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 Dog Rescue School (Scuola Italiana Cani Salvataggio- hereafter named SICS) in the late 1989 and began training his female Newfoundland “Mas”. At that time, the first water work clubs belonging to the Italian Newfoundland Club  (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 Newfoundland's dogs water work already existed.  At the beginning, Pilenga and his coworkers trained their Newfoundland dogs  for obtaining sports water work certificates in Italy, 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 order to let rescue dogs come out from epoch paintings and bring them back to beaches with real rescue tasks, Pilenga and his coworkers turned to the Coast Guard and Air Force officers, people with a wide experience in search and rescue actions. At that time, the first certificates for rescue SICS were drawn. The certificates, 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 at the height of their success in Europe and worldwide, allowing them to participate in plenty of combined efforts with specialists, Coast Guard, Air Force Rescue and Fire-Rescue SAF- without any fear.

In SICS rescue certificates, it is not important to be the first, in fact there are no final standings. It is important to demonstrate to the examining board (consisting of three expert judges) 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 action at all costs. In order to make the dogs more recognized as rescue dogs, the Italian rescue dogs are subject to annual reviews, occurring from January to December, during which the certificate, which lasts for one year, is renewed.

Lets examine the Water Rescue Certificate updated to January 16, 2009

SICS Water Rescue Certificate®

Test 1: Obedience

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. 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.

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 and global judgment is based on a positive execution of the whole test.   

Additional note:

This dynamic test has surely some 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 checked in a static heel on-leash test.

Dogs used for rescues must be able to run for 200-400 meters 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 is required to do.

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 flippers.

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, in this test the dog tows his handler directly to the person in danger without any  hesitation in order to save handler’s precious energies. On their way back, upon judges’ command, the handler will let go the dog  for at least 3 (three) seconds. Upon handler’s command, the dog should turn back for the handler who grips the harness and the dog to resume the pull. The test will take place approximately 15 meters from shore and will end when the victim is on shore and placed in the  safety position.

Additional note:

This is the first real water rescue test that the handler and his dog must carry out. The distance to swim is more than 110 meters. Shorter distances are not considered as reliable or trustworthy.  The Coast Guard officers highly recommended such distance to be done soon after a 200-400 meters run to fully evaluate the pair’s sports/technical ability to work in realistic conditions. Sports/technical abilities of the team have a precise reason: the method is called “Dolphin” technique: the handler is towed by the dog saving precious energy. The dog is asked to do the most demanding and hard work: to tow his handler and the victim to shore while sometimes facing strong flows thanks to the specific skills and resistance in the water environment, typical features of water rescue breeds. As the handler is released from having to swim to shore, he can dedicate his time to calm the victim, to give him first aid and, whether necessary, to practice mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while being still in water. In the “Dolphin” technique, the dog has not to be forced to work; he must unwaveringly swim to the victim while his handler has his heels visibly an inch from the water, lying sideways to the dog and holding the rear ring of its harness. It is required that the handler catches a little part of the dog’s fur together with the harness: the dog will “feel” it is not alone and that its handler is just back.   

Test 3: Saving two drowning people (rescue swimming with flippers –  the dog following the handler)  

Two people, located at least 110 meters from shore and at least 40 meters apart, simulate drowning in a realistic way. The K9 unit starts from shore and the handler is required to wear flippers within 8 (eight) seconds, max. The handler has to swim before the dog, never losing sight of the drowning people. After reaching the first drowning person, the handler must wait for the dog before heading to the second one. The second drowning person will exhibit a ‘negative attitude’ for at least 15 seconds and make it impossible for the rescuer to secure them for the tow back.  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.

Additional note:

This test features longer distances and two victims, one of which with a negative attitude and without flippers. He will not be willing to cooperate during the rescue action and the handler has to be really able to face a person simulating panic.

This test is the real water rescue action. It is required to know how to use flippers and diving equipment.  The handler’s reasoning and athletic skills are also carefully evaluated because he has to rescue the second victim before the dogs arrives with the first victim attached on its harness. If this doesn’t happen, the life of the dog is in severe danger.  In fact, in real water rescue operations, a dog arriving before the handler means that people in panic will certainly try to roughly grab the dog: the result is a serious danger to sink and drown the dog. 

Test 4: Saving a drowning person using a boat

A person at least 200 meters from shore simulates drowning in a realistic way. The handler and his dog quickly jump on a boat or raft simulating the presence of rocks or sea undertow; they paddle till 100 meters far from the victim. Now, the Unit has to dive, reach and approach the person in need of help by using the technique that better fits to the situation and never losing touch with the victim. The dog will tow the handler and the drowning person to the raft/boat or to shore. There is a steward  in the raft/boat who will follow the handler’s directions or commands. In no way, is the steward allowed to help the dog to dive into water. If the handler decides to direct the dog to tow them to shore, he will have then to paddle the raft/boat back till the shore.

Additional note:

The test is performed at a distance of 200 meters and this compels the handler to use a boat. The naturalness by which the dog jumps into the boat and the handler’s paddling will be highly evaluated (this is not merely a paddling test but it deals with paddling in the exact moment in which it is required).

