‘You need to remind yourself that you could be reuniting a family’: K9 unit helping to find living and dead

Five-year-old springer spaniel Rossi is a Civil Defence cadaver dog trained to assist gardaí in the search for missing people

Karen Kelly with her dog Rossi; Paul Byrne (below) with Misty and Mick O’Sullivan with Archie during a K9 Victim Recovery Unit demonstration at a training facility in Dublin's Phoenix Park. Photograph: Alan Betson

The Civil Defence K9 unit has been involved in hundreds of searches for people, living and dead, since 2006.

The unit had never had a fully trained female handler until Karen Kelly, from Meath Civil Defence, came along. She has converted Rossi, her springer spaniel, from a conventional gun dog into a victim recovery dog, or what once was known as a cadaver dog.

Getting to this point was a huge commitment for Kelly and five-year-old Rossi, who completed a year-long programme involving some 150 hours of guided training with a National Association of Specialist Dog Users (NASDU) recognised body.

Karen Kelly recently qualified as a dog handler with the Civil Defence K9 Unit making her the first female in the role.

“The dog probably gets two days off every second week,” Kelly says. “We continuously train but as an individual and as a group and in exercises with the Civil Defence.”

READ MORE

The use of cadaver dogs remains one of the most effective ways of finding missing people. They are trained uniquely to recognise the scent of human remains using special chemicals which mimic the smell. A trained cadaver dog is 95 per cent effective at picking up the scent of human remains even if a body is buried underground.

There are now five dogs and five handlers in the Civil Defence K9 unit. Four are involved in victim recovery, the fifth is an “air-scenting” dog used when searching for the living. In 2021 and last year, the unit assisted An Garda Síochána in 33 of 250 missing person searches.

Karen Kelly, the first fully trained female Civil Defence dog handler, with her search dog, Rossi. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin

Meath Civil Defence officer Shane Quinn said demand for the Civil Defence K9 units has never been greater “due to increase in call-outs/demand in recognition of our skill set”. Members of the units took part in a training exercise at a Civil Defence facility in Dublin’s Phoenix Park on Thursday.

Kelly works from home as a web sales manager as her day job. Luckily it is a family business and her hours are flexible and she can be available at short notice to help in searches. Her role with the Civil Defence can be grim work and is done on a voluntary basis. It involves long hours, often in the dark or in lonely places, but somebody has got to do it.

“You need remind yourself that you could be reuniting a family,” she says. “From a dog handler’s point of view it is more about your training, your bond with the dog and how prepared you are for the work.”

Rossi, and other victim recovery dogs, have learned to associate finding human remains with a treat such as a biscuit or a reward such as a bouncy ball.

“Once they are imprinted on a scent, the dog has to be capable of using his nose. It could be your slippers, your glasses or your keys,” Kelly says. “You can teach any dog to do this work, but you need a dog that is fit and able and has a lot of drive. It is really about the dog’s capability. In Rossi’s case he works for me to give him praise and affection. He’s a cheap date.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times