History of Drowned Victim Search Dogs (DVSD)
The Early Days
In 1992, Neil Powell of SARDA(IN) attended an International Search Dog Symposium in Stockholm. During the visit he met John Sjoberg, an officer in the Swedish Special forces who was an expert in the use of dogs to search water for underwater swimmers.
Having been involved in many searches where people were believed to have drowned Neil, like a lot of other people, appreciated the depth of grieving which relatives had to endure when there was no body to bury and no closure.
Neil and John discussed the value and potential of using dogs to help locate drowned victims and in the years since, he and John have become close friends as they cooperated to refine and improve the Drowned Victim Search dog training and assessment criteria.
Eventually, a set of standards was drawn up and these have become accepted by NSARDA and ACPO as the benchmark by which to judge competency in this field.
Neil trained his first Drowned Victim Search Dog soon after his visit to Stockholm, a German Shepherd called Cuisle, who was eventually assessed by John.
Unfortunately, using a dog to locate someone underwater was unheard of in Northern Ireland and he had to prove to people how the dogs were able to help. There was in fact a lot of resistance to this new concept, however, a breakthrough came soon after Neil and Cuisle were qualified, when they were requested by HM Coastguard, to assist in the search for some missing passengers on a boat which sank in Strangford Lough.
Cuisle very soon located the first of the men whose body was subsequently recovered. Cuisle working on, soon gave the location of another. The people of Strangford Lough were so impressed and grateful for the work Cuisle did that they clubbed together to buy a brand new rigid inflatable for use by Neil and his dog. A local business man, Walter Watson, very generously delivered the boat – a 5.6 metre Humber from England to Northern Ireland totally free of charge – such kindness.
Hearing of this, Lough Neagh Rescue generously offered to fit the new boat out with, engine, radio, gps and plotter, all at their own expense.
Soon afterwards, Neil was asked by Sean Rodgers of the Killybegs Cliff and Coastal rescue Team to assist in the search for a farmer believed drowned in the Glenties River in Donegal. The area had already been searched by local dive teams, but without success. When Neil arrived at the scene with Cuisle and his new DVS dog Cracker, a Gardai sergeant said he had never heard such nonsense about a dog finding bodies under water. As they searched, he followed them on the river bank where he witnessed at first hand, Cuisle and Cracker, finding the man in a matter of minutes.
After a very fulfilling lifetime of service, Cracker and Cuisle were retired, having located 12 drowned victims.
New Arrival to the Team
They were succeeded by Fern, a little “Sprocker” who has so far found 9 drowned victims, two being teenagers, who had tragically drowned in a boating accident in Castlewellan Lake near Newcastle Co Down. Fern was deployed soon after they went missing, located them quickly and they were recovered next morning by a civilian dive team.
She was then requested by Strathclyde Police to assist in a search of Lough Awe for three missing fishermen. After a day’s work, she identified the area in which one or more of the men was lying, and the bodies were recovered some time later.
More recently she was in Leeds at the request of the West Yorkshire Police to assist in the search for a man missing for over a year.
Within the last couple of months, she was requested by a family, to search Camlough lake in Newry for a missing person. The body of the lady was located quickly and was recovered by police divers.
Even more recently still Fern was involved in a search for a missing fisherman in Lough Ree near Athlone in Ireland. After a number of days searching she located the area where he was lying and the man was recovered by divers.
In June 2008, Neil and John ran an introductory DVSD course in N Ireland, which was well attended by people from many different organizations. There have also been numerous presentations on the topic at Mountain Rescue Seminars and specialist dog training seminars. Unfortunately, whilst a lot of people expressed enthusiasm for training a DVSD, nobody really came forward until Dave Marsh and Mike Dermody expressed an interest with their dogs, Sasha and Quincy.
After months of training and under Neil’s guidance both dogs sat a Pre-Assessment in March 2014. Based at Foyle Search and Rescue Team boathouse Mike and Dave were put though an intensive 2 days training and pre-assessment which included working with the Life boats of Foyle River SAR as well as divers from Mourne Underwater Search Team, two ‘grieving relatives’ and a sonar team. The two dogs and both handlers did very well indeed, and we are very grateful to all the agencies involved and especially to Foyle River Search and Rescue for their generous assistance.
The first Introductory Level Assessment for DVSDs was held at Lough Neagh in August 2014 and was conducted in cooperation with Lough Neagh Lifeboat crew and the staff of Kinnego Marina. The cooperation given by Lough Neagh Rescue and the staff of Kinnego Marina during the entire assessment was outstanding. John Sjoberg and Neil were the assessors and organized a number of open water searches in what turned out to be very challenging weather conditions. Both dogs did really well, finding their targets and narrowing the search areas down from well over a kilometer square to 50 meters by 50 meters. Mike and Quincy passed convincingly and are now on the operational callout list. Another trainee is Phillip Eichmann and his dog Skye of Lowland SAR, both of whom look to be a promising pair and it is hoped they will be assessed early in 2015.
With Mike and Quincy, based in Lancashire and now on the call out list and Dave and Sasha to follow once they complete their assessment, hopefully to be held this September, NSARDA’s ability to assist in this work will be greater than it has ever been.
By its nature, Drowned Victim Search work will probably always be the preserve of a few dedicated souls but the future seems bright. A seminar is planned later in the year in Stockholm and new enquiries are being made as people are becoming more aware of these dogs and their capabilities. It is hoped that as more people and dogs are trained we will be able to help reunite families with their loved ones who have drowned.