Rocks, fish nets, bathers, sea undertows, low sea beds may encumber the whole rescue operation; in this case the handler and his dog have to dive with the most appropriate technique and reach 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 means itself may be a lifeboat, a life raft, a fishing boat, a fiberglass boat and even a motor life raft: in this case, it is required to start the engine and drive till the area in which the unit has then to dive.  Damaged or undamaged oars, paddles or emergency oars will be used. The test aims to fully evaluate the ability to arrange and co-ordinate other people and to complete the rescue action.

Test 5: Towing a drifting boat

The handler and his dog are on a boat which is located at least 100 meter from 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 dog will tow the boat back to shore by 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 he may help the dog to dive and lean with their hands touching the water.

Additional note:

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

Test 6: Swimming with the dog

Upon judges’ commands and as per the sequence decided by the board of examiners itself, the handler and his dog must swim for at least 20 minutes with varying styles: “Dolphin” swimming (5 minutes); handler swimming in front (crawl – 5 minutes), swimming side-by-side (5 minutes). Each swimming style will be spaced out by 2 minutes of holding up the dog in water in the stand position. The dog must not disrupt the handler’s swimming or swim before him. The handler may decide the swimming technique to be used, he has to make sure that the dog  stay at shoulder height and he has not to swim too far from his dog. 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 note:

The board of examiners will evaluate the pair’s understanding and its swimming abilities for all the duration of the test (in particular, the “dolphin” and side-by-side swimming techniques). Holding up the dog in water in the stand position will also be important: the dog stops swimming and remains still in its handler’s arms. A correct execution of this technique is important for judging the mutual trust existing between the handler and his dog otherwise dog’s survival instinct will prevent him from remaining quiet.

The test is not individually performed. Therefore, dogs must not interfere with each other and the pair’s attachment and attention to each other are evaluated. Handlers may wear flippers or not, but being such a technique expressly designed to be used also in real emergency situations or particular scenarios (long-distance swimming, sudden dog’s 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 among the second, third or fourth tests. The resuscitation will be done on dry land and the dog must not interfere with any part of the operation.

In particular, the handler must be able to know First Aid techniques and alert First Aid and Port Authorities:

Coast Guard

Emergency Number

The patient

Respiratory failure

Heart failure

Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation

Heart message

Safety position in case of loss of consciousness

Transport of the patient

Coordination of first aid assistance

Additional note:

The test aims to verify the handler’s CPR knowledge and patient’s transport techniques. He must be able to coordinate those who are far away such as Coast Guard, ambulance, police as well as 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. A BLS Certificate or First Aid Certificate will be also required.

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 some facts:

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.

The renewal of the Certificate (annually done)

Test 1: Long distance saving

The K9 Unit will have to retrieve a person simulating drowning from 500/600 meters 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 and his handler to the exact point of shore from which they started.

Test 2: 30 minute swimming

The dog and its handler start from shore, and swim for at least 30 minutes using the three basic swimming styles: Dolphin, handler swimming in front and side-by-side swim. Each style will be spaced out holding up the dog in water in the stand position for at least 1 minute.  

Test 3: “Shark”

The K9 Unit will have to swim from 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. In addition to the tests mentioned below, the Judging Committee may include appropriate additional tests  for evaluating the physical condition of the K9 Unit, the harmony between the pair and the progress obtained during the tests for obtaining the Certificate.

SICS Operative Water Rescue Certificate®

This chapter describes the tests that enables SICS K9 Units to be operative. They are not performed in a single day but during one or more years depending upon the different opportunities; they may be performed during some events that SICS itself  promotes or during practical training or service events in cooperation with the Coast Guard or the Rescue Helicopters Organization.

The Operative Water Rescue Certificate  was developed by the Italian School of Rescue Dogs SICS and it is the result of many experiences the school itself  has worked out in cooperation with the Coast Guard – Port Authorities. It meets operative specifications of Rescue Cruisers, HH3F Pellican SAR Air Rescue and  AB212 Air Force pilots and crews. 

After sixteen years of experience, I believe that only these tests can truly be defined as operative tests.

Tests to be passed are included in the following performances and studied on the basis of the operative grids.

The level of technical knowledge and physical ability required to obtain the SICS Water Rescue Certificate will naturally lead to achieve the SICS Operative Certificate: without this last level, the training is incomplete and its lack highly  influences the reliability of the SICS Water Rescue Certificate in a negative way.

No misunderstanding, no deceive in using improper words, no confusion between Water Rescue Certificate and Operative Water Rescue Certificate. The second has  sporty and technical difficulties which are much more demanding than the first one.  

