Nero is a lovable young black labrador, intelligent, full of fun and adored by his owners, Camross couple Marcel and Johanna Steenkist. He can also do a valuable job in a fraction of the time it used to take a whole team of skilled humans to do.
Marcel has trained Nero to detect human remains, even if buried in the ground. When he is successful in his search, he will lie quietly without disturbing any potential evidence, patiently waiting for his master’s approval. So far, the one year old dog has not had his training put to the test, but daily lessons keep his skills finely honed.
It is an impressive first effort for a man who never trained a dog before. Marcel is a volunteer with Durrow Civil Defence, and six years ago saw the need for human remains detection dogs while being involved in the search for Cork schoolboy Robert Holohan.
“I wondered why there were no search dogs used. They can cover more terrain quicker,” he said.
Marcel suggested getting a dog to Liam Preston from the Civil Defence, who then got a grant from Laois County Council to set up the K9 unit. Marcel went back to his native Holland and sourced Rex, a human remains detection German Shepherd.
After a short training course, himself and Rex went on to work on many high profile searches, including ones for Meg Ryan in Waterford and Tommy Thompson in Laois, as well as many suicide searches.
Rex passed away from cancer in November 2010, a big loss to the emergency services, and even more so to the Steenkists.
“It was very sad. For me a pet is part of the family, especially with a working dog, I can’t describe the relationship. He was like my child,” said Marcel, who keeps Rex’s ashes in an urn on the fireplace.
After taking several months to get over the loss, he knew the K9 unit needed to continue.
“I wanted a lab puppy, they are excellent for scent, and for their friendliness to the public. They are used in drugs and weapons searches frequently,” he explained.
He bought Nero, a five month old puppy, from a specialist breeder in Northern Ireland last March, and began teaching him search skills.
“It’s ten or fifteeen minutes a day, longer at weekends. I hide things and he finds them, then he gets a food or play reward. At weekends, I might bury a chemical scent on a swab the day before, we couldn’t smell it but to hiim it’s like the odour of a decomposed body,” he said.
Marcel demonstrated a training technique where he places six sealed plastic tubes on the ground, one of which has human teeth inside. After his command of ‘zoek’, Dutch for ‘find’, Nero sniffs each in turn and within seconds, lies down quietly with his nose pointed to the correct one, termed a passive alert.
“He can even smell through a glass jar. Their noses are a few 100,000 times as sensitive as ours. I buried something in a field the other day about a foot deep. Sometimes I hang things in trees, to teach him to look up,” he said.
Marcel is a clinical nurse specialising in psychiatry, and a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist.
Himself and Johanna live in Camross village, close to the Slieve Blooms.
Marcel is all too aware that if human remains are around, chances are he and Nero will be the ones to find them.
“It’s always in the back of my head, I am always mentally prepared. If I see a plastic bag or anything in a ditch, I approach with caution,” he said.
He has found several bodies while working with Rex, but says his counselling training helps him cope.
“There is an initial shock, and after that, I am professional, securing the scene, covering the body.
“If you see one, you see them all but a decomposing body is a lot more horrifying,” he admits.
His idea for the K9 unit has been taken up nationally by the Civil Defence.
Recently a discussion paper was passed by them, making K9 units an official part of their operations. Westmeath and Tipperary North have now set up units, using search and rescue dogs. A set of standards is being prepared for national certification for search and rescue dog training.
The Gardaí have only one dog unit for the country Marcel says, so it is only a matter of time before Nero’s skills are tested for real.
“At the moment we are keeping prepared. We attend dog training conferences, and take part in demonstrations.
“ We have a big training exercise coming up in the Slieve Blooms this summer. There are no major cases at the moment, but he is trained and on standby,” he said.