He’s bold, inquisitive and has a zest for fun. At just ten months old this cute yellow labrador is utilising these qualities, harnessing his boundless puppy energy and honing his super-sensitive sense of smell. And it’s all for the benefit of people in Essex. Diesel is in training, with owner Jemma Dodds, at the K9 Unit of Essex Search and Rescue. He’s embarking on a voluntary career as an Air-scenting Search Dog. Once qualified Diesel will become part of the voluntary team that searches for vulnerable people who go missing in the county.

“I got Diesel at eight weeks old and that’s when he started training. And me as well. It’s a lot of learning on both sides. More so probably on the handler’s side. They usually say the dogs are ahead of the handlers. It’s us holding them back. And it’s true. They’re very intelligent dogs,” said Jemma.

Of the county’s 1.5 million residents, thousands of people go missing each year. Majority are found. But sometimes Essex Police, occasionally the Coastguard too, call upon the services of Essex Search and Rescue to assist in the search for vulnerable missing people, like children or people with dementia. The charity, which is run entirely by trained volunteers and funded by grants and voluntary donations, responds swiftly to mobilise its search teams and works with the emergency services, searching at any time of day or night.

Search Manager Matt Cloke said: “Anyone who needs to be found in a hurry for their own safety, we may get called out to search for.”

“When we get a call, it’s not something we want to happen because it means somebody’s gone missing but we’re here to respond to that call. We’re here to help find that missing person and return them to their family.

“We may be looking for people who don’t realise they’re lost or alternatively are trying to perhaps get away from a traumatic incident in their life. We feel we’re needed and we very definitely exist to save lives.”

The charity’s Chairman Brian Lavery said: “We’re officially part of the emergency service team because we only react when the police ask us to assist. It’s only emergencies we get called out for.”

Jemma, an accounts assistant from Colchester, joined Essex Search and Rescue last year, completing the training in her free time to become a Search Technician. With Diesel’s help, she is now undergoing further training to become a Search Dog Handler.

“It didn’t take long for Diesel to learn what the game was and now he does everything. Ten months old and he’ll go out, find someone, alert me to that person and take me back to them, which is the whole process. All we’re working on at the moment is distance and fine tuning what he already knows,” said Jemma.

Search Dogs wear a special high-vis harness when training or searching so they associate it with working, although from the dog’s perspective, searching is a game. Their reward for finding a missing person is a special treat that they don’t receive at any other time.

“Diesel has a high play drive. He works for a toy as a reward. He’s after his tennis ball at the end of it. He has a good prey drive as well, wants to chase things. How we start them off is with runaways. They’re essentially chasing after a person running away and that’s how they learn what the game is, which it is to them. Obviously, it’s not to us,” said Jemma.

Essex Search and Rescue, which is affiliated to Lowland Rescue, a national body, was called out 80 times last year. This year, so far, the tally is already nearing 60. Due to the team’s efforts, lives have been saved.

“It was very cold back in January this year and the team found a gentleman who was very hypothermic, who had been missing for a couple of days and I think it would be fair to say that that person definitely wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the team’s efforts,” said Matt.

Whilst Essex Search and Rescue has been operating since 2002, many people in the county are still unaware of the charity’s existence or the life-saving work undertaken by its volunteers in their own spare time.

Brian added: “We’re getting more recognised than we used to be, through Facebook, events we attend in Essex, radio interviews, that sort of thing. Most of the time people don’t see us because we’re out in the middle of the night in the middle of the countryside so they don’t see us doing what we do.”

To contend with the county’s diverse geography, from remote Essex countryside and forests including Epping and Hainault to 350 miles of coastline, the longest of any English county, the search team operates water and mountain bike units as well as the ground search and K9 ones. Also, investigations into establishing an aerial unit are underway. The charity’s support team plays a vital role too.

“Fundraising is our biggest challenge. If everybody could support our team by fundraising, that would be good or coming along and joining. We’ve got two levels. Operational level, that’s people who go and search for missing people and we’ve got a support team who help raise funds, attend various events and may even act as missing persons for the dog team to go and find in training. Support like that is very valuable to us,” said Brian.

The charity is now just a few thousand pounds shy of their current priority fundraising target, to buy and equip a second search vehicle. An appeal to raise £38,000 was launched a couple of years ago. Alongside that appeal, fundraising for essential equipment the charity needs is ongoing. Each year around £15,000 has to be raised through grants and donations to cover operating costs.

Mike Fraser, Equipment Officer, Support Team said: “We have to supply protective equipment to each member of the search team. A high-vis jacket, bump cap and safety glasses. If people join the mountain bike team, a cycle helmet. If they join the water team, drysuit, flotation devices, throw lines to help people out of the water. Members themselves purchase their own torches and wet weather gear.”

In addition to personal expense, dedicated volunteers give up their spare time to take part in operations and training. This year so far, volunteers have collectively clocked up more than 4000 hours in training. The K9 Unit trains in a variety of terrains at different locations across the county including Hylands Park near Chelmsford.

“It’s a very big commitment time-wise especially being part of the K9 team because we train once or twice every single week whereas the team as a whole will have training twice a month. The training is fun. It’s a really nice team. You’re with like-minded people and I’ve certainly made quite a few good friends through Search and Rescue as well,” said Jemma.

Essex Search and Rescue can be supported in many ways. Through donations, volunteering or by directly buying something from their wish list (on Amazon). Alternatively, anyone with a few hours to spare could help out the K9 Unit with training and be a ‘missing person’ for the Search Dogs to find. Lots of fun, tea and cake, could be your reward as well as a few enthusiastic, if sometimes slobbery, dog kisses.

“It’s really rewarding. Being part of Essex Search and Rescue in itself is fulfilling on a personal level. It’s nice to know you’re able to help people and just give something back. And just knowing, if you’re ever in that situation yourself, that there are people out there that do what we do,” added Jemma.