SICS Operative Certificate aims at  pointing out the K9 Unit ability to work in real difficulties. The pair is asked a clearly remarkable performance. A long period of training is required from both the handler and the dog to pass the operative tests, which include an  over 2 kilometers swim. Even the dive from a height of at least 2 meters is clearly difficult, as we have to consider that directly after the dive, the K9 unit has to swim at least 600 meters to retrieve a person simulating drowning. If we combine this with the fact that the drowning person is not the classic little man wearing a suit, who turns into a graceful, still, floating form when being towed, like we saw many times in various rescue demonstrations, the whole rescue is harder. In these exercises the drowning person is an experienced diver with a ‘negative attitude’ and a clear intention of making the rescue as difficult as possible for the rescuer. The idea is that the handler clearly understands how to rescue a person in panic. Rescuing a person in panic should not be taken lightly. It is vital to fully understand the philosophy of the SICS Operative Rescue Certificate. Dog is asked to rescue a victim and, when working starting from shore or a rescue boat, it has a rope tied to its floating marine rescue harness with a quick release safety clip. Our Newfoundland, Labrador Retriever or Golden Retriever dogs may be considered fully trained only by reaching such a level of experience. His handler, too will have to possess a high level of professionalism as he is asked to rescue a person in need of help, sometimes near undertow or rocks; he has to prove his skills in managing a rescue boat, to give directions   or transfer his directions to a third party while engaged in a rescue operation. He has to be able to give his dog clear and unequivocal commands so that the dog itself can head for the victim,  with a rope with a floating rope, of course.   

At this point, there are myths to be debunked once and for all.

Some clichés describe Newfoundland dogs (or any other breed) as able to rescue a drowning and panicked person by their own. It is evident that if we send our dog ahead in such a situation alone, we’ll never see our dog to come back. Newfoundland dog’s ability is not to take a person trying to catch anything he can with all his strength: if this happens, the dog would be immediately hauled down. The ability we use and exploit is its long distances swimming skills without any apparent effort.   

The two members of the K9 Unit have two distinctive and peculiar tasks:  the handler has the task of calming the shaky, panicked, drowning person, to support and prepare him for their way back; the dog has the task of towing both to shore. In this way, the handler does not need to waste his precious energy for dragging the person because this is a dog’s commitment. The handler is responsible for ensuring that everything runs smoothly.

In the event the dog has to perform the rescue alone, we would like to point out once again that the dog must be tied up with a floating rope secured to the marine rescue harness by a quick release spring clip. In this way, should the dog be hauled down, the handler remaining at shore or boat during the rescue will have the very important and fundamental task of saving his  dog and the drowning person by keeping the rope taut. In fact, when the handler pulls the rope, the dog and drowning person will in essence glide over the water keeping the dog’s head above water. This method has been tested several times and it is efficiently used. The sole limit is represented by floods in which heavy streams may encounter any rescue action: river rescue techniques are, in fact, different and they are not subject of this content.  

Lets examine the Operative Water Rescue Certificate.

Test A: Endurance Test

The dog and his handler must swim TOGETHER for over 2 kilometers. This test is designed to highlight the close relationship between handler and dog in a water environment, as both have to be able to deal with difficult and exhausting long-distance swimming. The test will not be based on a time rate but on the capacity to manage the stress experienced in long distance swimming, weather conditions, floods and  general status of the sea.

Additional note:

The K9 unit is asked to perform a long distance swimming. The pair has to swim together and it is usually required to cross a lake to check the real understanding existing in the pair and the ability to maintain a harmonic swimming rhythm. The test is not based on a time rate.  No sprinter performances are required; on the contrary, they both have to convey a sense of tranquility and understanding. They should swim side by side and it is desirable that the handler adapts and adjusts his swimming rhythm to the one of his dog. The handler often wears a diving wetsuit and flippers. I consider the technique of the handler swimming before the dog as ineffective: in this case, the dog tends to get tired more easily as it tries to swim faster to keep up with the handler. In this case, we would have a dog which cannot easily swim with the handler. Many of the dogs which are trained this way, as well as those trained to swim behind boats, are usually too excited to be able to operate in a calm and dependable manner. The purpose of the long-distance swim is to build the trust in the relationship between the K9 Unit, bring security and complicity between the two, and to verify the actual physical ability of the pair.  

Test B: Diving from a Great Height

The handler and his dog must dive together into water from a height of minimum 2 meters in the port area. The test is designed to evaluate the operational status of the pair, which is understood as the ability to proceed without hesitation to the person in need of help in test C.

Additional note:

It is asked to safely and quickly dive from a height of minimum 2 meters , so that the K9 Unit can act effectively in cases where the place of departure is a raised area (a deck or a pier). The diving technique, the confidence by which the rescue is brought to completion as well as the harmony between the handler and dog are assessed. The exercise does not end with the dive, but it is combined with test C (long distance rescue).

Test C: Long Distance Rescue.

The K9 Unit will rescue a person simulating real drowning (see note A), located at least 600 meters away from shore. Attention: the steward into water is a diving instructor showing a negative attitude and willing to create severe difficulty to the rescuer, just like a real drowning person does. Rescuers must know how to face dangerous situations by implementing all the necessary precautions to complete the rescue.

