Animal magic of rescue dogs

PARTNERS: Handler Andy Dunn and his dog Max of the Search and Rescue Dog Association

PARTNERS: Handler Andy Dunn and his dog Max of the Search and Rescue Dog Association

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THERE are many ways in which our friends in the animal kingdom outstrip our human skill set, not least the incredible tracking potential of certain breeds of dog.

This, when coupled with their speed, athleticism and agile minds make them ideal partners in areas of the emergency services. It’s all in the nose.

Search Dog Max finds SARDA IOM Volunteer Malcom Stewart in a snow hole

Search Dog Max finds SARDA IOM Volunteer Malcom Stewart in a snow hole

It is this partnership between man and canine which is at the core of the SARDA (Search and Rescue Dog Association) organisation, a charity which trains people and pets into effective and qualified search and rescue teams,

As current members move through the qualification ranks, SARDA’s Isle of Man branch are looking to expand their dedicated core of volunteers with new and fresh faces.

Dog handler Andy Dunn, whose day job is in security at Ronaldsway Airport, explained that most training and assessments are carried out in the UK at present, though they are working to increase what is on offer to volunteers on-island.

‘A lot of the SARDA guys are members of the Civil Defence, including me, which is where we got our initial first aid and navigation training,’ Andy explained.

The difference with being a navigator for SARDA to Civil Defence though is of course the dogs, as variables like wind direction need to be factored in.

Andy added: ‘What we are working towards is doing our own training for navigators, so we can have our own people, and not drain from other services.’

The best way in to SARDA is to go along and ‘body’ for them, that is, go along to training sessions and be a new scent for the dogs to trace.

Normally someone will body for at least six months, to get a feel for the organisation and see if they like working with dogs. From there, SARDA hope to start offering navigation and radio training. Once people have bodied for a while, they can move on to navigating, and potentially then on to dog handling.

‘It normally involves an hour or an hour and a half on a Tuesday, and a couple of hours on a Sunday, but people aren’t tied to that. We train in glens, hillsides and industrial estates, to expose the dogs to every possible scenario,’ said Andy.

‘It’s a good way to give something back to the community, and if you enjoy the outdoors, it’s ideal. We get to explore parts of the island I probably wouldn’t have got to.’

He’s right, a glance at the next few months training schedule sees the team taking in Glen Rushen Mines, Beinn y Phott, Hibernia, the Nunnery, Scarlett Point and Tromode industrial estate.

SARDA are only deployed in emergencies when asked to by the police, most often for a missing person. At present, this has been about four times a year, but growing.

‘We have a good committee, and we’re pushing to be used more often. But dogs aren’t always suitable, you need to have a starting point, a last known location or general idea of the search area,’ said Andy.

‘But the benefit is dogs aren’t impeded by the dark or misty or foggy weather, they use their noses not eyes. They can cover massive areas too. I walk small zig zags, Max runs massive ones, using the wind.’

He added: ‘The dogs just do what they naturally do, they enjoy the hunt. The challenge is to train them to indicate, to come back and tell us what they’ve found.’

Andy’s own dog Max is a collie/Australian kelpie cross. What makes for a good search dog?

Herding breeds are good, and dogs with a high play drive; German shepherds and collies for example.
Andy said: ‘Breed-wise, you want an athlete! A rottweiler for instance is a good herder, but doesn’t have the energy levels, or agility over obstacles.’

See www.sardaiom.im for contact details, training schedules and venues, and details on the charity’s various fundraising initiatives.

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