Quincy is a 21 month old Malinois, one of the four types of Belgium Shepherd dog. From the age of 12 weeks he had been introduced to the smell he would eventually have to find for his role as a Drowned Victim Search Dog. After six months of fun and an obsession with a tennis ball he started his formal training, all of which was done next to a river, lake or stream. He soon learnt that his tennis ball would only appear when he barked next to the correct scent item that was by now hidden just under water. Training continued alongside Sasha who was also being trained as a DVS dog by Dave Marsh. We had regular visits to Northern Ireland where our mentor Neil Powell lives and who has been training and working Drowned Victim Search Dogs since 1992 with many finds with numerous dogs.
By mid-2014 Quincy had completed a pre assessment weekend and on 31st July we travelled over to Ireland for our formal tests. Neil acted as one assessor and John Sjoberg, a former Swedish special forces dog handler and trainer was the second. John has also trained DVS dogs with over a thousand hours of searches under his belt.
The following morning we set off to Kinnego marina on the shore of Lough Neagh, where our assessment was set as a four part scenario with the first one being the briefing. Lough Neagh Lifeboat crew gave us a scenario that two men on jet skis had gone missing and gave us some rough areas that required searching. From this followed a lot of questions from myself before planning the second phase.
From all of this information and the prevailing weather conditions we had to formulate a search plan. After explaining my plan to the assessors we were thrown a bit of a twist. Normally if I am working Quincy on a boat Dave will drive it and follow my directions, not this time, I had to drive the boat with Quincy at the front on his own.
We moved into the third phase – this being the searches. The first was the inner and outer marina. The weather was on our side and the light breeze allowed a good steady search pattern with Quincy starting to hit the scent area after about 25 minutes of searching. The aim then is to try and work the dog in and out of the scent cone until you think you are as close as possible to the simulated body. Once we had done that we marked the area informed the assessors and returned to shore for dinner.
Our second search had the same format but the search area was much bigger and further out into Lough Neagh. After about 45 minutes we had worked the area, marked it and returned to shore hoping we were right.
The fourth and final stage was the debriefing. In real life this is where I have to advise a police dive team where the dog indicated and the best area for them to search. At the most this can be no more than 50m x 50m. To be told we were well within that area was a great relief. One day completed and it was back for tea and a small (ish) glass of red wine.
The following day was at Lough Neagh again. Europe’s largest fresh water lake has plenty of room to search and my next area was one kilometre square but this time the weather was against us, strong winds, very choppy water and some good old Irish rain saw us changing our plan every ten minutes. This was probably the hardest search we had ever completed. At times Quincy wasn’t working – he was just doing his best to stay in the boat but we managed to cover the area and find the scent. It took a lot longer to work it down to the strongest point and declare it to the assessors.
We had completed our three searches and just in time as the weather took a turn for the worst and everything had to stop, not before I found there was a leak in my dry suit resulting in my need to find a dry pair of socks.
That evening was the final debrief with the news that we had passed our assessment. We were now on the call out list, the first NSARDA DVSD team to be based in England. There was no real time to celebrate as we had to be in Dublin by 7am to catch the ferry back to Holyhead before eventually raising a glass to Quincy.