Additional note:

After diving into water, the K9 Unit must head straight for the victim without hesitation; the victim himself is located at a distance of more 600 meters from shore. Dogs may become disorientated from the dive: the level of this kind of stress will be highly evaluated as well as the determination of the dog to reach the victim soon after its diving action. Rescuers are required to act to prevent any danger or injury to themselves or their dog. Therefore, the steward (a diving instructor) plays an important role in the evaluation of the test: he will judge how the whole action has been carried out and, being very close to rescuers and dogs, he is surely able to gather particulars the judges committee is not able to see from far away, even if the use of binoculars is peremptory.  At the end of the test, the handler will deal with the security of the drowning person, providing resuscitation and first-aid if necessary as well as alerting those needed for assistance if it is deemed necessary.  

Test D: Rescue from OGNITEMPO coast guard cutter.

The K9 Unit has to show that it is able to take part in a rescue operation from a OGNITEMPO coast guard cutter. The dog has to be equipped with a harness approved for marine rescue helicopter operations and bound to the handler with a rescue floating rope equipped with a quick release safety clip. The test will primarily evaluate the determination of the dog to rescue the person in need of help, while it won’t take into account the difficulties caused by the floating rope or having to leave from an elevated height of the coast guard cutter. The handler must know how to re-enter and embark the steward, the dog and himself on the boat.   

Additional note:

This test has been added in order to know how to work in co-operation with the crews of Coast Guard rescue cruisers, real unsinkable rescue cutters with an auto straighten up system and a long functional autonomy.  The  K9 unit is required to know how to dive into water from the high board of the cutters. The dog has to demonstrate that it knows how to dive and rescue a person located at a distance from the rescue cutters (always tied up with a safety rope).  Furthermore, large sea waves created by the rescue vessels make difficult to approach a drowning person. The dog is entrusted with the task of diving from the Rescue Cruiser and swimming to people in need. The handler and the RC crew monitor and facilitate the recovery of the dog and the shipwrecked to their fullest capabilities. They also try and bring them aboard as quickly as possible.

Test E: Helicopter

The K9 Unit has to demonstrate that it is able to work with helicopters by using a winch or by diving from the helicopter hovering 1-2 meters above water surface despite the flow created by the rotor blades that most resemble the stormy sea. Once the rescue action is ended, the handler is required to re-enter onboard the helicopter by using the winch in cooperation with the helicopter aircrew.

Additional note:

The K9 Unit is required to know specific techniques in presence of a helicopter equipped with a winch. The rescue action with helicopter has to be a round-trip ticket: it should be impossible to re-embark rescuers and victims without using the winch. This involves the knowledge of winching techniques, the use of special man/dog harnesses, expressly tested and approved for the winch use as well as special manoeuvres, safety hooks for man/dog, lanyards and AISI 316 steel spring clips. The whole rescue operation has to be carried out with the utmost precision and regularity. The handler has to perform the tasks in a specific sequence, with the assistance of the helicopter winch aircrew man and a steward specially devoted to dog safety. The handler and dog are lowered by the winch into an area  the helicopter pilot consider as appropriate, they unhooked and carry out the rescue operation. A detailed and accurate knowledge of how to perform the maneuvers of recovery, including the international water-air signals, is also demanded for a safe handler/dog/victims re-embarking. Working during the hovering phase will be also evaluated: operations under the rotor flux (wind, waves, water spray, noise) are those that most resemble the stormy sea.

These techniques are the result of many operations and suggestions SICS  studied and experienced with:

- Helicopters Pilots and aircrews belonging to:

S.A.R. Air Force AB212 and HH3F, Coast Guard AB412, Carabinieri helicopters pilots (an Italian Police force which is a branch of the Army) AB412, Firemen AB412, Guardia di Finanza  NH500 (body of police officers responsible for border patrol and frauds investigating operations), Police AB212, Emergency Number “118” A109, Helicopter Rescue Organization Lama Ecureil B2 B3, Sokol PLZ – AB206.      

- Port Authorities and Coast Guard belonging to:

Gregoretti and Cavallari cutters; Class 200, 2000, 100, 800a, 800b, 800c, 600, 6000, Alfa GC, 300, BW Coast Guard cutters; SNSM 200, 100 and DGzRS cutters.

Test F: Bringing a rope from one boat to another

The K9 Unit, specifically the dog, will have to bring a rope to a person unable to manage the boat and located at a safety distance.

Additional note:

The dog must be able to go from a rescue boat to another which is simulating difficulties. The rope may be tied to the harness or the dog can hold it in its mouth.

Test G: Rescue using an in-shore boat with the presence of reefs.

The handler of the K9 Unit has to be able to direct a rescue boat from a port in order to rescue a drowning person with the presence of reefs. The task is to start the rescue operation from offshore while maintaining a maneuverable vessel, to rescue the victim and return to the boat.

Additional note:

The K9 Unit has to be able to use a motorboat, to properly steer it and, whether necessary, to pass orders to instructed and designated people. The exercise ends when the drowning person is safely on board with the dog and they all return into port.

Test H: K9 Unit Basic control and its dynamics

·    The Down-Stay for at least 10 minutes during which the handler will perform technical operations on the beach.

