Sometimes, we may indicate to a Garda, our search dogs are no use in this case, and that’s very difficult for a family to hear.

Date Published : April 7th, 2019    Published By : admin

Irish Search Dogs form part of the Major Emergency Management structure in the Southern Region.

The team have three dogs on the list. One such dog, Dantae is recently qualified on land which covers coastal work, rivers, forestry, urban and low-land areas which would be on hill sides or wide pen areas.

Report by Declan Keogh
Eight other dogs are in the training programme, these are a mixture of collie-crosses, Shepard cross-collies, Hungarian and and German pointer crosses. Irish Search Dogs can train any single dog.

Established in 1986, the voluntary, non-profit organisation helps searches for missing persons and since its inception, Irish Search Dogs has grown to be one of the most recognised and utilised canine search and rescue teams in Ireland.

Specially trained dog/handler teams are available every hour of every day of the year, to assist Gardaí, Principal Response Agencies (PRA) or statutory and Voluntary Emergency Services (VES) in missing person searches and drowning recoveries on land or water. A proven key factor to the success of the unit is early deployment of the dogs to find fresh scent.

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Operational photos courtesy of Irish Search Dogs.

Having spent the day at the Southern Region’s Voluntary Emergency Services day at Cork Institute of Technology yesterday, I caught up with Joanne Horgan, Fundraising Officer and Dog Handler with Irish Search Dogs. I began by asking Joanne what type of digs fit the bill, as one of their search and rescue dogs.

“The character of a dog which the organisation looks for is a dog that is interested in playing and interested in people primarily. Dogs used by Irish Search Dogs are extremely sociable, whereas Guide Dogs for example who are excellent dogs who help people with disabilities, autism or vision impairment, they are trained to mind their owners.”

“Our dogs are trained to go into people, they’re trained to lick people faces, rub off them, because ultimately they’re job is to find people that are missing, come back, tell the handler and then we’ll come in and recover the person and either bring them back to their families or hand-over to the gardaí.”

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Irish Search Dogs have approximately 10 dogs and handlers at the moment. They also have other auxiliary members who are friends or family members who offer help for their annual street collections or hiding as ‘bodies’ for dogs to find while training. “We’d hide for each other and we would also bring in what we call ‘stranger danger’ bodies so anybody who wants to come out and have fun with the dogs, we’ll hide them anywhere and it’s a test for dogs and to get them used to working under difficult and stressful conditions, and also problem solving so the dogs have to be able to smell human scent, and its very interesting to watch and see where is it I have to narrow this search down to.”

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Photo: Joanne Horgan, Fundraising Officer and Dog Handler
There are several different types of search dog disciplines too. Irish Search Dogs deal with Air Scenting dogs, Tracking dogs, Trailing dogs and Water dogs.

Air Scenting dogs as a rule do not track a person, they react to a human scent being blown towards them by the wind or air currents. This means that if the dog is searching downwind of a casualty, it should find them. Racing back to the handler, the dog indicates that he has made a find by barking or jumping up then takes the handler to the victim. These dogs are especially effective in dense brush, high grass, in the woods and at night – wherever visual searching is difficult. Air scenting dogs and their handlers cover large search sectors effectively and quickly. One dog/handler team can be equivalent to many foot searchers.

Tracking Dogs are trained to follow a person 'step-by-step'. Tracking dogs follow the direct path taken by the victim by scenting the disturbed soil and crushed vegetation caused by the person’s footsteps. They work with their heads down sniffing the ground. The dog is worked on lead with the handler following behind. They also detect the scent left on the path and surrounding foliage by the victim.

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Trailing Dogs are trained to follow a specific human scent. To start trailing a specific individual, these dogs need a scent article that the person has directly handled or preferably worn. The dog is then started on the trail at the point where the person was last seen (PLS). Trailing dogs will follow the route of scent deposited on the ground as a person moves through an area. A trained trailing dog can follow the steps of someone who passed by several days earlier, discriminate between it and another's trail, and follow it over hills and through marshland. Dogs can even trail people in cars, from the scent that blows out of the window or through the vents of the car and have proven most beneficial in recent searches.

