Interview: SARDA

Motley’s Rachel O’ Shea was excited to speak with SARDA Dog Handler, Pauliina Kauppila.

SARDA Ireland is a national voluntary 999 / 112 emergency search and rescue organization. Since its establishment in 1987, Search and Rescue Dog Association has been training, assessing and deploying air-scenting search dogs throughout the country. The objective of the organization is to assist in the search and rescue of missing persons. SARDA teams, which consist of a handler and dog, can be deployed in the mountains, woodlands, rural and urban areas, waterways and seashore, as well as in locating accident or disaster victims.

Pauliina Kauppila explained her role and experience working as a member of the organization. She began by saying she first became interested when she “got to know a paramedic in Beara Peninsula who had previously been involved with search dogs. He suggested that I try training my own dog, who was 2 years old at the time. I trained independently for a while but when I decided to get more serious about it, I joined SARDA.”

A SARDA dog team is the synergistic sum of two halves: the handler and the dog. Each handler has their own dog that they train with specifically and work with when callouts are deployed. She explains that the stronger the bond between the handler and dog, the more successful they operate as an effective team. “The longer you work with a dog, the better you tend to work together,” she claims, “It is up to the handler to plan the search, taking the terrain, wind direction and other factors into account. You then try to cover the area as well as you can, sending the dog out to specific directions as you go. A good dog will range a long way away from the handler, ideally doing a lot of the legwork for you”. Kauppila has her own dog “Koiru,” which is actually the Finnish word for “dog.” “Koiru is 10 years old but she still absolutely loves the training,” Kauppila explained, “When things are going smoothly, working together with the dog is great fun. And the nice thing is that the dogs agree! For them, the training is basically just a brilliant game of hide-and-seek with kind people who have an endless supply of toys for them.”

There are many different ways to execute a callout and you need to be ready for everything. “If you’re being called out as part of your own team, be it coast guard, mountain rescue or another team, you plan it together with the rest of the team mates. Ideally, the handler and dog will go into an area that has not got other searchers in it, as this can be confusing for the dog. If it is an area that you’re not familiar with, it is good to have a navigator with you so the handler can just focus on the dog. If the search is coordinated by, say, the Gardaí, you will generally be allocated specific areas of interest to sweep. Quite often it is the case of trying to eliminate areas, and it is rare to actually get a find in a real search situation. You need to be in the right place at the right time, and that is often down to luck.”

Kauppila laughs as she is reminded of a recent search where she had to be rescued herself on the outing. “I tore the cruciate ligament on my knee during the recent assessment in Wicklow and had to come down off the hill on a stretcher” she admits, “It was kind of ironic. And yes, everyone else seemed to think it was very funny! There was much slagging and photos being taken as I was being carried back. Ah, the ignominy.”

Becoming a SARDA Handler is not an easy feat, there are many challenging training assessments that must be undertaken. While most handlers have had previous experience in other search and rescue teams, you need additional training to join the SARDA team.

“I have been a volunteer with Castletownbere Coast Guard unit for over 10 years. As SARDA handlers, however, we also get additional training in first aid and mountain skills. In order to become a qualified dog team, you have to go through various stages of training, including a pre-assessment followed by a rigorous 3-day assessment on the hills. Basically, the assessors want to see that you and your dog work well as a team and that you cover your search areas thoroughly and efficiently. The assessments are not much fun, to be honest with you.”

There appear to be many unforeseen and interesting benefits with using search dogs. Motley learned that SARDA’s “dogs are air-scenting dogs which means that they can cover large areas quickly and efficiently. With the right wind conditions, a dog can pick up a person’s scent from several hundreds of metres away. And the great thing about using search dogs is that, unlike humans, they work just as well in the dark or in foggy conditions.” Kauppila highlights the benefit of using search dogs as she recalls a particular case that stood out for her, recalling a time in June when she was called out with her Coast Guard team.

“A man had gone missing and his family was concerned. Koiru found his body, so I was the first person on scene. That kind of experience is something that stays with you. Despite the sad outcome, I was pleased that she had worked so well – this was a scenario we had practised dozens of times in the past, so it kind of made all that training feel worthwhile. Also, a number of other searchers had walked past the spot previously but missed the body, so Koiru’s find highlighted the value of having a search dog as part of the search effort.”

When selecting dogs for training there are many factors that need to be taken into account, and not all dogs are suited to the job. “A few different breeds pop up, but most of our dogs are collies or collie crosses,” says Kauppila, “They seem to tick a lot of boxes when it comes to physique, intelligence and play drive. Play drive is hugely important. The more the dog wants to play, the easier it is to train them and the more motivated they are.” Before any dog is accepted for training, it needs to pass a basic obedience test and a stock test. The latter is very important because dogs often train on mountains where there are sheep. The actual search training starts with short run-outs where the dog gets rewarded for finding a person. From this you move on to indication: the dog needs to return to the handler and indicate by barking that they’ve found someone. Gradually you make the areas bigger and the distances longer. The reward is generally just playtime with a tennis ball or a tug toy. “I am always amazed how absolutely motivated my dog is to run around hills for hours, just to get the toy again. You also use praise and general excitement: basically having a find is always a big party! The idea is to make the whole experience as rewarding as possible for the dogs.”Despite the fun of training, it’s quite a long process to get a dog fully qualified,generally it will take at least 2-3 years to get a dog (and the handler!) to assessment level and there is no definite lifespan for a search dog.

“As long as a dog is fit and performs well, they can keep working. Having said that, you have to be realistic about it too. Koiru’s current qualification will expire when she is 13, so that should take her well into her retirement.”

Being part of the SARDA team takes a lot of hard work but is thoroughly fulfilling and rewarding. Not only are they committed the great work they do helping others but for the love and satisfaction of working alongside you furry best friend.

“Working together with my dog is hugely enjoyable for me. When I see her bounding back to me after a find, all delighted and excited, I get a great buzz from it too. It is simply a nice thing to do, to be out on the hills and forests with a bunch of happy dogs and like-minded people. There is a social aspect to the training too; we’d generally have dinner and few pints together on the training weekends.”

There are many ways you can get involved or volunteer. “We receive a small grant from the government but also rely hugely on fund-raising,” she explains, “All our handlers and helpers are unpaid volunteers, but money is obviously needed for equipment and training. We have an annual street collection in Cork coming up on the 10th of January. You will see our members shaking buckets in the city centre and outside the main shopping centres on that day. The dogs will be there too, of course. Feel free to come and say hi! There are also other ways to help and get involved. We are always looking for ‘dogsbodies’ to help us with the training. These are the people who hide away and wait for dogs to come and find them. It is actually a really fun and strangely relaxing thing to do. We could not train without our dogsbodies, so we are always very grateful to them. If you are interested in helping out in this way, you will find details on our website.”


For more information you can visit or on the Facebook page: Search and Rescue Dog Association (Ireland).