Aug. 15, 2007 -- This month, the beaches of Italy show all the usual signs of summer, including bronzed sunbathers, fast boats and lifeguards. But there's something a little different about the rescue workers this year — they're dogs.
Newfoundlands and Labradors are the newest members of the Italian coast guard. They're trained to dive to the rescue from boats, the beach and even hovering helicopters. The pups have saved 70 lives in the past year.
Only the top dogs graduate after two years of rigorous lifeguard training, but it's their natural qualities that serve them best. The flaps of skin between their toes make them strong swimmers, and their thick layers of fat insulate them from cold waters.
Then there's that more familiar trait — their trainer told ABC's Jim Sciutto that it's in the dogs' DNA to retrieve.
The dogs, especially the Labradors, get very excited when they see someone in the water — and that's a good thing. It means they react quickly and without hesitation when someone is in need of rescue.
The four-legged lifeguards are always teamed up with human partners, but it's the dogs who do most of the work. They often pull several people in at once — even boats — to safety.
These rescue dogs are heirs to a centuries-old tradition across Europe, where they've long been loyal companions to fishermen. In France, it is said a Newfoundland once saved Napoleon from drowning.
Today, Italian vacationers meet the dogs with a mix of amusement and comfort.
One mother said that the dogs give her a sense of security, and are more generous than people. Her son added that the rescue dogs truly are man's best friend.
Man's best friend with one distinct advantage — you can trust these lifeguards to have nothing but work on their minds.