While there have been numerous reports of dogs rescuing humans on their own accord, it wasn’t until recently that canine water rescue training became organized – and highly specialized. Today’s water rescue K9s can rescue even a very large unconscious man from moderate currents. However, they are also being trained to work jointly with human rescuers such as lifeguards, to tow small water craft and to bring buoys, ropes, rings or other equipment either to shore or to a boat or person from shore.

Certain dog breeds have dispositions and physical characteristics that are consistent with water rescue needs. This includes breeds that are enthusiastic in the water, have webbed toes, powerful chests, and multi-layered coats. Dogs that are able to withstand extremely cold temperatures are often best for this job. Accordingly the most common water rescue dog breeds are Newfoundland, Labrador retriever and Golden Retriever.

Training for canine water rescue takes advantage of a dog’s natural drive to retrieve. By encouraging the behavior and progressively modifying the retrieval items, methods and tracks (paths), most dogs that perform this job are really more at play than working. This means that water rescue dogs must have a great deal of energy and enthusiasm for water activities.

In most cases a water rescue dog will work in tandem with a handler or trainer who is also a water rescue specialist. The handler can opt to allow the dog to perform the rescue on its own, or the handler can work with the dog to share the physical fatigue of rescuing a heavy person, multiple persons, or performing a rescue that requires a lot of time in the water.

In order to obtain certification at an advanced level, a water rescue dog must be adept at launching from a boat or from shore on command, and in many cases without the issuance of any directive at all, relying solely on its own intuition. Some dogs are also trained to launch from helicopters. Once launched the dogs must either carry some type of aid to the victim, or the dog must physically tow the target to safety on its own.

Exceptional water rescue K9s are trained to identify a distressed swimmer among a group of people in the water and bring aid to them. Certification at this level also includes the ability to rescue three individuals in one session, either two at once or all individually. In many cases the dog must also be able to rescue victims that are partially or entirely submerged.

Canine water rescue training usually requires three years of intense work. Certification and training information can be obtained from Rescue International.