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Giving Dorset — Lost and hound

Dorset Search Dogs have been helping to find missing people since 2006 – and they are a completely voluntary, non-profit organisation. Tony Burton-Page met the team.

Charlie, a Border collie, searches a derelict building

Search and rescue is the activity of locating and recovering persons in distress, potential distress or missing and then delivering them to a place of safety. In the UK a comprehensive search and rescue service for those reported in trouble on land, on water or in the air and for those reported missing is provided by such organisations as the police, the fire and rescue services, the coastguards, the ambulance service and the RNLI. But there are always occasions when human searchers are less efficient than those with a strong sense of smell, and it is on such occasions that search dogs come into their own.

Dorset’s miles of glorious coastline and its acres of unspoilt countryside both have the potential to be treacherous in the ease with which they can unknowingly conceal those in difficulty. Hence the foundation of the charity Dorset Search Dogs in February 2006; the need for such an organisation is shown by the fact that they have received more than a hundred callouts since that date, not to mention numerous times when they have been on standby. Lives may not actually been saved in every instance – although several have – but the team has certainly made a huge contribution to hundreds of search and rescue events.

The particular skill of these dogs is air scenting. Most of us are familiar with television images of a conventional police dog pursuing a criminal from the car he has hastily abandoned, but these dogs do not follow the track of a missing person from the last known sighting, nor do they need an article belonging to the missing person. Instead they pick up on any human scent within their designated search area and trace the scent to its source – rather like following smoke to find the bonfire, but, for a dog, much easier, since its sense of smell is about forty times stronger than a human’s. Some of the Dorset Search Dogs can detect human scent from 500 to 800 yards away. Once a dog has located the human source, it runs straight back to its handler and indicates that a find has been made by barking continuously. The reward for all this effort? A squeaky ball to play with.

Air scenting dogs come in two categories: hasty dogs and area dogs. A hasty dog will follow a path and rapidly (hence the name) check ten yards either side of this track, without being deterred by difficulty of terrain or lack of visibility. A search of this type can cover a large distance on a well-defined, commonly used track with surprising speed and startling efficiency. By contrast, an area dog searches a specific area. 50 to 80 acres (20 to 30 hectares) can be searched with a very high probability of detection in anything from an hour to an hour and a half, depending on the type of terrain and on the weather conditions. This is considerably quicker than a line search by a team of six humans walking backwards and forwards over the same area.

Molly, a ‘springador’ (labrador/springer spaniel cross), investigates under beach huts while Rob Kelly, her handler, looks on

These dogs have astonishing staying power. Andy Edwards has been with the team for more than two years and says that his labrador, Charlie, never runs out of energy – unlike his owner. They are capable of working for two hours or more at a time before being rested – and, given that ‘dog time’ supposedly flows past at roughly seven times the human speed, that means fourteen dog-hours. How ironic that we humans use the phrase ‘dog tired’ to describe ourselves when exhausted!

The search strategy works like this. Once the team knows the area they have to search, they make sure it is as clear as possible of humans. Naturally, some human presence is inevitable – there is the dog handler and one operational support person, and they have to know where the nearest foot-based search teams are so that they can try to avoid having the dog consistently indicating on these human scents. The next step is to find out any known hazards in the area for dogs or humans; then a special harness is put over the dog, and as soon as that is done the dog knows that it is in ‘work mode’. The harness has a bell and lights so that the handler can hear and see it in the dark. From now on, it is up to the dog and its nose.

Dorset Search Dogs was founded in February 2006 by Matt Cooke. While studying for his degree in International Disaster Engineering and Management, he went on a field skills survival module and witnessed at first hand the value of search dog teams. Part of the exercise was to find a missing person somewhere within a huge mountainous area, but he was running out of time. Knowing that one of his assessors had a search dog with him, he invited it along for a ride and ‘walkies’: Matt passed that element of the course with flying colours. The experience inspired him to join Dorset Search and Rescue, with the ultimate aim of creating a search dog team based in Dorset. He started training his Border collie, also called Charlie, at fourteen weeks old, starting off with simple games that any puppy would enjoy – find the smelly socks, for example – and graduating to more complex search tasks. Charlie is now a level 3 qualified area search dog – which means, in layman’s terms, that he is at the top of his profession. One of his proudest moments was when he found a 77-year-old lady who, injured and unable to move, was suffering from hypothermia after ten hours in the freezing cold.

Matt has been gradually expanding his team and there are now five handlers, two operational supports and one non-operational support. At present they have two operational dogs with another three in training and awaiting assessment. Training can take from twelve to eighteen months and involves two sessions a week, come rain or shine, which shows phenomenal dedication on the part of the owner, not to mention those who volunteer to hide, sometimes in thoroughly uncomfortable places, in order to provide the dogs a scent to search for.

All this is voluntary work, and their 24/7 availability has to fit in with the team’s full-time occupations: one is a coastguard, another is a fire-fighter, two are police officers and there is one teacher. Dorset Search Dogs relies entirely on donations from members of the public and local companies to survive. There are some who can testify that they owe their lives to this organisation – and can vouch for the truth of the phrase ‘man’s best friend’.

Jenny, a collie/springer cross, gets to play with her squeaky toy after returning in triumph from her search

Dorset Search Dogs is a non-profit, voluntary organisation
Donations can be made via their website, www.dorsetsearchdogs.org.uk
Email: info@dorsetsearchdogs.org.uk

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