UK sniffer dogs from shelters to help in earthquake search

Survivors continue to be pulled from rubble in Turkey, four days after the disaster

K9 Search and Rescue volunteers Ryan Gray, left, and Kyle Murray with their dogs Max and Delta. PA
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A British charity that trains shelter rescue dogs as specialist search animals is sending a team to Turkey in the hope of finding people still trapped after Monday's earthquake.

K9 Search and Rescue in Northern Ireland has responded to Turkey's international appeal for assistance, after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 22,000 people there and in Syria.

Johnny Taughey, deputy team leader, said it will be the first major disaster the animals have worked on, as the majority of cases the group deal with are missing persons.

Speaking hours before the team was due to depart the UK on Friday, he told The National that the group’s mission gives the animals a second chance at life.

“We like to say that the rescued becomes the rescuer,” he said.

“Our handlers and dogs have been to California and have trained in collapsed buildings.

“The dogs go through rigorous training every week. From scratch, it takes about 12 months for them to qualify.

“They are bringing a skill of being able to sniff deep under rubble for the human scent.

“They follow the scent and when they believe they have found a body they bark.

“They do it all for a tennis ball. Once they get that [as a reward] they are happy.”

K9 Search and Rescue NI team leader Ryan Gray with his dog Max at the Wolf Hill quarry, Belfast, before heading to Turkey. PA

The charity relies on donations and is made up of volunteer rescuers, most of whom come from backgrounds in the police, fire service or coastguard.

Some 20 handlers are signed up to offer their services to the public when a request is made to K9.

Those who put themselves forward to help in Turkey are Ryan Gray with his dog Max and Kyle Murray with his dog Delta. As they prepared to set off on Friday, people were still being pulled alive from debris four days after the colossal earthquake struck.

The stench of death hung over Turkey's eastern city of Kahramanmaras — the epicentre of the first tremor of the quake — as the death toll inched closer to 23,000.

The UN warned that 874,000 people across Turkey and Syria were now in urgent need of hot meals. The suffering of the victims has been compounded by the biting cold weather.

A team from K9 Search and Rescue was sent to a petrol station in Donegal, Ireland, last October to search for survivors and bodies, following an explosion that killed 10 people.

However, the vast majority of calls come from people searching for loved ones who have disappeared.

The situation the dogs and handlers will face in Turkey will be quite different.

While international rescuers have brought with them specialist tools to remove people from the rubble of buildings in Turkey, locals have been forced to dig with their hands.

“The unknown [in Turkey] will be the amount of dangerous hazards and the sheer size of the disaster zone,” Mr Taughey said.

“The conditions that they will be subjected to are very difficult.

“They will be working with a team from the UK that have rescue equipment. There will also be a European team, including people from Portugal, Italy and Malta.

“Due to the magnitude of it, the team booked one-way tickets. They have taken time off from work and taken time away from their families to offer help for as long as they are needed.”

Updated: February 10, 2023, 6:05 PM