A Merseyside dog owner grabbed a prestigious national prize at Crufts this weekend.

Niamh Darcy and Vesper, a heroic search and rescue dog, were crowned winners of The Kennel Club Hero Dog Award at the NEC Birmingham on Sunday night.

Four-year-old Vesper, a Belgian Malinois, was a finalist in the Extraordinary Life of a Working Dog category with her owner and handler, Niamh, from Merseyside.

Darcy, a dog handler from Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, took a chance on Vesper in 2020 when she was 18 months old.

After a 48 hour trial under arduous selection conditions, Vesper performed flawlessly and their bond as a team was solid – and Vesper joined Niamh as her canine search partner.

They went from strength to strength, achieving their qualified status as a search team; an asset available to be mobilised to searches of structural collapse across the UK. In 2023, Niamh and Vesper were part of the chosen UK International Search and Rescue Team and were deployed by the Government to aid in the rescue mission following the horrific earthquakes in both Turkey and Morocco, where they worked tirelessly to locate survivors.

Vesper quickly became an integral part of this brave and dedicated team, working around the clock, using her nose to locate survivors trapped under the rubble.

Darcy said: “It is more than incredible. The whole competition has really moved me, it is such a positive competition. I want people to know that Crufts is more than a dog show.

"This competition is a fantastic idea and shows what dogs mean to people, not just to me, but the differences and the changes they make to people's lives. I know we are a country of dog lovers but this is extra special to me!”

Award ambassador and two-time Paralympic champion Libby Clegg, who presented Vesper and Niamh with the award, added: “I was so honoured and privileged to give Niamh and Vesper this award. Their incredible partnership and the work they do together is so inspiring and lifesaving.

"All of the finalists are so well deserving to be finalists. It's nice to see the different partnerships that humans have with their dogs - it is so special."

Vesper was one of four hero dog finalists shortlisted for The Kennel Club Hero Dog Award competition in February.

The finalists shared their unique stories of the impact that each dog has made on their life, and the nation cast votes over the last month. The winner was announced in the Resorts World Arena at the NEC in Birmingham on the final day of the world’s greatest dog show, Crufts, by the award’s ambassador, Paralympian Libby Clegg.

Proud Niamh and Vesper were presented with their award and a cheque for £5,000 from The Kennel Club Charitable Trust for a dog charity of their choice. The three other finalists also received £1,000 for their chosen dog charity for making it to the prestigious final. 

Helen Kerfoot, Crufts Show Manager, said: “We congratulate Vesper and Niamh on winning The Kennel Club Hero Dog Award 2024; their story highlights the incredibly strong bond we share with our four-legged friends and why dogs are truly man’s best friend.

“Each and every one of our finalists has helped to transform their owner’s life, or the lives of others, showing unwavering devotion, bravery and companionship. They are a great example of the positive difference that dogs can make. They are all winners and their bonds will last a lifetime.”

The four dogs which made the 2024 final were selected by a panel of judges from The Kennel Club, where they were chosen for the lifetime of love and loyalty they give to their owners and for the remarkable difference they make in society.

To find out more about the award, visit Crufts website. The Kennel Club is now calling for the public to nominate their unsung canine heroes who deserve to be recognised for what they do for The Kennel Club Hero Dog Award 2025.