·    Sit or Down/Stay and recall from a distance of least 100 meters in an environment that presents sources of distraction for the dog.

·    Off-leash obedience in an operative environment.

Additional note:

The test assesses the pair’s control, operative skills and mutual understanding. Dynamism, self-control under difficult circumstances, capacity to solve unexpected situations will be also highly evaluated.

Test I: Rescue and resuscitation - Alerting Coast Guard-Solas- SAR rescue authorities

See directions manuals – S.A.R. Search and Rescue – RDM padi – sea rescue

Additional note:

Further difficulties have been introduced to the Advanced Certificate. The handler is required to solve different issues where only the use of logic and intelligence are enough to find a solution.   

Test L: Entrance into water in rough sea conditions from beach/boat

The K9 Unit has to be able to operate in rough sea conditions, starting from shore and boats. The dog has to operate even with in the presence of large waves, while showing determination in the rescue work.

Test M: CPR resuscitation performed in water during re-entry to shore (100 meter after recovery) with a steward simulating asphyxia.

The handler has to know how to perform CPR resuscitation during the tow to shore by the dog. By being able to give artificial respiration, the handler can save precious moments in the life-saving process. A special rescue harness designed for this technique has to be used throughout the exercise.

Additional note:

The K9 Unit is required  to have full knowledge and perform a perfect execution of CPR resuscitation in water while the dog is entrusted with the task of towing to the boat or to shore.


  • The dog must have microchip identification, the device has to be  in compliance with FECAVA or ISO directions and inserted into dog’s body  at least 15 days before the test. The dog  must be registered in the Kennel Club.

  • The dog must be insured against any damage.

  • The dog must have all the standard vaccinations.

  • The dog should have a veterinary certificate attesting good health.

  • The dog must have a rabies vaccination valid throughout the swimming season and made at least a month before   the test.

  • The handler must have a certificate of good health for rescue activities in water.

  • The result of the test will be notified 7 (seven) days after the performance.

  • The Certificate is valid for one year, and if allowed to expire, the designated Port Authorities will be informed.

  • The Certificate is personal; it clearly identifies the dog and its handler.

  • A dog may be  patented only with its  handler. The certificate will not be considered as valid with another person, unless the same has passed the test with the same dog.

  • The dog must always be on-leash when on a beach; the handler must have the proper devices for dog droppings.

  • The handler is the sole responsible for his own actions and those of his dog towards a third party or third party assets. In no case is the Judging Committee or  SICS Organization responsible for K9 Unit  improper or wrong behavior.

  • The K9 Unit has the moral, penal and civil responsibility to safeguard human lives at sea.

  • The K9 Unit operatively depends on the Port Authorities – Coast Guard both directly and indirectly through recognized voluntary organizations.

  • Tests cannot be repeated.


If even one part of the Certificate test is not fully performed, this will be considered as a failure.

·       If the handler does not have the appropriate equipment (diving wetsuit, dog harness, flippers, leash for the dog, shoes), this will be considered as a failure.

·       If the dog is forced to perform at any point of the exercise, this will be  considered as a failure.

·       If the handler loses sight of the drowning person when wearing his flippers, when swimming or during the paddling test, this will be considered as a failure.

·       If the dog does not help and interferes with the rescue process, this will be considered as a failure.

·       If the dog soils on the beach, this will be considered as a failure.

·       If the dog does not wear a harness or the handler does not wear his wetsuit before entering the test area and throughout the whole examination, this will be considered as a failure.

·       It is peremptory forbidden to punish the dog in any form  or way during the exercise, be it physical or verbal punishment. Otherwise, this will be considered as a failure.

·       If the transportation of the victim on dry land or in water is incorrect, this will be  considered as a failure.

·       If the handler is not able to co-ordinate the assistance actions on shore, this will be  considered as a failure.

·       If the handler is not able to properly use the dolphin-technique, this will be considered as a failure.

·       If the handler cannot properly wear flippers, this will be considered as a failure.

·       If the handler does not row with sufficient power, this will be considered as a failure.

·       If the handler behaves in a way that  could endanger the life of his dog, this will be considered as a failure.

·       If the dog shows any sign of aggression towards strangers, even in the event the dog is stimulated in a negative manner, this will be considered as a failure.

·       If the dog shows aggression towards other dogs, this will be considered as a failure.


We conclude these digressions with describing what SICS Organization calls the “Pilenga water training method”.

All dogs weighing at least 30 kilograms when adults, having remarkable skills in water environment and a low threshold for inter and intra-specific reactivity may become SICS water rescue dogs.

The training process can start soon after the first vaccination or anytime after this date. The training for obtaining the SICS Water Rescue Certificate ranges from six 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 time taken to train for achieving the Certificate may be forecasted in 6 months, otherwise 2/3 years have to be considered. On average, in my opinion, the time taken to train is at least 1.5 years. We have had cases where some  Newfoundland dogs had nothing to do with water but if the handler does not let this discourage him and he 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 in groups.  New dogs are introduced in existing groups. There are no puppy classes, they attend the same exercises on dry land the adults do, learning by imitation or, better say, by emulation attitude. By working on dry land, dogs learn basic obedience and the aim is to obtain a high level of socialization. Our dogs, unlike many other water work 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 have not to react to any other dogs or persons even how much nagging they could be. Gradually but inexorably, the dog will learn how to manage the stress that these situations entail.

