turn around and bring you back to shore. It is time to have some quality time with your puppy on dry land. Encouragement, play and rewards are all you have to do. Then the pair returns to the group to wait their turn and repeats the exercise for maximum 2-3 times in order to fix the pattern of the exercise into the dog’s mind. This is plenty enough for the first day.

In the next training session, the exercise will be repeated in the same way for another 2-3 times but with longer distances until you are sure your puppy knows the “come”, “turn” and especially “to shore” commands. As a matter of fact, there are many dogs which do not want to come to shore and take you for a long “sea trip” before you decide to impose yourself physically and head it for shore.

In this training phase, it is supposed that your dog follows you 10-15 meters from shore, turns around and brings you back to shore. It is time to start swimming, rather than just hinting at it. The beginning is always the same, but when the dog reaches you, instead of the “turn” command, give the “straight” command. Place yourself alongside the dog, and take the rear ring of the harness together with the handle. This will make the dog swim for 2-3 meters next to you. Reinforce this by “Good boy – go straight” or “Good boy – let’s go”. After this, give the known command “turn” and finally “to shore”. When you reach the shore, walk up to dry land and give positive encouragement and congratulations. Later in the training process, it is expected that you swim shoulder to shoulder without touching the dog and adjusting your swimming speed so that you both always stay on the same swimming line. Remember that we, the humans, are the ones that adjust our swimming speed to the one of our dog. We need to build the mental image for the dog that shoulder is the exact point to be kept when swimming just like, in basic obedience, is the “heel on-off leash” command.

Another way to start the swimming exercises is that the handler starts to swim without being reached by dog but encouraging it to come to him. The handler decides then to stop, is reached by his dog and gives the “turn” and “to shore” commands. I personally, prefer the first way as it creates less anxiety for the dog. Once the dog has learned how to swim side-by-side or, better yet, shoulder-to-shoulder, the work is done. You will both have much more confidence, build your own shaped muscles and your dog’s physical shape will reach the best athletic conditions.

Remember that whatever exercise you are performing, it is ALWAYS YOUR DOG THAT WILL BRING YOU TO SHORE. It seems silly, but it is vital to count on a friend that will never leave you behind even in critical and dangerous situations. In this way, you are creating right “habits” and “behaviors” that will last for all its life. If you both swim free together, it knows and will always know which is its place and will never come back to shore without you.

Now we have a dog who follows us, swims side-by-side and behind us and brings us back to shore. It is time to learn the Dolphin swimming technique.

To do this we preferably need an assistant or a toy the dog particularly likes. The assistant has to be a person the dog likes and with whom it has a previously established a connection. Place the assistant 5 meters away from shore and take your dog. When the assistant starts to “splash”, give the dog the command “carefully” to make it focused and pay attention to the splashes and direct the dog to retrieve the assistant. I personally use the “get” command which is very general for my dogs. It means that whatever I point at, the dog has to bring back to me. In any case, it is a personal choice: you may separate the command for retrieving a drowning person or an object - e.g. command for drowning person is “get man” and boat is “get boat”. My personal opinion is that this specification is unnecessary. Remember that the commands you choose, have to stay the same throughout the training.

Once you and your dog reach the assistant, give the “turn” command and then the “to shore” command. Reinforce these with “Good boy/girl”. When you reach the shore, make sure the dog pulls the assistant all the way to dry land and then make sure the assistant gives positive reinforcements. After this it is your turn to give the dog positive encouragement. Repeat this exercise several times and gradually lengthen the distance. Once you have reached 25-30 meters with the assistant, you should start changing the assistant so that the dog gets accustomed to anyone. Be careful that you do not make the exercise too difficult or the distances too long, otherwise the risk is to work again from the beginning for months before getting the desired result and this may take months.

Now, you can start practicing the “Dolphin” swimming technique.

Place the assistant at a distance much closer to what the dog definitely swims to. Make sure the dog pays attention to the assistant with the command “carefully”, all the while pointing at the drowning person. When you are sure the dog knows what is asked, command it to “get” the assistant. But this time, do not let go of the harness and follow the dog into water. Take a hold of the harness’ rings and lie down flat on the water but without putting your full weight on. The dog will turn around to see why the swim feels different. Calmly command the dog to go “straight” and “get” and you will hopefully see the dog swim to the assistant, while pulling you with. As before, give the commands “turn” and “shore”. When you reach the shore, give positive encouragement but make sure you give the encouragement first. The dog will get used to having to pull you to the assistant, and in time it will be perfectly normal.

