Experts say missing mother's dog would have 'gone into panic mode'

Could Nicola Bulley’s dog hold the key to her whereabouts? Experts say springer spaniel found bone dry without its harness on would have ‘gone into panic mode’ and circled river if the missing mother had fallen in

The dog belonging to missing mother-of-two Nicola Bulley could hold the key to her whereabouts as experts have said dogs can help find the last location of their owner through their incredible sense of smell.

Lancashire Police believe Ms Bulley went missing in ‘a 10-minute window’ on January 27 while walking her dog, Willow, near the River Wyre in the village of St Michael’s on Wyre after dropping off her daughters – aged six and nine – at school. 

One canine expert said the dog could have panicked and gone into ‘fight or flight’ mode. 

Another explained that dogs, who cannot find their owner, will often circle the area they were last present. 

Writing in The Times, Colin Tennant, director of the Cambridge Institute of Dog Behaviour and Training, said: ‘A dog can help you find the last location of its owner through its sense of smell. If people lose their dog, the advice I always give to them is to stay in the exact position you were when you last saw the dog, because it will always backtrack to you. 

Ms Bulley was walking her spaniel Willow, pictured, at the time she went missing 

‘So if somebody fell in a river, the dog would always tend to circulate in that area, because that’s where all the owner’s scents are, on the ground and vegetation.’ 

He added: ‘It will often migrate back to the last spot where it was with the owner because they’re its pack leader.’ 

The expert added that usually if the dog can’t find its owner, and the home is nearby, it will often run back home. 

Addressing speculation that the fact Ms Bulley’s dog was found dry meant that the mother did not fall into the river, dog behaviour expert Ross McCarthy says that is not necessarily the case. 

He told the Express: ‘It all depends on the dog’s association with water, and their relationship with the owner and so on, as to whether they would jump in.

‘Some would through play or investigation and others would just mooch about on the side and some would panic at the strange situation.’

He said that, just like humans, dogs go into fight or flight mode.  

‘Presumably this dog has been walked along the canal and water often and been discouraged from going in or naturally just avoided going in,’ he added. 

Nicola Bulley, 45, was last seen a over a week ago walking next to the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre in Lancashire

Police inspecting the river bank before searches began this morning – the search continues

The 11 key details written by Nicola Bulley’s friend: 

A friend of Ms Bulley earlier shared 11 key details about her disappearance in a Facebook post following the 45-year-old’s disappearance. 

In the list, Tilly Ann wrote that the only CCTV camera at a residential caravan park ‘that would have seen Nikki’ is not working.

She also said Ms Bulley is ‘an incredibly strong swimmer’, and that her dog Willow who she was walking at the time was completely dry when found. 

She wrote that the dog would never have a harness on during the familiar walk, after speculation about why Willow’s harness was removed. 

When the dog was found, it was very close to the bench with the harness on the floor. 

She added that her friend would often put her phone on loud-speaker when talking. Ms Bulley’s phone was discovered close to the river bank and she had been on a conference call before she vanished.

The family friend thanked those who had shared their support and contributed to the search for Nicola – saying it had ‘created such a comfort to Nikki’s family’.

Police expressed concerns the missing mother-of-two may have fallen in the icy cold water on River Wyre while trying to retrieve her dog Willow’s tennis ball.  Specialist search crews have not recovered the ball – or anything of note – at this stage.

If Ms Bulley did fall into the water, she may have been weighed down by the heavy clothing she was wearing on the day she vanished.

But her sister Louise Cunningham urged the public to keep an open mind in a social media post.

‘Off the back of the latest police media update, please can I add there is no evidence whatsoever that she has gone into the river, it’s just a theory,’ she said.

‘Everyone needs to keep an open mind as not all CCTV and leads have been investigated fully, the police confirmed the case is far from over.’

Anyone with information or footage is asked to call 101, quoting log 565 of January 30. For immediate sightings, please call 999.

An expert diving team will use helicopters and specialist sonar equipment as they assist in the search for Ms Bulley today. 

