TIME: 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.