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The life-saving work of Berkshire Search Dogs

Running around, tails wagging, noses to the ground, Sassy and Marley could be any dogs out for a walk in the woods.

But the border collie and the Labrador aren’t hunting for sticks and balls, they’re looking for people.

Specifically, with the teams from the Berkshire Search Dogs (BSD) and Berkshire Lowland Search and Rescue (BLSR), they are at Dorney Lake to show off the latest search and rescue techniques.

And after a 2016 which saw squads across the country called out to more than 900 searches for high-risk missing or vulnerable people, they’re showing off techniques which could genuinely mean the difference between life and death.

On a grey Monday afternoon in front of the Olympic rowing venue’s boathouse, the mission might be a simulation, but everything is treated with the kind of steely professionalism which at first masks the volunteer status of almost everyone involved.

“We started with two people missing from a vehicle that was parked at the front,” said BLSR’s chairman Kris Manning, who is an IT manager for computer firm Dell when not coordinating searches.

“They had gone in separate directions and so we deployed a drone to go up high, look down and target areas that we want to search in more detail.

“We deployed what’s called a ground-sensing dog, which picks up the scent of an individual and will follow that trail and it followed it around the lake.”

Such searches are pretty standard for the teams, but the main purpose of Monday, which saw dozens of backers of BLSR and BSD turn out to observe, was to show off the service’s new water search capability.

“We also deployed a ground victim search dog,” said Mr Manning, “which sits on the edge of the boat and is able to sense scents coming up through the water and that has been performing a search pattern on the water as well, to see what’s found.

“The two rescue boats both deployed and we sent a swimmer into the water to deal with the casualty and the other rescue boat deployed to pick it up.

“The ground victim search dog was able to detect a scent from the water and that turned out to be one of the missing people that we were looking for as well. All in all, successful searching.”

Dogs teams are now a common sight accompanying search and rescue squads on almost every outing.

A rule of thumb among the teams is that time equals survivability and the use of man’s best friend can save vital hours of the amount of work needed to locate someone in rough terrain – and now in water.

For the handlers who work the dogs, the work can be as terrifying as it is rewarding.

Richard Mansfield, who first signed up with BSD in 2001, even claims the dogs’ effectiveness can be to their own danger.

He recalled one heart-stopping moment when, while conducting a night search for a man during a flood, he saw his border collie Sassy pick up the scent and immediately bound off into the night.

Fortunately the nine-year-old found her way back and has taken part in about 100 live searches.

He said: “Initially, driving me through the training was the want to give something back to the community.

“Once you move on to being a qualified handler that keeps the connection going and that bond you have, which is a really big level of trust.

“Potentially, I’m entrusting someone’s life to my dog.”

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