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The incredible skills of Northern Ireland's search and rescue dogs

Finding the bodies of victims of the Lockerbie bombing, searching earthquake shattered buildings and saving those lost on mountains... the remarkable work done by NI rescue dogs

Raph O’Connor with Floss
Raph O’Connor with Floss
Neil Powell with Pepper
Ryan Patton with Axel

By Linda Stewart

Rescue dogs Floss and Axel from SARDA IN have just completed a Mountain Search Dog qualification following a gruelling two-day assessment in the Mournes. Linda Stewart talks with Raph O’Connor, the owner of Floss, and SARDA IN founder Neil Powell about life with their canine heroes.

‘Floss is the only UK dog trained in three disciplines’

Raph O'Connor (46) is married to Clair and lives in Newcastle, Co Down. He is a residential services manager at Daisy Lodge Cancer fund for children. He admits he first became involved with SARDA IN (Search and Rescue Dog Association Ireland North when he was going out with founder Neil Powell's daughter Clair.

"Twenty years ago when I was courting Clair, I would come down to Newcastle and Neil would ask me to come to a thing called Dogsbody," he says.

"It's when people in the organisation go out and are put into locations in the mountains and the dog handlers would be asked to go and find us. Essentially, the dog is finding a live body, but you're in a fixed position in a bivvy bag, so the scent is carried on the wind. That's how it started."

Over the years, Raph has trained up a number of dogs, including mountain rescue dog Missy, collapsed structure dog Jay and now Floss.

"I've always loved dogs and I always had border collies," he says.

"Sarda is one of the few rescue associations across the UK and Ireland that train their dogs in a number of disciplines.

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"Most associations do mountain search or lowland, but we do a number of disciplines and it's purely down to Neil, who is a founding member."

Not only do the dogs carry out searches for missing people in lowland areas, but some are specially trained to find people in collapsed structures and may be deployed as part of the UK's efforts to assist with earthquake recovery abroad.

The dogs and handlers also work closely with fire fighters at Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Services, forming a key part of the Urban Search and Rescue Team. They are able to locate a person much more quickly than the firefighters' technical solutions.

"If a building collapsed, the dogs would search the collapsed structure very quickly and that would cut down the man hours and the resources that they would need to deploy to do an effective search," Raph says.

"We can put dogs in the building to carry out a search within minutes and they will be able to tell you if there is a person in it. Then they will stay with them casually, even if they are trapped behind 8ft to 10ft of rubble."

Floss is a three-year-old collie who is now trained in mountain, lowland and collapsed structure search. Raph says she blitzed her mountain search assessment earlier this month.

"She's the only dog that we know of across the UK and Ireland that is trained in three separate search disciplines. She's an excellent dog," he says.

"She's highly motivated, she doesn't have an off switch and she will do anything for a ball. That is her reward when she finds - she gets the ball and she gets to play. There's nothing altruistic about this - it's just for a ball!

"Last year we trained quite a bit in the mountains anyway in our bread and butter training areas. Neil said Floss was good enough to go forward for her mountain search assessment, to keep training her and see how she goes. I knew she would get it.

"She was assessed over two days and it took six two-hour searches on steep rocky terrain. If you miss the body it would be a fail. So the dog and handler have to be extremely fit and have lots of endurance, walking up and down steep gradients."

To make a good search dog, an animal has to have a huge prey drive and a good play drive, Raph says.

"You need to have a dog that is wired to the moon and would do anything for a ball," he says. "Once they have that and they are focused on the ball, you start the basic search sequence. The person runs out with the ball, the dog runs after it and gets a reward. You build this up into the wind, so the dog learns to search into the wind."

Once the dog finds the person, they have to give a bark notification, then run back to the handler and give another bark notification, then return to the body to give another bark notification and repeat until the handler arrives.

"The reason is partly down to the fact that you're often in a mountain area where there may be fog and mists and rain. When the dog finds the casualty they could be 500 metres away so this is to bring me in to the casualty. In that kind of terrain with fog and mist you wouldn't know where Floss is because she walks so far ahead of me."

At only three years old, Floss has already carried out searches for people who have gone missing, including those who may be potentially suicidal.

"She has done four or five live searches. In most searches her task is to search that area and rule that area out," says Raph.

Because she is also a collapsed structure search dog, she is part of the UK response team for earthquakes worldwide and has been vaccinated against rabies.

Before Floss's time, Raph says he and Neil were tasked to Heathrow Fire Station as part of the mobilisation following the September 11 attacks. They were part of the team that had been tasked to go abroad, but were not deployed in the end.