Now, let’s go into details of water work.

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

The first time a puppy comes to 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 feels angry for being ignored and it will then realize by its own about what to do seeing 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; 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 that will enter into water, gently followed and accompanied by the instructor. If the puppy showed 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.

In this phase of the training the handler plays a crucial role and it will be so till the dog has not reached a sufficient level of self-confidence.   The handler will have not to represent a hindrance or cause any kind of difficulty otherwise it will take months for puppy fears to be worked out.  It is essentially the trust that would lack which is the basic feature of 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 other 2/3 times but with longer distances till 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 backstroke, alongside of 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 say, shoulder-to-shoulder, the game is done. You will both feel much more self-confidence, build your own shaped muscled and your dog’s physic 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 it particularly likes. The assistant has to be a person our dog likes and with whom it has a previously established 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 much closer distance it usually does for going to get him. Make sure the dog pays attention to the assistant with the “carefully” command, all the while pointing at the drowning person. When you are sure the dog exactly understand what you are pointing to and give the “get” command. This time, do not let go of the harness and follow the dog into water. Take the rear ring of the harness on both sides (right and left) in correspondence to its mid-chest and lie down flat on the water 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. The dog will get used to this sequence and it will be perfectly normal for him as its training is on process.   

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 elapse the swimming time and start teaching holding up the dog in water in the stand position.

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.

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 very 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 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 into the water remaining 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 boats 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 AMUSING.  

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 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. Then, he will lean out the rubber dinghy; will take his dog with the “Dolphin” technique. The dog will immediately calm down and will pull you back to shore. A continuous training will allows the handler to make less frequent “Dolphin” seizes.

Now, it 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.  It deals, however, with commands your dog already know and that you are sure it has perfectly understood. 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 embarking the victim. Your assistant will assist you in this operation. Meanwhile, 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, it will have to be automatically perform and will allow to embark the injured person and yourself in the proper way with the dog going on to swim while waiting to be quietly embarked. Once you and the drowning person is safely on board, give the “come” command. In my opinion it is best, especially if you are alone, that the dog approaches the boat frontally.  In this way, you will be able to take its head first, then the hold of the harness and finally the third ring. Lift the dog into the boat using your legs. Some people lift his dog by holding the second ring from both sides and pull the dog into the boat using their own weight. The harder technique sees the dog approaching the boat in parallel and the handler, using his own arms lift the dog by taking the handle of the harness and the third ring. This is a good technique with smaller dogs or when working with official cutters of the Port Authorities because this avoid to scrape them.  A Newfoundland dog, a Leonberger or a muscle Labrador dog may be heavy: trying to lift them may represent a danger for your back.  

Now, it is sufficient 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 do 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 one another.

One last suggestion: do not overdo. Remember that rushing is not good. Get used to play short romances in the right way. You will soon discover to be able to play a whole opera being totally aware of your abilities, virtues and faults.  Never forget that the final aim is to save humans’ life, SICS training is not a sport but a preparation for actual rescues. The more you know of your dog, the more you are able to make up for its weaknesses and be a 100% true and reliable K9 Unit.  

This is the ideal way to train a K9 unit. Sometime, you have dogs that, willing or not, are destined for holding a special position 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 its 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 going on in 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 YOUR SELF.

Think as it thinks and do the things that it is not able to do. Always use your own logic and knowledge. The aim is to save lives: find new methods to achieve this purpose together. Being cool is handler’s utmost skill who must always to observe the situation, analyze the dangers and find the best solution for him and his dog.


You cannot compare SICS Water Rescue Certificate to any other existing certificates. Over-precision does not count; we do mind to carry out the action we are performing. A dog that brings the boat to shore by keeping the rope in its mouth or tied to its harness does not mean to have different scores or penalties. What is most important is a dog able to tow the dinghy back to shore without any handler’s intervention: in fact, in real rescue actions, the human is supposed to be engaged in helping the victim and he has not the time to care for the boat.    

You will be asked to work on a detailed and exhaustive training later on. After you pass the SICS Water Rescue Certificate, you and your dog are asked to work with more precision. The dog is taught to hold a rope with an object in its mouth and go in any direction you indicate. It could happen to anyone that an injured person has to be put on a floating stretcher and the dog is entrusted with both bringing the stretcher than towing it to the rescue boat or shore. Do not forget that one of the tests in the SICS Operative Water Rescue Certificate is sending the dog tied to a rope on a victim. Dog must reach the person and turn just in front of him. Then, the victim can easily take the rope, tightly hold on both edges: one on the dog’s harness, the other one by the handler. In this way, the handler’s pulling counteracts the downward pressure that the sinking person inevitably causes over dog’s body. By tugging the muzzle of the dog, its head is kept above water at all times, it is able to breathe under all conditions and the  rescue  result is much more  faster than it would otherwise be.

