Imagine this scenario. You go swimming in the ocean and you manage to get yourself several hundred feet away from the shore, only to find out that you’re in trouble and you can’t make it back on your own. If you’re at a beach that is manned by lifeguards, you might be fortunate enough to have one that comes to your rescue. Now imagine that the lifeguard that shows up is not a human, but a canine. This sounds like something that you might experience in a dream, but at one beach in Italy, it is very real, indeed. In fact, a large group of people was recently rescued by canine lifeguards that were working in the area at the time.
The Sperlonga Rescuers
Not even a week ago, three large families were swimming at the Sperlonga beach between Naples in Rome when they got caught up in heavy waves and increasingly harsh winds. They were more than three hundred feet away from the shore and despite their efforts, not one of them could make it back on their own. Fortunately, lifeguards were on duty but perhaps not in the way that you might traditionally think. As it turns out, there is a special program that operates at this particular beach. As luck would have it, Italy has their own rescue dog program, with this particular region being headed up by lifeguard Roberto Gasbarri. That’s right, he trains dogs to act as lifeguards. When he realized that the group was in trouble, he immediately put the dogs into action. They in turn did what they do best, swimming out to the people who were struggling and guiding them back to the shore safely. There were several children in the group, all of them younger than 12 years of age. Fortunately, none of the swimmers who got into trouble suffered any serious complications as a result of those events.
How Does the Program Work?
You might be wondering how a program works with dogs that are trained to be lifeguards. This is a very unique program that is rather unheard-of in many parts of the world. However, in Italy, it is something that has been going on for quite some time. More importantly, it has proven itself to be very successful over the years. In fact, there are roughly 30 different beaches throughout Italy that are patrolled by canine lifeguards. The program currently has about 300 canines that are working at any given time. Each dog that is trained as a lifeguard has a human partner. You might think of it in much the same way that you would think of a K-9 team on a police department where one person has a dog and they work together as a unit. That is exactly how the rescue teams work in Italy. When a human lifeguard sees someone in trouble, they often deploy the dogs because they can swim out to them faster than most human beings are capable of doing. In addition, most swimmers who find themselves in trouble have a tendency to thrash about when a person tries to rescue them. It all comes back to the classic fight or flight response. Someone who is already struggling in the water might feel as though another person is going to drag them down and make the situation even worse. Therefore, they tend to become quite combative. This can be extremely dangerous for both the swimmer and the rescuer. The interesting thing is that when a canine comes out to rescue someone, there is much less of this type of behavior.
The Psychology of It All
It has been proven time and again that people tend to thrash about less when a dog swims out to rescue them. Why do people respond in this manner? Gaining a better understanding of this can go a long way toward helping lifeguards, both human and canine, rescue more people. Remember how people tend to have their fight-or-flight response engaged, often fearing that another person will drag them down into the water as opposed to getting them out of trouble? For some reason, the human mind seems to be hardwired to trust the canine that swims out to them. These specially fitted dogs have a rescue vest that they wear when they swim out to someone who is in trouble. All that individual has to do is grab hold of the vest and allow the dog to swim them back into the shore. In short, the presence of the canine seems to quell the fears that are involved with the idea that a particular person is going to drown. They see the dog coming out to them and instantly feel a sense of calm come over them. This is one of the major benefits of using canine rescuers whenever possible. It’s more efficient, thereby increasing the likelihood that the rescue effort will be successful. It’s also safer for both the individual in trouble and the lifeguard on duty.
For those who have never seen this type of program in action, it can be quite eye-opening to hear that many places in Italy are using dogs as lifeguards. That said, it really shouldn’t come as such a surprise. Dogs can be trained to do almost anything. As such, they serve as police dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs and service dogs for people who have all types of physical and mental challenges. When you consider how many different arenas that a dog can be trained to operate in, this whole story becomes less fantastical. In fact, many people are beginning to ask why these types of programs haven’t been used in other parts of the world as well, especially considering the level of success that Italy has experienced with it. Will other parts of the world take note and start adopting similar programs? Only time will tell. However, it is obvious that Italy has experienced a great deal of success with their program. This leads one to believe that similar programs will be forthcoming in other countries as well.