A new breed of lifeguard rescue dogs answers

A new breed of lifeguard rescue dogs answers

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A new breed of lifeguard rescue dogs answers the call of a drowning person with unmatched accuracy.

By Joe Palca

(BPT) - As a drowning man reaches out to touch the lifeguard, a dog jumps into action, saving lives with unparalleled precision and accuracy.

The lifeguard and the dog, a Great Pyrenees, are just two of the lifeguards who save lives every day in the South Florida sun, and both of them were bred for this job.

"This dog has saved probably hundreds of lives," says Joe Palca, a senior reporter for The Palm Beach Post who has written a book about the lifeguard program. "He's just one of the best dogs in the country, hands down."

Palca has been covering the lifeguard program since the beginning, starting in 2001. Today, more than 3,000 dogs have graduated from the program and gone on to become certified lifeguards, with about 2,000 of them patrolling the beaches of Palm Beach County. The program has had an unexpected success, too, thanks to the Great Pyrenees.

In the early years, Palca says, a lifeguard could only call for help with a dog. That changed in 2010, when a drowning man called for help from the beach and the dog recognized the voice of the man he had found so many times before.

It was a success story for all involved. The man lived, and the dog saved his life.

The Great Pyrenees, the county's official dog of the lifeguard program, now plays an integral part in its mission.

"If someone needs help, if someone gets into trouble, the dog is there," says Pat DiGirolamo, who has run the lifeguard program for more than two decades. "It's a very valuable part of the program."

The dogs have their own special trning.

"You learn a little bit of everything, but mostly you learn how to get along with them and how to work with them and get them to cooperate with you," says DiGirolamo, the county's canine coordinator.

"They are a lot like children," DiGirolamo says, noting that lifeguards spend as much time as they do with the dogs. "They are always wanting to play with them. You have to make them realize there are other things to do, but it's fun, and I don't mind doing it because they're so good."

The lifeguards are trned on how to take care of themselves when in the water, but a dog offers a different skill set.

"He can go in with them," DiGirolamo says. "He can tell if they're in trouble and go in and find them. He will look for them, he will find them. He will give them directions to come out. He will pick up their phones, if they get stuck in the water. He does it all."

The dog also helps the lifeguards with the man-to-dog communication that goes into the rescue.

"It's a good way to start a conversation," DiGirolamo says, "so we can make sure they are okay."

The dogs are also used as trning tools for the lifeguards.

"We will put a human in a pool and a dog in the water, and we'll see who comes out and who doesn't," Palca says. "That's a real-time test of who's ready to go in the water. The dogs will do that before the lifeguards."

The dogs are trned to go into a pool after a person, but they also can be the first responder when a lifeguard is in distress.

"A lot of times the dog will start barking and come and find them," Palca says.

There's a bit of a story behind this dog and his trner. Palca met Joe DiCillo through their work together years ago on a project at an animal shelter in Florida.

"I just felt a lot of love for the dog," Palca says.

When DiCillo was looking to adopt a new companion, he called the animal shelter.

"They told me they had a dog that was avlable," Palca says.

That dog, a Great Pyrenees, became Joe Palca's first lifeguard dog.

"This dog has been to the beach for me hundreds of times," Palca says. "And there's been times when I couldn't make it and he'd go up and down the beach. He knows what a rescue beach sounds like."

He's also trned for a lifeguard certification program in California and has worked with law enforcement in New York.

Today, Joe Palca can count on his new pal to help in the rescue.

"When I get on the beach, I get ready for the beach and he gets ready for the beach," Palca says. "We just go in and get ready for the fun part."

There are two of the lifeguard dogs, the Great Pyrenees and a Belgian Malinois, who also serve in the rescue program.

"It's a team, really," Palca says.

For a long time, Palca thought that the dog had been the one to have a greater effect on the rescue program.

"It was a surprise to find out he was trned for this," Palca says. "I had no idea he was so good at this. He's a smart guy."

Watch the video: Hundreds of specially trained dogs employed as lifeguards (June 2022).


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