Let’s be clear on one thing. Precision is not excluded from our work; it is simply postponed to a later time when a special bond already exists: this is the distinguishing feature of our K9 rescue dogs.  Handlers are taught to work calmly and without causing any stress to dogs. Stress produced by competition does not exist in our school.  

We aim at training athletic, physically fit, K9 Units; a team which is  able to operate on crowded beaches, that knows how to adequately deal with local people and institutions and acts with humility in their essential preventive work while being perfectly aware of its own responsibilities, skills and limits.  

Personally, I do take my hat off to dogs who reached the maximum degree in any European sports certificates. They are great dogs! They work flawless, but at a maximum distance of 50 meters from shore or boat. This is what differentiates our tests where dogs have to swim 200 meters -2 kilometers compared to 50 meters!

Moreover, what it really makes me upset is that the dog is expected to work with its handler only able to walk in water until his own knees. Even the swimming exercises are executed behind a boat which is often equipped with an engine:  dogs are forced to swim and breathe the boat fuel waste. What a blame! Once in a while the technical board of directors should swim in such conditions. They should provide for swimming alongside the rubber dinghy or using inflatable boats with oars. Unfortunately, this will never happen: it is very difficult to teach a dog to swim alongside a boat and it is hard to row, too. So, if only the dog works seems to be the best solution.  I may even accept all this, since we are talking about sporty tests at the end.

What I find harder to understand are those tests that are essentially sporty but they are defined as operative. Personally, I know only two:  an Italian certificate – recognized by ENCI and another one issued by an international organization – I.R.O.

The first, the Italian one, comes from C.I.T.   (The Italian  Newfoundland Dog Kennel Club). It is substantially a sporty certificate, it is mediated from one of our certificates, but as usual, here we are! There are no right distances and unnecessary repetitive exercises are required to do.

I.R.O. is an international global rescue organization and it deserves a separate remark: it employs very good trained dogs for area and rubble search; as to water rescue, it only exists on paper and no dogs result to be operative.   

Once we tried to approach IRO as a school. Three of our dogs, mine included, began to study the whole series of exercises and worked on it. One thing drew immediately our attention: the test had never been practically done before and there were only few pictures and a handbook (to be downloaded from Internet) which served as a reference.   

The test is divided into two grades, one of which presents a light progression only as to water work, the other parts are equal. The dog is asked to pass three tests; failing one test means not to continue onto the next level. The dog has an Ipo3 obedience grade, including ‘shooting’. There is a part dedicated to dexterity in which the dog has to jump up and down a rubber dinghy upon handler’s command and stands still on a surfboard which is placed on land, while the handler moves it around. Then, there are water exercises, which are easier for us, where it is substantially enough for the dog to stay calm and be able to tow dog bite tags and surfers.

This is boarding on the paradoxical. How can  you define “water test” something that is basically executed on dry land and, which is worse, by using unnecessary heavy devices? Dexterity is undoubtedly useful, but all this is merely water work (just like any other European sporty certificates) and not water rescue work.   I would say that this looks like a tough competition which tends to dampen rather than to encourage the initiative and self-decision autonomy a good rescue dog is required to have.

Someone should explain to me how a Newfoundland dog or a Leonberger may be useful if they act like a German Shepherd during an obedience test! If you consider the reaction time of the first two breeds, well, you lose the game. It would be a waste of resources and time. There is even a test in which the handler has to pick up the dog and carry it for 30 meters and then pass it onto a stranger. I cannot lift my 55 kilograms dog or my other 60 kilograms dog alone and carry them for 30 meters. Yes, you well understood, alone. We asked for clarification: alone or by using a sort of wheelbarrow. Waste of time and efforts. The person who designed the water exercises is probably used to working with German Shepherds and Border Collies on dry-land and he has never worked in water. 

The difference between SICS Certificate and the other ones is clear. SICS certificate arise from experiencing the work and getting in with the training.  We do not sit down and just write on paper what comes to mind. All tests and their following changes arise from gained experience and suggestions we then put into practice.  We have no teacher’s pets at school but real K9 Units able to carry out a rescue.  If a dog is not perfect, the handler must correct his dog’s faults.  If my dog hurts, I would never try to pick it up by myself. There would always be at least two people lifting him with the aid of a stretcher.  Ferruccio Pilenga, the founder of the SICS rescue dogs in Italy and the pioneer of the Rescue Certificate always says that the Water Rescue Certificate is the minimum level a dog has to be able to achieve to in order to be defined so.  

