In 1972, Neil Powell, a member of the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team, began training and eventually qualified the first mountain rescue search dog in Ireland, a German Shepherd called Kim. The idea came from his experiences of searching long hours at night or in bad weather for missing people and so he wondered if trained dogs might be able to speed up searches and set about trying to achieve this. Eventually, through friends in mountain rescue, he learned of SARDA’s existence in Scotland. He contacted Hamish McInnes and Kenny McKenzie who agreed to help and with their assistance and despite some intense objection from certain individuals within mountain rescue in Northern Ireland and the Royal Ulster Constabulary police dog unit, he set about trying to create SARDA in Ireland. In 1979, an embryonic SARDA Ireland came into being with the assistance of Bert Slater, Hon Sec to the Northern Ireland Mountain and Cave Rescue Co-ordinating Committee, (NIMCRCC) and soon attracted new members, Michael Starret, Bob Cronk, Vicky and Mitch Cameron and Dave Wall all from Northern Ireland. In a couple of years the membership had spread to the Republic of Ireland with the addition of the late Brendan Maher (former Gardai Sergeant in the Gardai Dog Unit), Henry Smith, Michael McCarthy and Don Murphy.
In 1985, Neil’s Border collie Pepper was qualified Novice Mountain Search Dog and in 1986 was upgraded to Full Search Dog along with Michael Starret’s Labrador Danny who achieved Novice Mountain Search Dog. Vicky Cameron’s Megan qualified as Novice in 1987 and Full Search Dog in 1988; Mitch and Duffy qualified Novice Mountain Search Dog in 1988 and suddenly the new group were immersed in the first and most significant deployment ever to involve SARDA; Neil, Vicki and Mitch were tasked to assist other SARDA groups in the search at Lockerbie in 1988 where they remained for 5 days over the Christmas period. In 1989 Mick McCarthy with his GSD Dex and Don Murphy with his GSD Rizzo became the first dog teams to qualify as Novice search dog handlers in the Republic of Ireland. Next to qualify Novice Grade were, Dave Wall and Keyta 1990, Martin Bell and Judy, 1992, Henry Smith and Morse 1996/7.
In 1995, SARDA Ireland split into SARDA Ireland North and SARDA Ireland. Whilst there is no formal boundary line between the two Irish groups, Ireland North tends to operate north of a line between Newcastle in the east, and Sligo in the west which includes Northern Ireland and the county of Donegal, whilst SARDA Ireland operates to the south of this line, which is in the Republic of Ireland. Both Associations count a number of mountain search dogs on their call-out lists, but Ireland North also operate collapsed structure search dogs and drowned victim search dogs and are now training scent specific trailing dogs. The mountain rescue dogs continue to be involved in searches in remote areas of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, whilst the collapsed structure dogs are declared assets within the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and have assisted in numerous searches in Northern Ireland, Wales, and even further afield in the earthquakes of Algeria, Pakistan and Turkey.
With call-outs numbering around twenty each year for both Associations, dog teams from the Republic are mobilised by the Gardai, the Irish Coast Guard and Mountain Rescue Ireland and can be tasked anywhere – be it mountain, moorland, suburban, lowland or coastal – although most handlers tend to work within a few hours of their homes. SARDA Ireland North are tasked by PSNI and Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service but frequently work with the MCA., Lough Foyle Rescue, Lough Neagh Rescue and the Gardai and like their colleagues in the Republic, will always respond to requests to assist in searches anywhere in Ireland.
In common with most other SARDA groups, when trainee handlers in SARDA Ireland or Ireland North have successfully completed the basic mountain search dog training programme, they undertake a pre-assessment test which if successful, makes them eligible for Novice assessment, a 3 day event of testing in the mountains. If successful in that, then Full Search Dog status can be attained a year later when dog teams undergo a further 3 day assessment conducted by external assessors. The dogs and handlers of SARDA Ireland are then re-assessed every three years, whereas those in SARDA Ireland North undergo continuous re-appraisal. For practical and financial reasons, most of the assessments of SARDA Ireland take place in Glendalough in the Irish Republic whilst SARDA Ireland North mostly use the Mourne Mountains in the North of Ireland. To train a dog to search collapsed structures, a handler must first be approved by the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and undertake their urban search training programme. To train a drowned victim search dog, prospective handlers must previously have trained and qualified an air-scenting dog and on completion of their training, will be assessed by John Sjoberg and Neil Powell.
