On the hunt for missing persons with South-East London Search and Rescue

Left to right: SELSAR volunteers Keith Francis, Tom Hannath, Dave Ryan and Dan Sparks.

Left to right: SELSAR volunteers Keith Francis, Tom Hannath, Dave Ryan and Dan Sparks.

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After two agonising minutes straining at the leash, Misty the Border Collie is off, bolting into the woods like a bat out of hell.

The 11-month-old youngster is one of South East London Search and Rescue’s seven dogs, and she’s picked up the scent of one of the group’s volunteers.

It doesn’t take long for her to root out 19-year-old Tom Hannath, of Croft Road in Sundridge Park, from where he’s hiding in Jubilee Country Park, Petts Wood, during a training exercise on August 21.

Group chairman and search planner Dave Ryan, 58, watches on as Misty is put through her paces, with the hope she will soon be sniffing out a real missing person.

As Dave tells News Shopper, the buzz of going on a live search is special.

He said: "There’s always the adrenaline bit and it’s the same with all emergency services.

"The team kicks in and it just works. When you have found someone and it’s not necessarily a happy ending it’s still an ending for the family.

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Keith Francis and Misty. 

"It’s not always the result they want but at least they know where they are."

Since SELSAR was founded in 2012 they have been called out 40 times to assist police, with 10 of those coming this year.

Dave and his compatriots helped co-ordinate the rescue of a 17-year-old anorexic girl found on Hayes Common in January 2012 after she had been missing for several hours and was suffering from hypothermia.

Dave said: "It’s a good job a search dog found her and not a police dog as they can be a bit rougher.

"Ours are more likely to lick someone to death."

Search dogs are often more capable than their police counterparts as they are trained only for search missions and can catch on to scents which are older and less fresh.

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Border Collie Teddy. 

Dogs like Misty and one of Dave’s own, six-year-old Border Collie Teddy, have to go through rigorous training before they can become level three dogs, capable of searching 50 acres of woodland for missing persons in an hour-and-a-half.

Trainers such as Keith Francis, 63, gradually increase the range and the time the dogs have to wait before heading on their searches to get them ready to help the Met with a real operation.

Tom is on a gap year after finishing at St Olave’s Grammar School.

He said: "If someone I knew or loved went missing it would be nice to know there’s someone out there looking for him.

"If I can help other people should they lose someone then that’s a worthwhile thing to do."

SELSAR has an open day for potential new members on September 21 at a venue yet to be confirmed.

Visit facebook.com/SouthEastLondonSearchAndRescue or selsar.org.uk to find out more.

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