The dog days of summer have hit Italy hard this year. During my family's beach holiday on the enchanting island of Sardinia, the surprise star was Totò, a pint-size, black-and-white, eight-month-old mixed-breed from Naples whom our friends brought along to a house we shared near the southern town of Pula. Totò named for the famed Neapolitan comedian, not Dorothy's pooch has exactly one trick in his repertoire: misbehaving. He swiped everything from pasta al pesto to a half-pound of butter off the kitchen table, ran around the yard with a neighbor's flip-flop between his teeth, and even left a summer-holiday gift on another neighbor's driveway. My attempts to get him to retrieve a Frisbee failed as soon as he realized it wasn't a pork chop.
And Totò's disobedience seemed downright spiteful when compared to that of some of the other dogs that can be found on Italy's shorelines this summer. In a program run by the National Civil Protection Agency, dozens of Labradors, Newfoundlands and golden retrievers have been trained to act as lifeguards and are now patrolling beaches and lakes around the country to help save people from drowning.
Bruno Piccinelli, head of UCIS, Italy's association of rescue-dog trainers, says the breeds, which are innately strong in the water, are trained from puppyhood until they are at least two years old to make water rescues. Dogs have long been taught to respond to specific types of water accidents and other emergencies as well as to use their keen hearing and sense of smell to assist in search-and-rescue missions canines were used to help find survivors in the rubble of the recent earthquake in L'Aquila, for example. But now some 70 pooches have been authorized to act as Italy's Baywatch, minus the suntan lotion and shades. "Now they are on patrol," says Piccinelli.
Piccinelli, who notes that Scandinavian countries also use rescue dogs in places where lots of people gather near water, describes how the four-legged lifeguards operate: sitting up alongside their human counterparts, the dogs are trained to recognize signs of drowning. When they see someone in trouble, they paddle out to the swimmer, ideally together with their human partners, though they can also go it alone. The distressed swimmer can grab hold of the dog, which will then paddle back to safety with the rescued swimmer in tow, or the dog will drag the person in with its teeth, tugging him ashore by his arm, shirt or bathing suit. "If need be, the dogs are strong enough to pull in three people holding on to each other, or a raft with three people on it," boasts Piccinelli. Asked if these dogs could put two-legged lifeguards out of a job, Piccinelli assures Speedo-clad guardians everywhere that "they are not meant to replace human lifeguards, but to complement them."
There have been reports of this new breed of lifeguards carrying out several rescues already this summer, with local papers proudly chronicling the hairy heroics. Rambo, an 11-month-old Labrador, helped save a drowning 47-year-old bather near the east-coast city of Foggia, while Massi, a Newfoundland, and Labrador Romeo were patrolling the super-chic Amalfi coast aboard a motorized, rubber coast-guard raft when they helped two would-be victims. Other four-legged studs have offered staged demonstrations of water safety for vacationers near Venice.
As for Totò, we brought him down to Sardinia's sandy shore one evening last week, though for once we kept him tight on his leash. He spent the two hours barking and digging a hole, probably in search of something to eat. Sitting under the stars, I began to wonder whether Totò would throw himself into the surf to save someone from drowning. Of course he'd risk it all for a castaway slice of lasagna. Or a flip-flop.