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Blazing a trail

Bloodhound scentwork

We’ve all heard stories about Bloodhounds using their incredible sense of smell to track missing humans. For centuries, these dogs have been used for tracking and hunting thanks to their ability to track a scent over a considerable distance. This ancient breed is now being trained to find lost dogs — a first for the UK.

Three Bloodhounds are undergoing special training to track fellow canines who might have disappeared while on a walk or escaped from their garden. The charity K9 Search Dogs was set up last year by West Devon-based Bloodhound owner, breeder, and trainer Sam Clark.

Sam has been training Bloodhounds to search for humans for more than 20 years. She became inundated with pleas from frantic owners asking if her hounds could find their missing dogs.

“I started getting lots of calls from people begging me to find their dogs,” explained Sam.

“I had to say no because my hounds were trained to only track human scent. If you’ve got a hound who tracks humans and then start training him to track other things, it will be hard for him to go back to tracking humans. My initial thought was that if I had lost my dog and phoned someone for help I would be very upset. I felt awful saying no to people.”

Sam then came across a woman in America who trained hounds to track missing pets. I got talking to her and she told me how she started her Bloodhounds off, and sent me a book she had written.”

Sam decided to start training a Bloodhound specifically to track other dogs in the UK, and K9 Search Dogs was born. She formed the not-for-profit charity with a group of like-minded friends and encouraged other people to get involved. The aim is to become a charitable trust. Everything is done on a voluntary basis, although people are welcome to make donations. There are now three Bloodhounds being trained to track missing dogs in Devon and Cornwall. Forager, who’s 18 months old, was the first official K9 Search Dog. As a back-up, Sam started training another Bloodhound called Baffle, who was 18 months old at the time.

Seven-month-old Jara is a new recruit to the K9 Search Dogs team, having started his training in April this year.

“It’s about channelling their instincts differently,” said Sam.

“Instead of thinking like a human I have to think like a dog, and think about the places a dog would go. We train any time we can; sometimes we will do it five times a week, other weeks it won’t be as much.”

The hounds train on fields in West Devon and on the moors, where quite a few dogs go missing due to distractions such as sheep and ponies. Sam recently started training on a local industrial estate at night. She’s also worked on beaches and parts of the South West Coast Path. She often goes to town parks as it’s important for the hounds to get used to meeting other dogs. Dog owners are asked to help with the training by volunteering to walk their dogs on set routes for the hounds to train on.

“There are lots of people who come to us with their dogs and hide so the hounds can find them,” said Sam.

“It’s good for the hounds to learn to track different dogs and in different locations. If I’m training a pup, I will ask someone to walk about half a mile and then put a dab of flour on the ground every 20 metres or so, so I know the hound is on the right scent; it acts as a marker for me. All the hounds are different in how they track. Forager is always flat out, whereas Baffle is completely different and more gentle. You know when a hound has a scent — his head goes up and his tail goes quite high. It’s all in the body language. Every police department in the USA has its own Bloodhound; in the UK this isn’t the case as they’re not economical. Bloodhounds are trained to find one specific scent — this is what makes them different from other types of sniffer dogs.”

The search begins

When a pet dog goes missing and the owner calls K9 Search Dogs for assistance, information including the time, name, and phone number is logged. The owner is asked to produce a reliable scent article which smells strongly of their pet, such as a collar, lead, jacket, or harness.

It should be placed inside a clean and unused bag, such as a freezer bag, which is sealed and kept somewhere cool until given to the search dog handler. The handler will find out where the dog was last seen and how long ago, and take the hound to this location. The dog’s owner is always present during a search. A hound will sniff the scent article for a few seconds and then begin to track the lost dog.

“The hounds need a scent article as they work purely on that scent,” explained Sam. However, they aren’t always successful at finding lost pets as every situation is different. “Our biggest limit at the moment is time; if someone who lived two hours away called and told me their dog had gone missing two hours before, that scent would be too old,” she continued.

“Forager is trained to track a scent that is four hours cold, Baffle two hours, and Jara one hour, but he is catching up fast. Bloodhounds will track a scent that is 24 hours cold happily, so my goal is to build the time up. In the future I’d like to get people with Bloodhounds in other counties involved.”

There have been several successful searches since the charity started. Earlier this year, two spaniels got lost near Bodmin, Cornwall. They had been missing for several hours when Sam was contacted.

“A woman saw them down a lane late at night,” said Sam.

“Following a two and a half hour search we ended up at a hotel near a golf course. Forager kept going back to a hole near the fire escape. We decided that the dogs must have been in the vicinity of the hotel. The owner stayed at the hotel and in the morning the dogs were waiting at the bottom of the fire escape.”

In February, Sam was called to find a rescue collie who’d gone missing after one day in her new home.

“The owners had let the dog off the lead on a walk and she ran off,” explained Sam.

“The dog had been missing for a week in the wild. A farmer called to say he had spotted the dog in his field and we met the owners there. Within 10 minutes Forager had found the dog, but she was scared of her new owners because she didn’t know them and wouldn’t go near them. We would get within 100 yards of the dog before she moved away. It was decided to leave her and arrange for a cage trap to be put down at the farm; in the morning the dog was in the trap. The scent article was a brush; fortunately, the day the owners brought the dog home they had brushed her.”

In another case, the owner of a Lurcher had asked her friend to walk her dog while she was in hospital. The dog jumped out of the car at the park and ran off, and was sighted near a supermarket car park about half a mile away. The owner was discharged from hospital and desperately tried to find her missing dog.

“Forager tracked this dog all the way around a housing estate in the dark and ended up on a main road,” said Sam.

“It was too dangerous for him to go any further as it was a very busy road — there were no street lights or paths. A couple of hours later we went back to where we tracked the Lurcher and the dog was sitting on a roundabout, so the owner got him back in the end.” Sometimes, however, a dog will have been missing for far too long for the Bloodhounds to make a difference. Someone called me about their dog who’d been missing for eight weeks and the animal hadn’t been seen in that amount of time,” added Sam.

“They didn’t have a scent article. There was absolutely nothing we could do.”

For further information, visit the K9 Search Dogs website.