You should all know by now that I’m a big supporter of Hampshire Search & Rescue Dogs – an amazing team of volunteers who give up masses of their own time to train their dogs to sniff out vulnerable missing people.
I was a trainee search dog with the team for quite some time but mum’s shift work meant we had to pack it in. You can read about that in this post from October 2017.
Mum is still active with the team and is currently the Chair and callout co-ordinator.
Anyway, we thought it was about time we introduced you to the current team dogs, both operational and trainee.
Grab a cuppa and settle down – it’s another long one!
A bit of background: we are called out by the police to search for vulnerable missing people, such as those with dementia or mental health problems. We are not used to track criminals in hiding – this is definitely a job for police dogs – or to search for people that the police believe are already deceased.
A search dog team comprises the dog, its handler and one or two supports. The handler focuses on working the dog, while the support(s) carry out all communications with control, navigation, dynamic risk assessments and any first aid that might be required.
Our dogs are trained to be non-specific air-scenting search dogs. This means they don’t need a scent article to track a specific scent – so there is no need for them to sniff an item of the missing person’s clothing before setting off on their search.
They pick up on any human scent in the air, and then work the ‘scent cone’ to zone in on the missing individual. Obviously this can mean they could indicate on Joe or Joanna Public if they’re out for a stroll, but as we are often called out in the middle of the night it’s likely that most folk will be tucked up safely in bed. Once they locate someone, they will return to their handlers and alert – typically a bark, sit or jump. My alert was – naturally – jumping up at mum (and covering her with mud, usually).
Training is all about positive reinforcement – to the dogs, finding people with their noses is one big game. They’re rewarded with lots of fun and play with a specific toy that they only play with during training or on live searches. This helps make the toy of high value to the dog.
HSAR Dogs falls under the umbrella organisation Lowland Rescue (similar to Mountain Rescue but on the flatter bits). All humans on the team are nationally assessed to a minimum standard of Search Technician.
As you can probably tell, we are a volunteer team with a professional attitude.
We always tell would-be newbie dog handlers that we’re an operational team, not a dog-training team. If someone just wants a fun activity for their dogs at the weekend then maybe flyball or agility or obedience is what they should be looking at.
It’s a huge commitment in terms of training and everyone mucks in – all the humans take their turn at hiding in woodland (in all weathers) for dogs to find them. Egos are left at home.
There are three ‘levels’ of dog within the team:
- Level 1 – trainee dogs, who do not attend operational callouts
- Level 2 – operational ‘hasty’ dogs who have passed a national assessment to find a number of mispers along a 2km path within one hour
- Level 3 – operational ‘area’ dogs who have passed a national assessment to find a number of mispers within a 50 acre area within 90 minutes.
One final thing to note – these are all pet dogs, living with their handlers and families. If you saw them out on a walk you’d have no idea just how special they are.
Without further ado, here are the amazing dogs on the team. All our operational dogs have found at least one missing person on a live search, and most have had multiple finds.
Operational dogs – all Level 3
Search Dog Zak
Zak is a 10 year old border collie. He has been operational since he was around 12 months old, so he’s given 90% of his life so far to search and rescue! How brilliant is that?!
Zak’s alert is a sit, and his handler/dad is Kev Saunders.
Over to Kev for details of his most memorable search: “From chasing couples around woodland as they keep relocating into new areas as we find them, to being picked up on ‘blues’ to get to jobs quicker, to a day long cruise with the marine unit.
“Or finding a suitcase full of porn in a church yard and explaining to the vicar what was there!
“Zak has worked in the sun, rain and snow. He has shared my stress on so many searches.
“One night we were called out to a teenager that had dialled 999 to say she had been attacked and left at Royal Victoria Country Park. Resources were called in from everywhere as the weather was terrible.
“We arrived as first of our team dogs on scene and the police pulled their dogs off so that Zak could work. The rain was driving in hard at a 45 degree angle, at times so hard Zak took cover under trees.
“We went from complete darkness to daylight and back to darkness as the coastguard helicopter passed overhead but only just clearing the top of the trees. For hours we searched until we were spent. And soaked. The rain had come in through cuffs of jackets and collars to drench me and my support.
“It was all a big hoax in the end.”
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Search Dog Kai
Kai is also a border collie, and is seven years old. He’s quite a character and there are definite similarities between the two of us!
Kai’s alert is a bark, and his handler/mum is Pam Stokes.
Here’s Pam with details of Kai’s most memorable search, which took place in January this year: “Me and Kai, armed with crucial supports Steve and Dave, set off on an area very close to the RV. It had a small wooded area, along with a large open area.
“It made sense to start in the wooded area, but we couldn’t seem to find a way in much to my frustration. So we had to take it the other way and started on the open area. Oh my days, wet swampland 😫!
“Two hard hours, and having to divert for a long way out of the area to get back into it, took its toll. That, and Kai interested in a couple of carrier bags along the way which we knew the missing person was last seen with, gave us a few interesting spots!
“Finally we reached the area I wanted to start in. Kai being the trooper he is covered it well and quickly, even though he was tiring, which we were all thankful for as the daylight had gone finally.
“We were covering off one of the last two corners and Kai was throwing himself into thick gorse. He came out and made a very high pitched woof like I’ve never heard and then was straight back in. I honestly thought he’d lost the plot and may have injured himself.
“But deep breath, and in I went keeping as low as possible, another bark, and a bit further along, I saw a person laid down on the floor about five metres in from the path. I was hoping it was our chap 😁.
