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The photo below of a Newfoundland dog jumping from a helicopter to rescue a drowning victim is what usually comes to mind when we think of the Italian Dog Rescue School (Scuola Italiana Cani Salvataggio or SICS) but there is so much more to this incredible organization.

The SICS was founded in 1989 by Ferruccio Pilenga after his female Newfoundland, Mas, instinctively saved his daughter and her friend from drowning. From this event evolved the most extensive training for dogs that the world has ever seen.

Any dog weighing at least 66 pounds that is water skilled is eligible for this training but, of course, the majority are Newfoundlands. The training time for the first level certificate, SICS Water Rescue Certificate, is six months to three years depending on the aptitude of dog and handler. Average time is one and a half years and the longest time was five years – must hand it to that handler for hanging in! To put this in perspective, it takes three months to train a seeing eye dog. Also the Water Rescue Certificate has to be renewed annually.

The second level certificate, SICS Operative Water Rescue Certificate, unlike the first level, is not tested in a single day but rather over one or more years. It is this level that includes diving from helicopters and coast guard cutters. This means that a dog is not considered fully certified until at least 18 months of training and it often takes four years or more.

Here in Canada we test our rescue dogs with the victim 50 feet to 75 feet (15 to 23 meters) away; the SCIS uses distances of 110 to 600 meters. In addition one of the tests requires handler and dog to swim together for two kilometers.

Distance is not the only rigour in the tests for these Newfs. The rotor blades of the helicopters and the wake of the ships make for rough sea conditions even if the water is otherwise calm.

While our dogs here in North America dive from the back of a rowboat fitted with a platform, about two feet, the Italian dogs have to be able to dive from a height of two meters (6.5 feet).

An interesting description of these marvellous canines comes from Roberto Gasbarri, the Coordinator of the school programs:

“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.”

Peter Maniate has been writing columns for the Newf News, the magazine of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada, since 1979.  In 1996 he started writing a Newfoundland dog column in the Breedlines section of Dogs in Canada magazine on behalf of the Newfoundland Dog Club of Canada.  When Dogs in Canada ceased publication at the end of 2011 he continued the Breedlines column in the Newf Newfs.

Permission is granted for re-publication of the preceding article or excerpts from it as long as the author is credited and the name of the original publication and date of first publication is included.

Newf News

May/June 2014