World News

Rescue dogs take the plunge in Italy to save lives

LAKE ISEO, Italy (Reuters Life!) - St Bernards have long saved lives in the snow. Now dogs are being trained in Italy to jump off helicopters and rescue people drowning at sea.

Dog lover Ferruccio Pilenga says his Italian Dog Rescue School, where large Newfoundlands, German shepherds and labradors learn to take the plunge from a helicopter and tow drowning bathers to safety, is the first of its kind.

“Any dog weighing more than 25 kilos is suitable to become a rescue dog, as long as it is docile and likes the water,” Pilenga told Reuters at a training session for around 50 dogs on the shores of Lake Iseo, in northern Italy.

Once they graduate from the school, the dogs and their masters will be able to help patrol Italy’s beaches as volunteers for the Civil Protection Authority. Some dogs can even tow a rubber dinghy with four people aboard, say the trainers.

Gilles Kappler, a butcher who came all the way from Luxembourg to take part in the training, was delighted with his dog Triton’s performance.

“The dog really surprised me, he was very very calm despite the jump in air,” he said. “He was ready to rescue me, it was wonderful.”

Pilenga set up his school in 1989, with the help of some friends. Nearly 20 years on, the academy has 10 branches around Italy.

Most dogs seem to enjoy the experience and “can’t wait to climb on the helicopter”, said Mariangela De Michele, who heads a training centre in the Abruzzo region.

“We don’t force the dogs to jump. If we see signs that they are reluctant, such as keeping the tail between their legs, we go back. It’s important that they don’t have a traumatic experience,” she said.