As the story goes, an ancient sailing boat crewed by 150 sailors was in an epic storm, every drenched man feverishly pulling ropes and unfolding sails to stay afloat. A huge wave crashed on to the deck, and to the horror of the crewmen, one of their own was washed overboard. The feeling of helplessness and doom was overwhelming. Suddenly, a black shape leapt into the freezing water and huge waves, and caught the man before he was pulled under. The hero who had saved his life had four paws and a tail, and he answered to the name of his land of origin “Terranova” – or Newfoundland.
It was this romantic legend that fueled an idea in the mind of Ferruccio Pilenga in the 1980s: To start a school in which dog and man would be trained for water rescue. The dream became a reality in 1989, and today, the Scuola Italiana Cani Salvataggio, or Italian School of Rescue Dogs, is the largest national organization dedicated to the training of dogs and their handlers for water rescue. It has trained hundreds of rescue dogs in ten different schools around Italy with at least thirty trainers who work forty-eight weeks a year, and collaborates closely with Italian Heli-Rescue Teams: Air Rescue, Air Force, Police, Customs, Firemen and Civil Defense. As of 2012, the Italian Coast Guard says it had rescued about 3,000 people every year, with their canine helpers credited with saving several lives.
The first dog trained was “Mas,” a Newfoundland, who with Pilenga, became the first team ever to use a helicopter for water rescue. Mas also became the only dog in Italy with a SICS Operative Water Rescue Certificate recognized by Switzerland, France and Italy Port Authorities and Coast Guards. In 2013, “Mas” was twelve years old, but in her day, she helped train other dogs. With her encouragement “trainees” overcame hesitation about jumping into water from a helicopter, and she would demonstrate how to swim circles around a distressed swimmer until the victim calmed down enough to grab the harness on her back. If the swimmer was unconscious, “Mas” gently pulled them by their hand or wrist to the shore, or to her human counterpart.
The dogs have three years of training before they are allowed to make a jump, and after that, are subject to annual reviews, before receiving recertification which lasts for one year.
Meet “Mas,” the dog who started it all:
We applaud the Newfoundland Club of America for encouraging the working instincts in their very special breed by offering NCA-Titled Working Activities including water work. In 1973, the Newfoundland Club of America sanctioned its first official rescue test in Michigan. By observing their dogs’ natural instincts, rules have changed over time, but the original concept of remains intact. Kudos!