Water Dogs are trained to detect the gases given off when a body might decay underwater. A trained water dog can locate a body on land, in water, and under snow. Irish Search Dogs have some very experienced land and water search dog/handler teams. These dogs employ the technique of air scenting to locate drowning victims by indicating where subjects' scent rises to the surface of the water. Similarly, the dogs can pinpoint human scent percolating up through rubble or snow.

Running Costs

Like many other voluntary organisations, and many of which are rescue organisations, Irish Search Dogs is a charity organisation and despite providing a search and rescue service, it doesn’t receive any state funding. In relation to costs to house one of these dogs, the dogs stay with their handlers, they are their own pets and any costs associated with vet fees, food or anything else is all Bourne by the handler.

Joanne said “The only donations we get are donations from the public if we are lucky and we do one street collection a year so apart from that if we are lucky enough to get donations it helps greatly but any other costs are borne by the members. For example, travelling to a search is generally taken up in our own cars, at our own fuel costs. We do have a van which we received a grant from some years ago and we respond in that as much as we can.”

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If a person is reported missing, search teams are mainly tasked by An Garda Síochána and this is the same with Irish Search Dogs. However, some PRA’s or other voluntary services have also called out the dog unit. “Mallow Search and Rescue, Cork City Missing Persons or Waterford Marine Search and Rescue who would already have been in contact with the guards so we can operate under that call-out once we report directly to the guards because they are the lead authority in the first instance of a search, and for insurance purposes we would always go through them and while on the search-ground, we act on their request, direction or information.” Joanne said.
We may have to indicate to the garda on scene, ‘the dogs are of no use at this stage’ and that’s difficult for the family to hear

“We would also get calls from family members of a missing person, I would handle some of those calls myself so in that situation I would encourage the family member to get in contact with the gardaí or the family liaison officer within the guards and we would then speak to them, because unfortunately, there will be times when the dogs wont be of use, and that’s the hardest call we have to make, and we may have to indicate to the garda on scene, ‘the dogs are of no use at this stage’. This can be as a result of a tragic outcome or even following a pre-search risk assessment, we won’t put our handlers or dogs in a situation that’s unsafe for them. Generally, the voluntary emergency services would have the exact same approach that they are not going to put their personnel or resources at risk or in a situation that’s risky to them. So based on those scenarios, we wouldn’t be able to send a dog out and that’s difficult for the family to hear.”

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Asked whether Irish Search Dogs are associated with or affiliated to SARDA (Search and Rescue Dog Association), Joanne says ‘We are completely separate organisations, but we both ultimately do the same thing, we are both Dog and Handler organisation and we both want the same outcome, we all want to bring people back to their families. The advantage that SARDA have, one of the many things they are really good at is Mountain work, in the Southern Region for example, they work very closely with Kerry Mountain Rescue and SEMRA (South East Mountain Rescue Association), so they have their mountain skills and in those search and rescue scenarios, SARDA are fantastic while Irish Search Dogs deal with everything else such as the rivers, low land, forestry and urban areas too, but we both do the same thing, just in different areas.”

The Irish Search Dogs delivered a presentation at yesterday's Voluntary Emergency Services Day for the Cork and Kerry area as part of the Southern Region's MEM. The organisatiosn Chairperson Glen Barton gave an outline to volunteers and the PRA's of the service in which Irish Search Dogs provide.

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Irish Search Dog team at VES Day. Photo: Declan Keogh

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The Irish Search Dogs can provide free demonstrations of their capabilities upon request by any public safety group or interested community group. This could include outdoor demonstrations or instructional classes by experienced Irish Search Dogs members on search strategy, use of search dogs and other topics related to search and rescue.

Irish Search Dogs is a voluntary and charity organisation and welcomes any donations in supporting costs associated with running the search and rescue dog unit. Charity Number #19929. Visit for more info.

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LISTEN: Interview between Declan Keogh (Emergency Times) and with Joanne Horgan (Irish Search Dogs)

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