Co Down man Neil Powell bids farewell to wonder dog that saved lives worldwide
It's the remarkable tale of one Ulster man and his dog. But not just any dog. Charco saved lives across the globe, sniffing them out from under the rubble of both man-made and natural disasters.
However, after a long, proud career, Co Down man Neil Powell has said he was heartbroken to say goodbye to the dog he trained from eight weeks old.
Charco was put down at the weekend after suffering eight strokes in the last six months which had left him extremely ill.
During his career the black Labrador helped find a 14-year-old girl after a massive earthquake in the Bourmerdes area of northern Algeria in 2003, and saved the life of a 19-year-old man, Tariq, buried deep in rubble in the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, Pakistan.
He also worked across the UK including sniffing for explosives at major venues such as Lords, the O2 arena and Canary Wharf.
Charco enjoyed a peaceful retirement at home with his beloved owner in Newcastle, Co Down, before falling ill in the last few months at the age of 15.
Neil said he knew Charco was special from the moment he got him as an eight-week-old pup.
"I'd been away at another earthquake in Turkey. A well-known breeder in Glenavy called Brendan Mack saw it on TV and offered me the pick of a litter," he said. "Charco came from a whole line of champions, so he was a really well-bred dog.
"One of my daughters picked him, he just had this quality; all the pups were lovely, but he was extra special. He was such a clever dog; so clever I was able to train him so that when he found someone buried under rubble he would bark and bark until I arrived. But when he was searching for explosives he would point with his nose and not move a muscle."
Neil has been volunteering with his sniffer dogs for around 40 years and for most of his life fitted this important work around his nine-to-five job as a science teacher. He said that whenever any of his dogs died it broke his heart, but there was an extra special connection with Charco. A picture of the dog graces the cover of his book Search Dogs And Me.
Neil got his first dog at the age of eight and started training them in 1972, saying: "I joined the mountain search and rescue team and then it struck me that I could train a dog to do this search work at night in the bad weather.
"I started to train a dog, didn't have a clue what I was doing but then I discovered a man in Scotland, Hamish McGuinness, who started doing it five years earlier. I met him and from that we set up Search And Rescue Dog operation which covered Ireland."
He said the work can be upsetting, singling out Lockerbie in Scotland as particularly harrowing after 270 people died when a jet was bombed in 1988.
"That was a defining time, my life was split into two parts – before Lockerbie and after Lockerbie," he said, adding that on completing a Masters in Counselling he realised he was suffering from post-traumatic stress from the incident.