SES canine search team finds success as kelpie-training recruits named cadets of the year

Teenagers Beatrice Walladge and Sophie Western have been jointly named South Australia’s State Emergency Services (SES) cadets of the year after training their kelpies to become fully operational search dogs in just nine months.

Working off the lead, their dogs can cover large areas efficiently.

Sophie often recruits friends and family members to get lost.

Unlike in the movies, their dogs do not need an item of clothing to find someone who is lost or missing.

“That’s the question I get all the time: ‘do they need a sock to find me?'” Sophie said.

It is a common misconception, but unlike sniffer dogs or police dogs, these canines are trained to air scent: scanning an area to pick up the scent of a human.

German shepherd stands on dirt road with sunset in background.
German shepherd Jagger made the first successful missing person find in South Australia and followed it up with more finds before retiring.(Supplied: Loxton SES)

Top dog Jagger recruits new blood

Both of the 17-year-old cadets joined Loxton’s SES canine unit a year ago after a chance meeting with its retired search dog, Jagger.

The German shepherd has been instrumental in finding people missing in South Australia and both Beatrice and Sophie found themselves a little starstruck.

“I always wondered, ‘how do they train these dogs and do they actually do the job?'” Sophie said.

“And meeting Jagger was really amazing because he’s found people and he’s saved lives.”

Beatrice Walladge and Sophie Western in orange SES overalls with two kelpies and scrub and river in background.
Beatrice Walladge and Sophie Western trained kelpies Cassia and Bailey in just nine months.(ABC Riverland: Catherine Heuzenroeder)

Both girls have wanted to work with animals since they were children.

“Growing up, I would read books and google different things about search dogs so now to be able to train one is amazing,” Beatrice said.

“So meeting Jagger I was like, yep, I’m in!”

Six SES members stand with three dogs and trees, scrub in background.
Loxton’s SES canine unit wants dogs like Cassia and Bailey to be called up for every missing person search in SA.(ABC Riverland: Catherine Heuzenroeder)

First successful find in SA

Jagger joined the Loxton unit about six years ago and in doing so made it the first dog team in SA outside of Adelaide.

When he found someone hiding from police, in reeds along the River Murray during a search at Renmark, he quickly earned the respect of local police.

SES district officer Danny Wood said it was a historic find — the first from an SES dog in SA and one Jagger was able to back up with more success.

“And one of the most significant was a lady that went missing in Nairne and she was particularly unwell when we finally found her and that was a huge, huge find and enormous credibility from that sort of work,” Mr Wood said.

Tan kelpie harnessed with GPS equipment with brown kelpie in the background.
Cassia is part of the Loxton canine unit which is one of just two dog search teams in South Australia.(ABC Riverland: Catherine Heuzenroeder)

Expanding into new search territory

Search dogs are harnessed and equipped with GPS tracking equipment and once a handler gives them the command to search, they work off the lead.

Search and Rescue Dogs Australia (SARDA) said there are 10 operational canine search teams in Australia and estimates that when deployed, each dog can do the work of 40 human searchers.

The Loxton unit is keen to develop its capacity so that it can be called on for any search in South Australia and expand into cadaver and marine searches.

And the cadets are keen to keep working with their kelpies to develop their skills.

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