We must completely change the philosophy of the relationship with our dog. In sporty certificates, the dog is just a “dog”, an object to be used to achieve the goal of “being the No. 1”.  Our opinion is that the dog is not just a dog but an inseparable life-partner whose peculiarities and prerogatives must be respected.  Just like a dog thinks the handler is the centre of its own world, in the same way, the handler must think the dog is the centre of his one. Our dog lives, sleeps and plays with us; it come to hotels and restaurants and travels with us on public transport. If the handler has to do something where the dog cannot be, it feels something is missing and will try to reassemble the K9 Unit. Only such a deep mutual understanding, made by habits and “rituals”, can make up a good K9 Unit. The relationship is not just between a dog and a handler but between equals who, even though even do not speak to each other, they understand one another and interact together to solve problems.  When this combination ends and the  less long-aged part, usually the dog, passes away, the handler feels psychologically drained and he feels like he loses a family member. He has to elaborate the loss. The hard part is when you get a new puppy and you face with the inevitable differences between your old companion and the new one. You have to get rid of the old habits and start from the beginning.

My young Al obliged me to change a whole series of attitudes that I had with my old and trusted Alyssha.

We say a “blow to life”. I had to get used to new rhythms of a puppy, to its playing rhythms and its needs. This was not easy at all. Obviously the two dogs had completely different characters. Alyssha was introverted and reflective while Al is playful, social and dominant. When arriving on the training area, Alyssha greeted only her friends, while Al is described as “the square caretaker”. This dog does not miss anyone, biped or four-legged creature. No matter what we are doing, it has to greet anyone.

I had to develop new day rhythms when Al arrived. Now, I wake up at dawn and have my first walk at 6.00 a.m. to avoid she soils the house and train her to only soil outside.  At first Zac, my older dog was upset as he was not used to waking up so early. After about a 45 minutes hike, we come back inside and eat breakfast. It is now play time for half an hour. Then, the daily grooming, a true moment of struggle. Al does not like to be brushed, on the contrary Alyssha fall asleep during brushing. Al is obstinate but I am more. To this day, I can say that we are still in an equal situation. It depends on the day, but at least now Al knows she has to be brushed, whatever she is thinking about. After this, we go to the office; she knows there is nothing interesting and the next 4 hours are just snoring. Sometimes, if she is in the shop instead of the office, she wants to greet everyone who enters. I prefer to discourage this behavior because some people may not like dogs and not everyone understands the big ball of fur is still a puppy.  The two hours break around midday is hike time with Zac and Mafalda, my other two dogs. Then, I go back home for a small lunch. Just then, a real play tournament between the two females begins: they play, bite and  chase for at least one hour. Zac is a good old boy and keeps out of the way. Sometimes he joins the other two, but most of the time the old gentleman leaves the girls to play and comes and lies down next to me. It is time to return to the office and relax for the next 4 hours. At exactly 18.30, Al’s inner clock starts to chime and get excited. We have a 1 hour hike spaced out by an obedience training session. The hardest part is to teach three off-leash dogs they have to wait for their turn to be trained. I’m at a good point: now I can work 10-15 meters working with one, while the others wait. You just have to have patience, consistency and calm to be able to achieve this. Then finally … home, sweet home. Dinner and play with the other females.  

At 9 p.m., it is sleep time for a little while.  I can breathe until 11 p.m., when we go out for our last walk. Once we are home again, my two older dogs fall asleep; Al and I still play for another half an hour.

Around midnight I finally go to sleep.

The weekday schedules differ from those of the weekend. The day starts like any other day, but the dogs come alive from the first instance when they see my wetsuit back bag. The older dogs become my shadow  as they want to make sure they are not left behind; the little Al has not yet well understood what is going on and is engaged in greeting its  Shit-zu friends or is interested to the table where my brother is having his breakfast. In any case, I explain to her that it is better if she comes with me and not wait for my brother to wake up. And then we are off. The appointment at the lake is at 10.30 a.m. and then throughout the day we work back and forth between water and land. When we started the training, there were moments in which  Al  suddenly disappeared. The search was short: she was deeply asleep in the luggage van or under a tree. A big difference between Al and Alyssha is that Al did not  tolerate the sun; I had to drag her into shade or into water. She is clearly Nordic. I have gradually increased Al’s endurance, and now she is able to work until 16.30-17.00 when sleep takes her away. Working with three dogs in water is complicated. As my older two dogs have faults when working, I have decided to work singularly with them in order to prevent Al’s imitation. It is tiring but profitable, and in this way Al does not learn the bad habits of the other two, which I personally do not like but cannot remove because of the basic nature of the dogs. We will see how to proceed with the training from now on, since we start our dry-land training and will not go into water till March.

The adventure goes on and the passion encourages going forward because what you feel is most important.  

The multiple and unique feelings of such a relationship  gives sense to work shifts  under the sun, the get up at the crack of dawn and the different responsibilities.  

Remember that everything is a game; everything must be funny both for you and your dog.  

No matter how much hard a rescue and a training are, the drowning person is priceless to you. It should make you proud and give you strength to undertake a heavy training.  

Have fun, enjoy your dog and let the passion carry you, whether you want to achieve a sporty test or a SICS water rescue test. If you stop and say “I want to be the best”, you will find yourself trapped; you may  even change your dog if it does not meet your own expectations. You will lose the whole world of feelings and satisfactions that only a close relationship with a true friend and companion can give.