Lifeguard dogs patrol Italian beaches
They might not have the sex appeal of Pamela Anderson or David Hasselhoff, but Italy's rescue dogs have nothing to envy the Baywatch stars when it comes to saving swimmers in distress.
This summer around 200 canine lifeguards are helping the Italian Coast Guard, Air Force, Civil Protection Department and Red Cross patrol tourist-packed beaches and lakes.
Among them is Bonnie, a three-year-old Labrador rookie who recently saved a four-year-old child from drowning at the Campania seaside resort of Positano.
Their ranks also include Eva, a 10-year-old Labrador and veteran lifeguard who has saved three human lives during her rescue career.
"The dogs work with a human lifeguard," Roberto Gasbarri, the president of the Tyrrhenian Dog Rescue School (Scuola Cani Salvataggio Tirreno), told ANSA.
The four-legged rescuers pull off their heroics by carrying out life buoys to people in distress, Gasbarri said, and dragging the bathers back to the shore or to the boat they are working from.
Labradors and Newfoundlands are the most commonly used breeds because they are strong swimmers, although Golden Retrievers sometimes make great lifeguards too.
"It takes about three years to train a dog completely," continued Gasbarri, whose centre is based at Velletri near Rome.
"We start with basic rescue training on land and then throw in all the possible distractions imaginable.
"We even use groups of up to 30 dogs together, with males and females mixed, including females in heat.
"The dogs cannot take their mind off the job for anything. Then we go on to dry-run rescues, so the dogs learn to save someone calling for help".
The animals do the training with the handlers they will eventually work with.
The licence to save lives is issued to dog-lifeguard pairs, not to the individual animal.
"A good relationship with the handler is fundamental, especially in the water," said Gasbarri.
"They have to swim together for a long time and bring one person or many people back to safety".
Gasbarri believes the lifeguard dogs are also good PR for the authorities:
"The dogs help create a bond between the public and the Coast Guard. Groups of children and adults gather around them on the beach, which helps the Coast Guard relate to bathers and raise awareness of safety issues".