CIVITAVECCHIA, Italy — They leap from helicopters or speeding boats, bringing aid to swimmers who get into trouble off Italy's popular beaches.
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For these K9 lifeguards, the doggie paddle does just fine.
Hundreds of specially trained dogs form Italy's corps of canine lifeguards, are deployed each summer to help swimmers in need of rescue.
These "lifedogs" wear a harness or tow a buoy that victims can grab, or a raft they can sit on to be towed back to shore, and unlike their human counterparts, they can easily jump from helicopters and speeding boats to reach swimmers in trouble.
With millions flocking to Italy's crowded beaches each summer, the Italian Coast Guard says it rescues about 3,000 people every year — and their canine helpers are credited with saving several lives.
It takes three years for the canines to reach expert rescue status, and currently 300 dogs are fully trained for duty, said Roberto Gasbarri, who coordinates the Italian School of Canine Lifeguards program at a center outside of Rome in the seaside town of Civitavecchia.
"Dogs are useful in containing the physical fatigue of the lifeguard, to increase the speed at which casualties are retrieved, to increase the security of both the casualty and of the lifeguard," Gasbarri said.
"The dog becomes a sort of intelligent lifebuoy. It is a buoy that goes by itself to a person in need of help, and comes back to the shore also by himself, choosing the best landing point and swimming through the safest currents," he said.
The Civitavecchia center is one of a dozen around the country for the school founded more than 20 years ago in the northern province of Bergamo by Ferruccio Pilenga, whose first trainee was his own Newfoundland.
The school will train any breed, as long as they weigh at least 30 kilograms (66 pounds), but Labradors, Newfoundlands and golden retrievers are most commonly used because of their natural instinct for swimming. Each dog works in tandem with a human lifeguard, who also acts as the animal's trainer.
"Being retrievers, they set out to pick up anything we tell them, be it a human being, an object, or a fish, and they bring it back to the shore," said lifeguard Monia Luciani. "They do not associate it with a physical activity, but it is rather a game for them."
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