Joanne Bednall hears how Hampshire Search & Rescue Dogs’ youngest canine recruit overcame elbow dysplasia to save countless lives and earn his handler an MBE...
All former soldier Kevin Saunders wanted to do was help people. And if that meant combining his skills honed in war zones such as Iraq with his passion for dogs, then all the better. The 40-year-old, whose day job now involves project managing the fitting out of police cars, started volunteering for the charity Hampshire Search & Rescue Dogs (HSRD) in 2007.
“Working alongside explosive detection dogs in Iraq first sparked my interest in search and rescue,” explained Kevin, whose family owned a succession of rescue collie-crosses while he was growing up.
"It was the start of my love for working dogs — I was impressed by their devotion to duty in all kinds of environments and the partnership between dog and handler.” The following year, after undertaking his initial training, Kevin decided to get his own dog to train in search and rescue.“ I have always loved Border Collies,” continued Kevin, from North Baddesley, Hampshire. “The breed is perfect for search and rescue as they are intelligent and medium-sized, so can be lifted over fences easily, yet are robust enough to get through vegetation.”
Kevin spent several months researching breeders and how to select the perfect search dog, eventually settling on a red and white puppy from a litter with heelwork to music bloodlines. “Zak chose me,” recalled Kevin. “It was the confident, plump puppy who sat on my lap who won the day — all the rules for choosing the right dog went straight out the window!”
It didn’t take long though for Zak to demonstrate a natural flair and passion for search and rescue. “I took Zak to work with me and fitted my life around him,” said Kevin, who explained that training a search and rescue dog can take 18 months to three years — or even longer for a volunteer like him, with a day job. But amazingly, Zak became HSRD’s youngest operational dog when he passed his level 2 national assessment just 10 days after his first birthday. Then to top it all, six months later, the talented collie attained level 3, which qualified him to work in any environment. However, the elation and pride Kevin felt was short-lived.
In late 2009/early 2010, Zak came back from one of their first assignments limping. “We had been deployed to Dorset on a search over some tough and unforgiving terrain when Zak came back lame in his front left leg,” recalled Kevin, who thought his dog might have fallen awkwardly or twisted his leg. He rested Zak for a week but the limp persisted. There was no improvement after further respite, so the collie’s vet referred him to Winchester-based Anderson Moores Veterinary Specialists for tests.
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