To summarize, you now know how to swim shoulder-to-shoulder, swim in front of the dog and you know how to swim with the “Dolphin” technique. At this point it is a good idea to teach the dog to increase the swimming time and start teaching the dog to relax while swimming.

Go into the water wearing your flippers and adopt a vertical position. Call the dog and give the “close” command. Place one of your hands around the dog and the other on the dog’s stomach and gently encourage the dog to calm down with the “stand” command. It will swim slower and slower, will stop and relax standing in your arms. In the beginning you will probably need to “force” it but after a while the dog will get tired and learn to relax and trust you. You decide when to relax and support your dog and when the relaxing period is over and it is time for the “swim” command which means “move your legs as I have no intention or possibility to continue to support you”. Remember to always practice for a few seconds in the beginning; when you see your dog wants to continue, give the command “swim” and let it swim forward calmly. Gradually increase and vary the time taken to “relax”, but always be the one who decides when to stop.

The “support” is an innovative technique that verifies the mutual trust between the handler and dog. The dog in this technique should not continue swimming, but relax completely and stay still. The handler then swims on their back holding the dog in front. Only a pair with full mutual understanding and trust, can swim like this. Otherwise the dog’s survival instinct will kick in and this will prevent the dog from staying completely still in the arms of the handler.

Once you can do all these 5 things, it is time to start working with boats. The first thing to do is to teach your dog to take the rope each rubber dinghy is equipped with. It is placed on the prow. You need to start on dry land by playing with a cord similar to those found on boats so that the dog learns to take it into its mouth without hesitation. Then start, as usual, with the dinghy placed a few meters the shore and an assistant onboard hitting the cord on the rubber dinghy: in this way, noises will help dog to better focus the object. Once again, my opinion is to give the “get” command. If you have worked in the right way “get” means “open your mouth and take whatever is in front of you into your mouth and don’t let go”. At this point, the assistant should offer the boat’s rope to the dog and when the dog takes the rope into its mouth give the “shore” command. Later in the training process, the dog will learn the sequence of events, you will not need to hit the rope, and you may not even need to give the command “shore”: it is sufficient that you lift your arms and are visible. The dog will head the rope and the rubber dinghy in the exact point where you are.

Now we only need to practice the last two exercises of the test for obtaining the Certificate: towing a drifting boat (the handler onboard) and saving a drowning person using a boat. These exercises have a lot in common. I personally always start with practicing towing the drifting boat, as it helps establish the commands of the two exercises. First, the dog has to learn how to get the boat with you and to remain calm while you are using paddles or oars to move the boat.

Let’s start by entering the water near the shore, show the rope to the dog and throw it into water. Now, bring the rope near the rubber dinghy, make sure your dog sees the rope and give the “jump” command. This is a very delicate moment: some dogs will jump in a second with no hesitation, while others are more cautious and slide along the boat’s edge. Whatever the technique you decide to use, make sure your dog works safely. The first few times, it is essential you to hold the dog’s harness and that dog’s head stays above water. It is clearly more important for insecure dogs to avoid diving, while it is not as essential for braver dogs even though, in the future, they will tend to jump in a wrong way. Holding their harness allows them to understand how to work with rear legs.

Usually dogs whose handlers are used to diving will learn to jump correctly and more easily as they would do anything to please their owners. Dogs whose handlers have difficulties, the jump may be more problematic. The right way to follow is to convince the handler that diving is FUN!

To summarize: the dog has learned how to jump from the rubber dinghy and the “get” and “to shore” commands have been widely understood. Maybe, there are dogs that are too attached to their handlers and they try to re-enter the boat in every conceivable way. In this case, the handler’s behavior is essential: he should never panic, even if the dog is swimming in vertical position trying desperately to get into the boat. The handler should lean out the rubber dinghy and take a hold of the dog with the “dolphin” technique. The dog will immediately calm down and pull you back to shore. A continuous training will allows the handler to make less frequent “dolphin” seizes.

Now, just remains the last exercise: recovering the victim with the aid of a boat.

