It’s remarkable really what a dog can do

German pointer Sam his put through his paces by Vanessa Courtney from Hampshire Lowland Search Dogs
German pointer Sam his put through his paces by Vanessa Courtney from Hampshire Lowland Search Dogs
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Sam, Zoe and Tess come skidding across the floor to greet me the moment the door is opened.

There is much barking and nuzzling. There is a new scent in the air, a new person in their lives to play with. Perhaps someone to hunt.

For that is what they do best. It is their natural instinct and the incredibly sensitive noses on these German short-haired pointers are fine-tuned to perfection.

Later, I’m given a demonstration of their prowess. Vanessa Courtney, who jointly owns the three dogs with her long-term partner Paul Burton, disappears.

She takes herself off into the countryside near their Hayling Island home and hides.

Sam stands obediently at Paul’s feet, his tail wagging furiously as he senses play time is about to begin.

After a while, with Sam now straining excitedly for action, Paul sends him off. The dog hurtles straight to Vanessa’s hiding place and barks.

Then comes the clever bit. He scoots back to Paul and takes him directly to Vanessa. At this point he gets his reward which is to play with his favourite toy.

Sam is nine and has done this hundreds of times and before you think this is simply a well-trained dog having a bit of fun, one day you could well be incredibly grateful to Sam and Zoe. For they could save your life.

Sam and Zoe are highly-trained search dogs, part of the Hampshire-based Lowland Search Dogs Southern group whose members and their dogs are brought in by the police dozens of times each year to hunt for missing people.

Much of their work is in Hampshire but they have been called to sniff out people in West Sussex, Dorset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire.

Vanessa and Paul are the group’s chairwoman and treasurer respectively. They, like the rest of the members, are volunteers and hold down demanding jobs as well as being on call 24 hours a day.

Paul, 51 and a mechanic, said: ‘Everyone has heard of mountain rescue teams. We are like the lowland equivalent, but it’s fair to say we’re not so well known.

‘We were set up in 2002 and there are groups like us all over the country roughly in a line south of Cheshire.’

At nine years old Sam is nearing retirement and the couple have acquired one-year-old Tess, a liver and white pointer like Zoe, to replace him when the time comes.

So how do you know if your dog has the ability to become a search dog?

Paul added: ‘Sam, like all the dogs, had to prove he had a very strong play/drive instinct – the ability to work hard to win his reward, which is to play with his favourite toy.’

Vanessa chipped in and asked Paul to tell the story of the pebble.

‘We were on the beach at Hayling with Sam and I was throwing stones. He would chase after them and come back with one.

‘It was only after I’d been throwing for a while that I realised he was bringing back exactly the same pebble I had thrown from among all those millions on the beach.

‘It’s remarkable really what a dog can do. The experts say that if a human’s nose and sense of smell is the size of a postage stamp, the equivalent for a dog is that it’s the size of a football pitch.’

It was 57-year-old Vanessa who got the couple involved in the team back in 2002. She works as a senior manager for Hampshire County Council in Winchester helping run the authority’s fostering service.

‘A Hampshire firefighter had put a note on the notice board at work saying he wanted to set up a lowland search group and was asking for volunteers.

‘I thought it would be a great thing to get involved with and would be something completely different from my normal work life – a real escape.

‘What could be better than getting out in the countryside, getting loads of exercise, working with your dogs and, most importantly, helping to save lives?’

The group works closely with Hampshire Search and Rescue, another voluntary body, that provides around-the-clock help to the police in searches for vulnerable missing people in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

Vanessa said: ‘We average about 50 call-outs a year. We’ve had five so far this year.

‘Everything comes through the police. They contact our co-ordinator Daz Hagan in Portsmouth who then texts all the members to see who is and isn’t available.

‘The majority of our shouts are to find people missing in dense woodland, but we often get called to find children missing on a beach.’

The dogs are trained to find people by air scent. They are not given something belonging to the missing person to get their particular smell. They simply learn to find any human.

So, calling them in to hunt for somebody on a crowded beach or town centre would be pointless.

One of the unit’s regular training areas is in Creech Woods, near Denmead, as well as the New Forest.

Paul said: ‘Where they really come into their own is when someone is missing in woodland or, say, the New Forest.

‘It’s usually dark when we’re brought in to help and the dogs have only one person to find in what can be a huge area.’

Vanessa said: ‘Of course, not everyone the dogs find is alive. Zoe found a man last year who was dead, but the family were so grateful that his body had simply been discovered.’

And she proudly recalls Sam’s debut. ‘On his first search in 2004 he found an unconscious woman on Lavington Common, near Graffham, north of Chichester.

‘She was airlifted to hospital in Chichester, but she couldn’t be seen from the air because the canopy of leaves in the woodland was so dense.

‘His second find was in Wiltshire – a man who was depressed and who had driven up on his motorbike from Torquay.

‘He’d been in the woods for three days and Sam found him alive.

‘We’re often brought in to help find elderly people with dementia who wander off or those who are depressed.’

Paul said: ‘It’s relatively easy to get them to find someone, the great trick is to get them to come back to you and then take you to where they are, a distance which could be a mile away. That desire to get to play has to be really, really strong.’

And just when you thought that here was an activity devoid of any influence of modern technology, Paul reveals a new collar the couple’s dogs are trialling.

It has flashing lights and a tinkling bell to warn a missing person that help is about to arrive. But it is also loaded with a GPS tracking system.