"That's the nearest to a very significant and large-scale disaster I've been. Most of our work is local and will involve helping police and Coastguard and Community Rescue Service," he says.

"We've worked out that it takes 3,000 hours to train a dog to the mountain search standards. That is how much dedication and commitment is required by the handler.

"My dog lives at home in the kitchen in front of the fire, but we have to put all that training and time into the dog to keep her to that standard.

"It's a big commitment and we don't get paid for it."

What the organisation does

The Search And Rescue Dog Association Ireland North (SARDA IN) provides qualified search dogs which are trained to search for persons missing in mountainous terrain, lowland areas and collapsed structures, both locally and internationally.

The group also provides a drowned victim search dog to locate people missing in rivers, lakes and the sea.

SARDA IN was founded in 1979. It assists other teams in search operations including the PSNI, MMRT, NWMRT, MCA and the NIFRS.

It is the only voluntary search and rescue dog team in Northern Ireland that is independently assessed by a national body and recognised by the Department of Justice and the PSNI.

SARDA IN now has two mountain search dogs, two lowland search dogs, two collapsed structure search dogs and one drowned victim search dog.

'I was there for five days - it was traumatic'

SARDA IN founder Neil Powell, from Newcastle, worked as a teacher at St Mark's School in Warrenpoint for many years, but is now retired. He wrote Search Dogs and Me, published by Blackstaff Press, and is doing a PhD at Queen's University Belfast, studying how some family dogs are apparently able to predict the onset of a seizure.

Neil came up with the idea of training rescue dogs years ago when he joined the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team.

"Because I was going around searching for missing people in the mountains at night, one night I thought I think I'll train our dogs to do this. I'd never heard of this, but I thought it might work," he says.

"The police at the time helped me with the basics in dog training and I was working with Joe Boyd, who was the national police dog champion for two years in a row. He instructed me every Saturday for a year."

Neil did some work with Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team in Scotland and joined Sarda in Scotland where he earned his dog training qualification during a two-day test in the Cairngorms.

"My German Shepherd Kim passed the exams and became the first dog in Ireland to be trained as a search and rescue dog," he says.

"Having been to Switzerland, I had seen avalanche dogs working there and I decided you could adapt that approach to the UK - I've been doing it ever since."

One of the earliest - and most horrific - large scale disasters that Neil helped with was the Lockerbie disaster.

"I ended up at Lockerbie for five days - it was traumatic. We were rescuing what we could find of the people. That was a shock - I had never seen anything like that in my life," he says.

Neil says he was feeling squeamish about the task ahead on the way over and found himself praying that he would be able to cope.

"I did suffer PTSD, but it didn't happen until weeks later. All of a sudden, you think you're going out of your head, because everything seems hopeless. People ask what it's like and you can't tell them," he says.

"I ended up at Queen's doing a Masters in counselling and guidance, specialising in PTSD, so that helped me to help other fellas who were in the same boat.

"I was involved with four earthquakes around the world and the experience of Lockerbie really helped me with that."

Over the years, Neil trained three dogs - Dylan, Cracker and Charcoal - to take part in earthquake searches and all three won awards. Dylan and Cracker won the PDSA Gold Medal.

"They were brilliant old fellows," Neil says. "There were two big earthquakes in Turkey, one in Algeria and one in Kashmir, and it was the worst because the victims were all children from a secondary school.

"With me being a teacher, that was very difficult."

Neil took the dogs to the scene of the quakes as part of the Overseas Emergency Rescue Team, tasked by the Department of International Development.

"We were searching for people who were buried in the rubble," he says.

"There is a 24-hour rolling window and, beyond that, the chances of finding anyone alive are very slim.

"Dylan was able to find a man who was alive and we were talking to him through an interpreter. We were waiting for machinery to come and lift him out, but sadly there was a huge aftershock and the man was killed."

When he became too old for the rigours of mountain rescue, Neil switched to training dogs for people with disabilities.

"I'm now back at Queen's and I'm doing a PhD looking at how pet family dogs appear to anticipate epileptic seizures in their owners - there's a lot of evidence to suggest this is happening," he explains.

He now has six dogs, including a black and tan American coonhound which is being trained to trail.

"He will be able to follow a person's scent for 35 hours of them going missing," he says.

Neil also has fond memories of his long-departed bloodhound cross Paddy, who found eight missing people in his day.

"He had been badly abused when I got him - he'd been given an awful life. I got him at 14 months and he was very aggressive, but he ended up one of the most gentle, lovable fellas you could meet," he says.

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