At the Italian School of Canine Lifeguards, located just outside of Rome, 300 water rescue graduates are living (or swimming) proof that water rescue does not require the ability to wear swim trunks or apply sunblock.
"Lifedogs" are specially trained water rescue dogs who attend a vigorous three year training program before graduating. Upon completion of graduation, each dog is bestowed the status of "Expert".
Currently, the Italian School of Canine Lifeguards boasts over a dozen training schools countrywide. The inception of a water rescue dog academy began over twenty years ago by Ferruccio Pilenga, who trained his own Newfoundland as Italy's very first water rescue canine.
The canine lifeguard school will train any breed for water rescue, as long as the dog meets the minimum requirement of 66 lbs. However, the natural swimming and retrieving ability of Labradors, Retrievers and Newfoundlands make these breeds an ideal fit for water rescue training.
Lifedogs are paired up with a human lifeguard. The lifeguard serves not only as a partner, but also as the canine trainer. Lifedogs and lifeguards typically maintain a special bond, much like that of police dogs and their human law enforcement partners.
These special dogs facilitate lifeguards in areas of rescue where humans may naturally lack, such as the ability to spring easily from a helicopter or other moving platform.
All lifedogs typically wear a harness which tows a buoy for drowning victims to grab, or a raft they can sit on to be towed back safely to shore.
Italy's beaches are extremely popular among tourists and are host to millions each summer.
The main objectives of lifedogs are to help contain the physical fatigue of the human lifeguard, increase the speed of recovery time on causalities and contribute an additional layer of security for the lifeguard physically.
The Italian Coast Guard says it rescues approximately 3,000 potential drowning victims each year. The swimming and diving canine helpers are credited with saving several lives annually.