I have been a volunteer search and rescue dog handler many years, Murphy was my first search and rescue dog. For volunteering week I was asked to write our story. Rather than writing about what we gave to the community, how we saved lives and supported families in some of their worst times I thought I would write about what volunteering gave us. The positive impact being a volunteer has had on both of our lives.
Recently Murphy was diagnosed with a huge liver tumour and I was told it was likely he had only weeks to live. This news and the events that followed made me think about my life with Murphy and just how much it was influenced and shaped by being a volunteer.
I guess it all began when I was a child. I was born with a congenital heart disorder. While I was still about to get around and have a relatively normal life running, walking up hills and thing that required that little extra bit of exertion left me breathless I was always the tortoise and never the hare. My parents taught me there was not such word as can’t and encouraged me to do as much as I could. From a young age I was aware of mountain rescue and dreamed of becoming a search and rescue dog handler. I loved walking in the hills and the loved the idea of working with a dog out on the hill said to save someone’s life. But it was out of my reach I could climb mountains but I was slow, very slow. I would never pass the fitness tests needed to do something like that.
In 2002 I moved down south and one day someone handed me a leaflet about Lowland search dogs. I had just had a 2nd new heart value fitted so feeling good I went along to a training session. I still have a vivid memory of the first dog I saw find a hidden person that day. My heart skipped a beat the one thing that I believed would always be out of reach was now in my sights. Steve (my partner) and I quickly joined the team. Steve had a young Parsons Jack Russel which he started to train, I had 2 collies but both were too old to train so we began the hunt for a search dog for me. A few days before Christmas Steve, Annette (another team member) and myself went to see a little collie cross terrier. He had been kept in a shed until he was about 3-4 month old and he had been kicked and we suspect hit with a walking stick. From there he was taken straight into rescue. Annette and Steve were convinced he had all the credentials to be a search dog but anxious to get the right dog I was unsure. In reality I don’t think I would have every made a decision without the bit of emotional blackmail that followed. The day after we had seen Murphy, at the end a particularly difficult shift working on a busy intensive care unit, I sat down at the end of the shift to check my emails for anything urgent before going home. There was an email that just contained a picture of Murphy and all it said was “all I want for Christmas is a new mummy”. I rang the rescue there and then and arranged to collect him the next day. Without that little push I may never have got to know Murphy.
Murphy had never been in the outside in world and was cautious of people. We set to work to build his confidence. As it turned out search was the perfect activity to help Murph to learn to trust people. The rules were always the same, he found the person, he told me about them and he took me back to them. The person was always predictable they just sat there and gave him a treat and the game was always the same. He understood what we wanted and he know what to expect from the humans. This gave him a safe way to experience many different people and his confidence grow as did his love for the job. I did hear that both Murphy’s brothers ended up back in rescue after showing signs of aggression. It is easy to see how Murphy’s lack of confidence could so easily have gone the same way. But being part of search and rescue channelled his energy and his behaviour into something constructive and there was always plenty of dog savvy people on hand in those early days to help teach him that not all people were bad. I would love to take all the credit for the wonderful little dog he turned out to be but I can’t Murphy was shaped into who he is by a team of people all of who played an important part in the outcome.
To become a search and rescue dog handler you need to do a lot of training and qualifications that do not involve the dog. The first bit is to become a search technician which back then was a weekend’s course. By the end of the weekend I was exhausted and as a result rather emotional. When they presented me with my search technicians certificate I had tears running down my face I was halfway to becoming a search and rescue dog handler. I am still good friends with some of the instructors 10 years on.
Next step was to train Murphy to qualifying standard we would be assessed together both of us would need to meet the grade to pass and become operational. So 2 years after that scared little dog came home with me we were off to the national assessments. I drove up to Newbury petrified of the assessment. By this point I had developed a really strong bond with Murphy and we understood and trusted each other but I don’t think I have ever undertaken a test that meant so much to me. A 2KM search along a path with 3 missing people hidden up to 15 metres off the path. Boy did I make poor Murph work hard I asked him to look under nearly every leaf in the forest. Despite my nerves and constant nagging Murph did his thing in true style, found all 3 missing people without any help from me. At the end the assessors debriefed me and told me I had passed. I was a search and rescue dog handler!!!! Me and Murph had done it and then that was it I passed out into a bush. One of the proudest and best moments of my life and Steve was literally picking me up off the floor.
People often say to me “why do you do it? Why do you get up in the middle of the night to look for a stranger?” yes I care about the community I live in and I want to help people. But there is more to it than that. The trust and the bond that develops between dog and handler is so rewarding each shout you go on and each time your dog says there is no one in that area and they are right the trust grows. The pride you feel for that dog when it plays a part in saving a life or brings a family back together is incredible. Dogs are amazing creature they do not understand the seriousness or implications of someone going missing, they do what we ask because of their unconditional love for us. It is such a privilege to work with a species that is so forgiving and willing to do so much for us.
As a team we can see some of the best moments when families are reunited but we also see some of the worst moments when sadly the missing person is not found in time. We leave our families at the drop of a hat when the call come though, we search all night and go to work exhausted the next day. But as a consequence of that we develop strong friendships and we support about each other. Best friends develop through shared experiences and I have made some of the best friends I will ever have through search. I also get to spend time with people who have similar interests to me. To be a successful dog handler you need to be able notice and understand every twitch the dog makes, a twitch of the nose or a little swish of the tail can indicate they have the scent. To do this you have to be a bit potty about your dog. You need to spend hours with them to really learn about them and how to work with them. By being a volunteer I have found a whole group of potty dog people that don’t mind if I talk about my dog most the time and they would rather meet me in the woods in the cold and rain to train the dogs than sit in a cosy pub somewhere. It has allowed me to meet people like me and that is a great recipe for having fun and making friends.
