TARQUINIA, Italy — This summer, Italy's special squad of rescue workers were again chalking up success: some 300 dogs ready to help save lives on dozens of Italian beaches.
In early August in Tarquinia, a town about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Rome, the dogs and their human partners saved on the same day two girls, who had fallen off their boat and two others, who had fallen off an inflatable raft.
The labradors, golden retrievers and Newfoundlands trained by the Italian School for Rescue Dogs (http://www.waterrescuedogs.com/) are credited with saving more than 100 lives, including a dozen this year alone.
"Compared to the rest of the world, the school is the only one that systematically monitors beaches every summer with human-canine units," Roberto Gasbarri, the school's coordinator for central-southern Italy, told AFP.
The teams work in most of Italy's 20 regions, even landlocked ones such as northern Trentino Alto-Adige, where rescuers monitor lakes.
Their school, financed by local governments like regions and municipalities, is recognised by Italy's civil protection and coordinated by local coast guards around the country.
"It's been five years now that we've been relying on the school," said Lamberto Alessandro, the head of the coastguard in Tarquinia.
"Their help is very valuable to us and they are absolutely trustworthy," he said, as dogs in lifejackets leapt off boats for practice runs.
"The five tests to get the license are pretty difficult. You need to swim almost as fast as your dog, which is not as easy as it sounds," said Paola de Santis, 36, who began training this year with her five-year-old lab Teo.
The rescuer certificate for dogs and owners requires one year of training both on the ground and on water, and the teams must train and pass tests each year before the summer season.
The next training round is set to start in mid-September.
Techniques include beach starts with lifesaver in hand or sea rescues from a raft or a helicopter.
"We developed a special system that can allow us to save three people at a time," Gasbarri said. "The (human) rescuer ties two people to the dog and is then free to take care of the third person," Gasbarri said.
"That way we avoid tiring back-and-forths," he added.
For lifeguards, the most dangerous moment in the rescue is bringing back the victim.
In this phase, "the dog is a real engine that helps bring the person back even if he or she resists or is agitated," Gasbarri said.
Gasbarri said the dogs are never scared of the water and tides as for them, rescues and training are much like a game.
"There are some very dangerous areas, ... and when there are large waves and a strong current, only a dog can intervene since, unlike humans, they don't feel fear in dangerous situations," said Mauro Mazzola, the mayor of Tarquinia.
The golden retrievers, labradors and Newfoundlands that the school recruits are docile and calm animals and their physical characteristics make them better rescuers.
"They are better swimmers than others because their coat lets out water quickly and they have webbed paws, which allows them to push water behind them and swim faster than other dogs," de Santis said as her dog Teo shook the water off his coat in apparent approval.
After rescues, especially for children, a dog is a calming presence.
"The patting, kisses and play really help lessen the child's shock after the danger," Gasbarri said.
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