A dog who went on more than 300 search and rescue missions across an 11-year-career is among five canines being honoured for their dedicated service to the British public.
Vet charity The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals awarded the dogs its PDSA Order of Merit at a ceremony at east London’s Honourable Artillery Company on Thursday.
The five dogs, including Hampshire Search & Rescue volunteer Zak and Europe’s first justice facility dog Oliver, were celebrated at a day-long event.
Oliver, six, is a trailblazer in providing support and comfort to victims of crime, often sitting alongside children while they report an offence to police or give evidence in court.
“He literally changes lives and I am really proud,” Oliver’s handler and owner Dr Liz Spruin told the PA news agency.
“The work that he has done has directly led to a pilot programme across four different countries in Europe and we’re going to extend that out.
“(The award) is really special and going on a national stage that recognises the special bond of humans and animals, that’s what he does.
“We are taking the human-canine bond, putting it in the criminal justice system… It means a lot.”
Dr Spruin, a lecturer in forensic psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University, saw the work of justice facility dogs in North America and trained Oliver until he was two.
“I knew it would work and I knew that our criminal justice system could really benefit from using them,” she explained.
Dr Spruin said Oliver’s service has had a huge impact on people’s lives.
“We had a 12-year-old girl who had autism and she had been raped several times… and they couldn’t get her to talk,” she said.
“But when they told her Oliver was coming, she woke up at seven, wanted to go to the pet store to bring him treats, all she thought about was him.
“And they managed to get the evidence they needed to go to trial and put away her offender.”
Kevin Saunders, 40, is a volunteer at Hampshire Search & Rescue and nominated his colleague and pet, 14-year-old border collie Zak.
“11 years ago (on Wednesday) he found his first missing person and saved a life,” Mr Saunders, from Southampton, told PA.
“The gentleman had been missing for about three days, we were tasked to a certain area… and he found him in the evening of that day and got him back to his loved ones.
“He thoroughly deserves it, he is a hero dog in many ways and he’s been my partner for all those years… I’m so so proud of him. He deserves everything.”
Before retiring in 2020, Zak had been on over 300 missions and saved four lives.
“He’s still got an amazing nose on him and still can sniff anything out – sausages around the house aren’t a problem.”
Also honoured was 10-year-old cocker spaniel Clive who is a medical alert assistance dog for his owner, Michelle Sutherland.
Ms Sutherland lives with Addison’s disease, a condition where adrenal glands – which produce a natural survival hormone called cortisol – have self-destroyed, meaning her body cannot cope with stress.
After starting his life as a family pet, they soon realised Clive could detect when Ms Sutherland’s cortisol levels were low and alert her to take medication.
“There’s not a day goes by where he doesn’t alert (me) – that’s the potential to save my life every single day and there’s probably no shadow without that I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for Clive,” the 34-year-old from Hull said.
“Going from being stuck in my own house, the fear of losing consciousness and passing out and people avoiding you, to silly things like going to the shop and buying a bottle of milk.
“Then gaining that trust and learning to grow with Clive… We do everything together.”
Vet nurse Nina Downing added: “The PDSA Order of Merit is an award that is given to dogs, cats, horses or any animal that represents the human-animal bond and shows how strong it is and it’s a unique award.
“We love the award ceremonies because these dogs or the horses, these recipients don’t know they’re doing an amazing job.
“(But) they love it and that’s what we always have to remember… They enjoy having a role, they enjoy having a purpose in life.”
PTSD assistance dog Jerry and police dog Dexter were also celebrated after years of crucial support and devotion.