If you think it over, you only need to give proper commands in a specific sequence. The last exercise deals with commands your dog already knows and which you are sure it has understood perfectly.

The first time, you need to paddle the boat 20 meters far from shore (later, in the training process, the distance will be 200 meters from shore). Give the “jump” command and you and your dog will dive into water (the handler is suggested to jump in life guard style). Never lose sight of the person in need of help. Take your dog by using the “Dolphin” swimming technique for about 50 meters, and then repeat the “turn”, “to shore” commands if you want to return to shore and “boat” command if you want to return to the boat.

Obviously for the very first times, you will direct your dog to the boat. Then, returning to shore or boat will be the same for your dog. Another important thing that you have to consider is the slope of the boat's edge ie. how the the victim is able to enter the boat.

While your assistant helps you with the victim, the dog must swim back and forth alongside the boat without touching it. Such result may be achieved by training the dog to perform the “shark” exercise. The handler is required to position the rubber dinghy just back his shoulders: when the dog is next to you, give the “forward” command followed by the “turn-come” command.

Repeat this command sequence on the other side. In practice, the dog has to swim alongside the rubber dinghy (straight and back). I would recommend teaching this swimming style, “the shark”, beforehand as a whole so you do not have to keep giving the dog commands while helping the injured person into the boat. The idea is that the dog knows how to swim calmly and wait until it is his turn to enter the boat. Once you and the drowning person are safely on board, give the command “come”.

In my opinion it is best, especially if you are alone, that the dog approaches the boat front first. In this way, you will be able to take its head first, then take a hold of the harness and finally the third ring. Lift the dog into the boat using your legs. Some people lift their dog by holding the second ring from both sides and pulling the dog into the boat using their own weight. This technique is harder and the dog is vertically to the boat, and heavier to lift. This is a good technique with smaller dogs or when working with official cutters of the Port Authorities because this avoids scratches on the boats' surfaces, but there are problems with lifting a Newfoundland or a Landseer. If you attempt this technique, it could be dangerous to your back and you need a lot of muscles.

Now, it is a good idea to lengthen distances and repeat the exercises until you get real self-confidence. The SICS Water Rescue Certificate is within your reach now.

Certainly this seems easy but training a rescue dog is a commitment you have to deal with day by day, trying not to cause unnecessary breaks in the training process and avoiding to force or frightening your dog: it may take months to recover from a fright or a mistake done in 2 seconds.

It is like playing a piano: in the beginning, you feel clumsy and you often wonder why you are doing this. Then, the more you train, the more you appreciate your work and you finally succeed in composing harmonic melodies which will strongly tie you to one another.

One last suggestion: do not overdo! Remember that rushing is not good when it comes to training. Get used to doing things in short but perfect pieces, because we should always remember that SICS training is not a sport but a preparation for actual rescues. It aims to save lives, so that the more you know of your dog and its limitations, the more you are able to address these in a way that eventually you will have a 100% reliable and dependable K9 dog.

This is the ideal way to train a K9 unit. Sometimes you have dogs that, willing or not, are destined for special positions within our organization. For example, my little Al, will have to become the “key dog” in helicopter rescue operations. This means her training consists of getting used to helicopter and its noises and learning that such noises are normal. She works with experienced dogs that are not scared of helicopters; she learns how to stay in the copter with the door open, and even have fun while looking out of the copter’s sides; she learns to stay calm when she is lowered with a winch but landing on dry-land (an element the puppy does not feel to be as dangerous). She is actually going through all these experiences with the aid of her trainer who rarely moves and gets touched by flying. The dog will feel your encouragement and tranquility.

The next step is to jump and be lifted and re-embarked by using a winch. The training process will help you to naturally achieve this result and if you train this way; it will not become a problem.

I think it is unnecessary to talk about the SICS Operative Water Rescue Certificate in this context. It is the result of many years of working and learning side by side with skilled people and their unusual experiences. The topic matter is: KNOW YOUR DOG LIKE YOU KNOW YOURSELF, and think what your dog knows and what are his limitations.

Always use your own logic and knowledge. The aim is to save lives: find new methods to achieve this purpose together. Being calm is handler’s utmost skill, as they must always observe the situation, analyze the dangers and find the best solution for the handler and his dog.

Continued in part 4: Personal Experience

(c) Salmelin