Murphy has been unlucky to have cancer twice in his life. The first time he was 5. We are in the vets and he was having a routine check-up as the vet lifted his lip to look at his teeth there was a little tiny flap of what looked like skin hanging off his gum and it was bleeding. The vet pulled it off and said “hummm I would like to send this to the lab”. It turned out Murphy had cancer in his gum. He had to have one of his big back teeth and a whole piece of his jawbone removed. During the op there was a big risk of bleeding as there was a blood vessel that sits just where they needed to operate meaning he might need a blood transfusion. By this point Murphy was well known in the search world we frequently support other teams on call out or join then for training sessions so we know all our neighbouring teams. Murphy was going to a specialist centre in the next county for his operation which meant his doggy friend from the team were too far away to be on standby for if he needed blood. I think anyone that owns a dog understands the fear of losing them, none more so than search and rescue dog handlers the bond between dog and handler is so great and the dogs are seen as equally important members of the team. They are cared for and respected as much as any human. If a dog goes missing on a search I have seen all the emergency services turn out to help look for them. So when I asked the neighbouring team if some of their dogs would be on standby in case Murph needed blood I got a resounding yes.
Murphy recovered from his mouth cancer and continued to work. We did some amazing things in that time. One day we were called up to Essex docks to take part in an international search of a containership for a missing seaman. The dogs had never searched a ship before so with many eyes on us off went unsure what response we would get from the dogs. They were of course brilliant. Nothing phased them and Murph’s name featured in the report to the home office. Some years later the team was awarded the Queen's award for Voluntary services (the OBE of the volunteering world). Steve and I went to a Buckingham palace garden party where we were presented to the Queen. She was telling us about a recent trip to Battersea dogs home and we talked about how Murphy, my working dog, had been a rescue dog, even the Queen has heard about Murphy.
Just recently, Murphy aged 11 and now retired was diagnosed again with liver cancer the initial diagnosis was that he likely had just weeks to live I was to take him home and love him. Devastating news. Annette who was there the day we chose Murphy has moved away from the county but remains one of my best friends. When we do see her she gets her own special welcome from Murphy who absolutely screams with joy at seeing her. It’s not a noise he makes for anyone else. She immediately made arrangements to visit to give us both a big hug. She arrived with some beautiful tulips which she gave to me saying “plant these in the garden and next year when they come up we will think of Murphy”. She gave Murphy lots of loves and we talked about all the good time we had all had together.
Years ago we met Rhian who runs Brighton Dog Photography when she volunteered her services to photograph the search dogs for us. Despite the diagnosis Murphy was still quite well in himself so I called her and said we needed an emergency photo shoot so I had some beautiful picture to remember Murphy by. She met me 2 days later on the beach to do a shoot. We had a lovely afternoon Murph loved the beach and being the centre of attention the pictures were astounding and they will always conjure up memories of a wonderful little dog and also a really nice afternoon that Murphy enjoyed.
During those first few weeks it felt like standing in the pouring rain getting soaked but looking at a beautiful rainbow. I couldn’t cry without smiling thinking of Murph brought back so many happy memories. How could I be sad he had loved his job and as a result had such a great life. He was cared for by so many people and had earnt his place in the search and rescue archives meaning he would always be remembered and respected for the work he did. 2 weeks after his diagnosis Murphy was still doing zoomies round the sofa and there appeared to be no signs of deterioration. So I asked if he could be referred for a CT scan. I needed to be sure that doing nothing was the right thing a CT scan would give us a bit more information. When we take a dog on we know almost certainly that we will outlive them and we will have to lose them. Losing him would be hard but I was not afraid of that my fear was about making the wrong decision for him. I did not want to put him through a huge operation only to die in pain but equally I didn’t want to give up on him if there was something reasonable that could be done. He had given so much of his life to helping people now it was our turn to get it right for him. The anaesthetist wanted to do bloods before for giving him an aesthetic for the CT. This showed up another major problem but something that could probably be put right so we spend weeks adjusting medication and doing blood tests until he was well enough to have the CT scan. To cut a long story short Murphy is still with us happier and healthier than he has been in a long time the tumour has been removed and the prognosis is good. It was a very difficult 3 months but there were so many people routing for Murphy and we received so many kind messages of support from the search world it made it all a little easier. Knowing Murphy is so cared for and respect by so many people for the work he did makes me very proud.
Murph and I are planning on watching the tulips come up together next spring. He is a very special little dog to me, he did after all make my dreams come true and proved there really is no such word as can’t. Had I not been a volunteer none of this would have been possible. Volunteering might sound like a lot of hard work for little reward but let me tell you it’s not. Find the right thing and it can influence your life in so many positive ways. Search has given me Murphy, it has given me some of the best friends I will ever have and it has allowed me to do some amazing things in the company of mad dog people just like me. Saving lives is just the icing on the cake.
Photographs by Rhian White - Brighton Dog Photography http://brightondogphotography.co.uk/