“I called in Steve, and moved Kai and myself out of the gorse so that Kai could get his reward and praise for locating someone. I was so proud of him, even more so when it was confirmed it was our missing gent, and best of all he was talking and seemed fit and well.
“Help was called for and received for the gent. That’s when I realised that there was a path into this area – a lovely constructed, well maintained one.
“Had we located it at the start we would have found him in 20 minutes rather than three hours! Live and learn! Thankfully, a life saved…my super search dog Kai.”
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Search Dog Oppo
Oppo is an English working springer spaniel, and is seven years old. He’s a typical springer – likes mud and there’s no ‘off’ switch.
Oppo’s alert is a sit, and his handler/dad is Bug Wrightson.
Bug says: “As searches are all so different and varied, they can be memorable for different reasons. Perhaps because of the date: Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, Christmas Eve – searching a Christmas tree farm! – done all of those.
“They could be memorable because of the terrain; open areas of the New Forest, the ‘mountains’ of the North Downs in Surrey, bog snorkelling in water meadows (real springer spaniel terrain), or the cliffs and tunnels of the quarries on Portland.
“Possibly memorable for the time on task – three separate searches totalling seven hours, searching all through the night – or the drive from/to home. They can also be memorable for the odd funny incident – we won’t mention the duckling on Portsmouth golf course!
“For me though, the most memorable search has to be Oppo’s first operational find but not just because it was his first. We got the callout on my wedding anniversary but that was a distant memory by the time Oppo found the missing gentleman at 0345.
“Another factor was that the missing person was actually outside the area we’d been tasked to search but Oppo obviously wasn’t listening during the Search Manager’s brief and hadn’t read the map.
“That one moment proves that all the training, commitment, and stress of assessments are worthwhile as another missing person was returned to their family and loved ones.”
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Search Dog Milo
Milo is a nine year old male red (brown) border collie. He has been a search dog for seven years, having an amazing six finds over his career.
Milo’s alert is a bark, and his handler/dad is Joe Earley.
Here’s Joe with a spooky tale of his most memorable search: “Milo is a very successful and talented search dog – he loves to work and find, and I love to handle him. Watching a dog do something they love and do it well is amazing.
“The team were called to assist out of county with a search for a missing male. We attended and were tasked to search the grounds of a modern retreat/monastery.
“The male had been missing some time and police were concerned about his health as he hadn’t eaten for days. The search took place during a cool autumn night. Skies were clear with full moon, enough light to see things but not to work out what they were.
“I was searching with Milo, supported by Soraya and Ian. Our area contained a very large lake with a waterfall and river. While searching we came across what we thought was an opening in the woods and proceeded to walk into it without too much thought.
“Next thing I know, Soraya, who has the map, shouts at me to stop. As I turn around and put my foot down I suddenly realise why she shouted – I was inches away from falling into a very flat but deep lake!
“The lake was so still and so calm that unless you saw the moon reflecting you would have never have known it was water.
“After quick back-stepping, we consulted the map and decided to go around. We passed a lovely waterfall and small stream running away from the lake. Also in the area we were searching were some small lodges/huts which we didn’t know about.
“As we searched around the end of the lake, Milo came back to alert. However his alert didn’t seem as strong as usual nor did he seem very sure of himself. Anyway, we followed it up and I give him the ‘Show me!’ command.
“Soraya, Ian and myself followed Milo through this woodland until we came across a small hut. Milo approached slowly and sheepishly, and started to sniff around the small door. Inside the hut we could see a faint glow from a flickering candle.
“We went around the perimeter to check for any other doors or windows. On returning to the front of the hut the door had opened, and there stood a woman in traditional Buddhist dress with a shaved head.
“Milo had backed off at this point, sensing that something was amiss. I introduced myself and explained who we were, and who were were searching for. The Buddhist stood there, completely silent and completely still.
“As a waited for a reply she looked deeply at me, probably wondering why Milo had bells and lights all over him. I re-explained our presence and said that we would leave her to her to whatever she was doing.
“As we walked away she stood there watching us. It was a very creepy search area anyway and this put us even more on edge.
“Before we restarted our search a call came over the radio saying that the missing male had been found and we were to return to the RVP.
“When we got there we informed Control what we had come across, only for them to tell us that the site should have been empty and that none of the huts were occupied!”
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Milo is currently non-operational but we’re sure he’ll be back to operational status before long.
Trainee dogs – all Level 1
Trainee Search Dog Rusty
Rusty is Kev’s other dog – as Kev is an operational L3 handler, Rusty can bypass his L2 assessment and go straight to L3. He’s another border collie and 18 months old.
He’s currently searching small areas and working on his alert.
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Trainee Search Dog Bella
Bella is three years old and a Labrador/springer cross. She is currently doing unseen ‘runaways’ in training – someone will hide just off the track for her but she won’t have seen them ‘runaway’ and hide. This teaches her to use her nose rather than her eyes.
Bella’s handler/dad is Mike Donnelly.
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Trainee Search Dog Bentley
Bentley is a seven-year-old working cocker spaniel. He’s also super-energetic. Bentley is working towards L2 assessment this year – we can’t wait to see him operational.
Bentley’s handler/dad is Nick Wright.
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Trainee Search Dog Milo
Another Milo but this one is a spaniel aged three. He’s currently working on his alert.
Interesting fact – when I gave up training, my search harness went to Milo and mum also gave him my four Kong Wubba reward toys as I no longer needed them.
Milo’s handler/dad is Andy Milner.
Follow Milo on Twitter