Belfast Telegraph

She's fluffy, cute, but with the grimmest of jobs. Meet Fern, who finds the victims of drowning

BY LISA SMYTH

With her big brown eyes, playful nature and desire to please, it is easy to see how Fern would be considered man's best friend.

But the six-year-old sprocker – a crossbred springer and cocker spaniel – has a very unique talent that makes her more than just your average dog.

Following two years of intense training, the Co Down-based canine is able to detect the scent of a drowned human body and has so far helped seven grieving families find the remains of their missing loved ones.

Her handler, Neil Powell, said: "It seems very macabre but it is actually a very important job that she does.

"She is the only dog in the whole of the UK and Ireland trained to carry out this work.

"People don't generally like to talk about the work that she does because it isn't very pleasant, but because of Fern we are able to locate the bodies of people who have drowned as quickly as possible and give their families closure."

Neil first met Fern when she was just six months old with an uncertain future.

"Basically, the people who owned her couldn't handle her and she kept running off but it was love at first sight for me," he said.

"It took me two weeks to train her to come back when called but you just need to know how to handle her. She is perfect to search for bodies because she is very energetic and determined, and loves going on boats."

During a search, Fern sits at the edge of the boat with her snout close to the water.

Neil said: "The scent of the body comes up through the surface of the water which is what Fern is looking for and when she picks it up she alerts me by barking. It is then up to me to work out the approximate location of the body taking factors such as tide or the flow of the water into consideration.

"Fern really is very special. She is a very gentle wee soul. She is shy when she meets new people but she's very good. She is lovely and friendly and very driven by what she does. When she isn't working she loves to go for walks and playing with balls."

Fern's endearing nature and especial skill has brought her to the attention of the Dogs Trust and she has been selected as a finalist for the charity's Hero Service Award for her amazing dedication and devotion with her work as a search and rescue drown victim dog.

Clarissa Baldwin, Dogs Trust chief executive and Dogs Trust honours head judge, said: "The stories that demonstrate the many ways in which dogs enrich our lives."

Neil added: "Fern is a very gentle, calm and easy dog to train.

"It isn't the nicest job in the world but Fern seems to enjoy her job. All our work is voluntary and her most recent find was at Christmas time when the person had been missing for three weeks.

"Her work has a tremendous impact on the families of the people she locates and we are delighted she has been shortlisted."

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