There have been some newsworthy search dog characters over the years. In 1991, Don Murphy’s German Shepherd Rizzo, whilst nursing a leg injury, was tragically killed in a fall on a search for a missing walker in the Mount Brandon area of County Kerry. For his heroism, Rizzo was posthumously awarded a Bounce Dog Food award as well as an award for gallantry from the German Shepherd Dog Association of Ireland. Meanwhile, the dogs from SARDA Ireland North along with all other SARDA dogs, who were involved in the Lockerbie disaster, were awarded a special commemorative certificate from the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for their dedication and perseverance shown at the scene. They included Neil’s Border collie dog Pepper, Vicki’s dog golden retriever Megan and Mitch’s Bearded collie dog Duffy. Since then, other dogs of Neil’s have been honoured: Golden retriever brothers Dylan and Cracker were each awarded the PDSA’s Gold Medal for ‘animal gallantry and devotion to duty’ which is widely recognised as the animal’s George Cross:- Dylan for locating four students lost in appalling conditions in the mountains of Mourne in 1999 and then with Cracker, for working in the two Turkish earthquakes of 1999. Conditions at the time were appalling with the air temperature exceeding 35 degrees and everything being covered in a fine dust. Cracker’s airways became clogged with this dust but fortunately, a stream was found in which he could be cooled and washed down. Cracker then continued searching for missing people and for that was eventually awarded not only the PDSA Gold Medal, but also the UK Canine Global Hero Award 2004. He was also shortlisted for the Golden Bonio Awards 2000. Then there was Charco, a black Labrador who appeared as an “Inspirational hero dog” on the Cesar Milan show in Belfast’s Odyssey Arena and the O2 Arena in Dublin. For his work in an Algerian earthquake, Charco was awarded the runner up position in the Dog’s Trust Sun Hero Dogs Award 2009. Fern too, a drowned victim search dog, was honoured for the many bodies she has located in water and was voted runner up in the Dog’s Trust Sun Hero Dogs Award 2010. She was also presented with the IFAW’s Animal Action Award nominated in recognition of her outstanding achievements 2012.
SARDA Ireland North train formally twice a month and conduct regular joint training with mountain rescue teams on both sides of the Border as well as with the NI Fire and Rescue Service, Community Rescue Service, Foyle Search and Rescue, Lough Neagh Rescue, the Irish Coastguard and the MCA. They also host an annual specialist international training workshop for drowned victim search dog handlers and have presented papers at mountain rescue conferences in Ireland and in the UK and to the Revenue and Customs Canine Conference Baldonnel 2013. .
Financing SARDA has always been difficult; in the early years, funding was limited and handlers had to pay for all travel expenses, equipment and clothing. Radios were very basic and those who served as bodies, often had to make do lying in a plastic bag. Today, handlers still have to dig into their own pockets for all major expenses and rely heavily upon public donations with some limited help from the ferry companies who provide travel at reduced rates. SARDA Ireland also benefits from a small grant made each year by the Irish Government (Department of Transport). SARDA Ireland North, like their counterparts in the rest of the UK, receives help from Oscar Pet Foods who generously provide free food for qualified dogs. A recent new development in Northern Ireland however, has seen the Department of Justice agreeing to finance the provision of some much needed equipment and training for SARDA Ireland North, and this has been supplemented by additional training costs donated by the UK SAR and by a small annual award from Sport NI.
Hopefully this supportive financial trend will continue on both sides of the Border as dedicated handlers, bodies and our wonderful dogs continue to provide the life saving service they have become famous for.