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Dog search team steps up training ahead of Ukraine deployment to find bodies

Dog search team steps up training ahead of Ukraine deployment to find bodies
John Miskelly and Emma Dryburgh are ready to fly to the country to help with the grim task of uncovering corpses.

A dog search team which specialises in recovering human bodies is stepping up its training ahead of an expected deployment to Ukraine.

Springer spaniel Bracken, sprocker Bramble and Dougal, a Labrador-springer spaniel mix, are travelling to Italy on Thursday to hone their skills while on standby for a trip to the war zone.

Handlers John Miskelly, a British Army veteran, and NHS nurse, Emma Dryburgh, have received a request to help in Ukraine but are waiting to receive confirmation that it is safe enough for them to travel.

They are part of Response Rescue International Scotland and their cadaver dogs, who are trained to detect the scent of human remains, would be assisting the work of the European Association of Civil Protection Volunteer Teams (Evolsar).

John Miskelly with his dog Bracken alongside team member Emma Dryburgh and her dog Dougal at his home in Falkland, Fife (Andrew Milligan/PA)
John Miskelly with his dog Bracken alongside team member Emma Dryburgh and her dog Dougal at his home in Falkland, Fife (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Mr Miskelly, of Falkland, Fife, said they will offer “fresh handlers with fresh dogs” to help the “weary” Ukrainian search teams, who have lost loved ones themselves since Russia launched its invasion in February.

The 54-year-old told the PA news agency: “We are on standby with Evolsar to go to Ukraine.

“We’re the only two victim recovery dog handlers within Evolsar and a request was put into us directly by a search, rescue and recovery team in Ukraine if we could assist in the recovery of bodies.

“I’ve been in touch with them since the war started.

“Some of them have lost children in the war, some of them have lost parents. The team leader of the search, rescue and recovery team lost both their parents within two weeks, had their homes bombed, wrecked and everything. And they’re living in underground shelters and bunkers and so forth.

“Whenever it is safe to be outdoors, that team leader with the rest of her guys are going out, going around the area and they’re recovering bodies, they’re recovering civilians that the Russians have killed and buried in shallow graves.

“The pictures that she’s sending me are really disturbing.”

He added: “Those people are tired, weary, their dogs are wrecked, they’re shattered. We’re fresh handlers with fresh dogs and we even have a partner team in the Czech Republic in Prague who we will bring with us – so fresh handlers, fresh dogs.

John Miskelly with his dog Bracken (Andrew Milligan/PA)
John Miskelly with his dog Bracken (Andrew Milligan/PA)

“They’re pleading for our help.”

Mr Miskelly, who served in the First Battalion Royal Irish Rangers after joining the army aged 16, said the team will undergo five days’ training in Italy to help prepare them for the Ukraine deployment.

He said: “When we entered into this world of human remains recovery, it’s not only about training the dog, it’s about training yourself.

“Emma and myself have done mental health awareness training, we’ve also done training on disaster response, how to cope with things abroad.”

Mr Miskelly said their work in the UK has included assisting the police in Scotland once a search has been called off.

On the type of skills required, Mr Miskelly said: “We look for a dog with good high drive, good play drive, a dog that wants to play with a tennis ball all day, a dog that wants to search for a tennis ball, and then we can work with that dog in introducing the various scents that they need to be aware of.

“The reward for them once they do get a find is a tennis ball.”

The House of Commons heard the charity is required to pay £75 per dog for them to be seen by a vet every time they leave the UK due to post-Brexit rule changes.

John Miskelly with his dog Bramble alongside team member Emma Dryburgh and her dog Dougal (Andrew Milligan/PA)
John Miskelly with his dog Bramble alongside team member Emma Dryburgh and her dog Dougal (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Last week, Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse told Foreign Secretary Liz Truss: “The service could be seen as an emergency service, and given that they are going to travel to Ukraine, will the Secretary of State work with other Departments to see whether those charges could be waived?”

Ms Truss said she would “strongly encourage” the charity to apply directly to the Foreign Office, adding: “We will look at that proposal.”

The pet passport scheme between the UK and the EU ended as a result of Brexit and any animals taken into the EU need an Animal Health Certificate.

Mr Miskelly said: “Could we be given a special licence or some sort of exemption certificate where as long as our dogs are fully inoculated and have the rabies jab? Could we go back to the way it was before? We are emergency workers.”