DEL Mar — Call them paws with a cause.
Two local therapy canines spent a week working with trainers from the Italian School of Rescue Dogs. The sessions culminated with two public demonstrations March 29.
Simone Galbiati and Valentina Pilenga traveled from Milan to share their techniques with surf dog Ricochet, her protégé Cori, their owner Judy Fridono and instructor Jodi Powell from Special Fishies, a swim school focused on teaching special needs kids to be comfortable in the water.
About 350 trained rescue dogs — sometimes jumping from boats or hovering helicopters — are used by lifeguards and the Italian Coast Guard to help swimmers in need at beaches in that county.
Galbiati and Pilenga came to Del Mar to help improve local canine-assisted swimming programs in an effort to reduce drowning deaths among youngsters, especially those with special needs.
Drowning, although preventable, is among the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, and the third leading cause of death in children 19 and younger. The danger is much higher for children with special needs. Drowning is the leading cause of death for kids with autism.
Those statistics prompted Fridono to reach out to the Italians.
“We’re doing something that hasn’t been done before,” Fridono said. “We hope to share this knowledge down the line.”
“It was an amazing opportunity to work with these two incredible people,” Powell said. “They taught me how to use Cori’s gift and my knowledge of working with special needs kids to lower that drowning rate, which is everything to us.”
In a noontime demonstration in front of the main Del Mar lifeguard station on 17th Street, the Italian trainers surfed with Ricochet and practiced a water rescue with Cori.
That evening the dogs were on hand in front of L’Auberge Del Mar, which hosted Galbiati and Pilenga during their stay, for a meet-and-greet with area residents and their dogs.
They fitted Cori with a specially designed floating harness, which youngsters can grasp either during a rescue or while learning to swim. Powell said it can be particularly helpful when teaching her students to float on their backs.
The Italian trainers, who gifted the women with a harness, also dressed Cori in another device used to lower dogs from helicopters. The harnesses are made in different sizes to fit the variety of different breeds used, Pilenga said.
Canines — mostly Newfoundlands, Labradors and retrievers — must have received all required vaccinations and weigh at least 55 pounds before they are allowed to enter the Italian program.
Pilenga said they do not breed animals for use. The dogs are usually donated. It takes about two years to train a canine before it can be put into service, she added.
County Supervisor Kristen Gaspar recognized Fridono and Powell for their work.
“Through your efforts, you are enriching the lives and well-being of kids with special needs, people with disabilities, wounded warriors and veterans with (post-traumatic stress disorder),” said Corrine Busta, a representative from Gaspar’s office who presented the women with a certificate of appreciation.
“Through canine-assisted surfing, paddling, swimming, playing and therapy, you provide participants the healing power of the ocean and the healing power of dogs,” Busta added.
Ricochet surfs with special needs youngsters, people with disabilities, wounded warriors and veterans with PTSD to reduce anxiety. Her supporters helped raise money to fund the trip for Galbiati and Pilenga.
Although Cori has a natural instinct to immediately respond to activity in the water, she is being formally trained to perform water rescues, according to Fridono’s website.
Her main area of focus is canine-assisted swimming, coupled with canine–assisted playing for kids with autism, special needs, a fear of water or other challenges.
Powell, who said Cori can swim with a kickboard and blow bubbles in the water, is bridging the gap for her students.
“By the third lesson, many of them don’t need Cori, but she’s fun to have around,” said Powell, who partnered with Fridono about nine months ago.