Peter Faulding, a world-renowned forensics expert and founder of private search and rescue organisation Specialist Group International, said he would be bringing ‘high-spec’ sonar equipment worth around £55,000 that has a ‘very high hit rate’ and can ‘find people within the hour’ in search operations. He vowed today: ‘If she is there, I will find her.’

Mr Faulding, speaking from his helicopter en route to the scene, said: ‘We are having a briefing at 8.30am, and then going to the location to set up. They are getting a briefing at a farmhouse and then they’ll move to the scene.

‘We are working closely with the police to provide extra support. We are going to be using a high-frequency side scan sonar. That’s going to be used to search down the river, past the weir.

‘That will give us a crystal clear image of anything on the river bed. It shows every rock and every stone.

‘On a straight river, we can do about ten miles of river a day. But this is a very windy, changeable river, up and down in depth. So we will do the best we can.’

He added: ‘I’m confident with my expertise over 20 odd years that if she is there, I will find her with that sonar. I will be operating that sonar.’

Mr Faulding, who will also survey the route of the river by helicopter, earlier told Sky News: ‘We’re assisting with our dive team. We carry out all the underwater operations in the south east for the police anyway, but we’re bringing a particularly high-spec piece of equipment, 1,800-kilohertz specialist side-scan sonar.

‘Each year we deal with a lot of drownings and we locate them extremely quickly. The difference with this sonar is that it’s very, very high frequency.

‘It’s about £55,000 and it scans the river and I can see every stick and stone lying on the river bed. We’ve got a very high hit rate with this.’

He added: ‘Our sonar is probably a bit more superior but I’ve got a lot of specialist search expertise and I’ve worked on hundreds of these cases and we always generally find people within the hour in lakes.’

Nicola Bulley’s disappearance: A timeline 

– January 27 

The 45-year-old dropped her daughters – aged six and nine – off at school in the morning before walking her dog, Willow, in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire. 

Lancashire Police have said the mortgage adviser, from nearby Inskip, had been walking along a path beside the River Wyre just before 9am. 

She was seen by a dog walker who knew her at around 8.50am, and their pets interacted briefly before they parted ways, according to the force. 

At 8.53am, Ms Bulley sent an email to her boss, before logging on to a Microsoft Teams call at 9.01am. She was seen by a second witness at 9.10am – the last known sighting.

By 9.30am, Ms Bulley’s Teams call had ended, but her phone stayed connected to the call. Approximately five minutes later, another dog walker found her phone on a bench beside the river, with Willow darting between the two. 

At 10.50am, Ms Bulley’s family and the school attended by her children were told about her disappearance. 

Lancashire Constabulary launched an investigation into Ms Bulley’s whereabouts on the same day and appealed for witnesses to contact them.

 – January 28 

Lancashire Constabulary deployed drones, helicopters and police search dogs as part of the major missing person operation. 

They were assisted by Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, as well as Bowland Pennine Mountain Rescue team and the North West Underwater Search Team. 

– January 29 

Local residents held a meeting at the village hall to organise a search for Ms Bulley at 10.30am on Sunday, according to reports from The Mirror, and around 100 people joined the search.

Police urged volunteers to exercise caution, describing the river and its banks as ‘extremely dangerous’ and saying that activity in these areas presented ‘a genuine risk to the public’. 

– January 30 

Superintendent Sally Riley from Lancashire Constabulary said police were ‘keeping a really open mind about what could have happened’, and that they were not treating Ms Bulley’s disappearance as suspicious. 

– January 31 

Lancashire Constabulary spoke with a potential witness – a man who had been walking a small white fluffy dog near the River Wyre at the time of Ms Bulley’s disappearance. 

Her family released a statement saying they had been ‘overwhelmed by the support’ in their community, and that her daughters were ‘desperate to have their mummy back home safe’. 

– February 1 

Ms Bulley’s parents, Ernest and Dot Bulley, spoke to The Mirror about the ‘horror’ they faced over the possibility of never seeing her again. 

Her father told the newspaper: ‘We just dread to think we will never see her again, if the worst came to the worst and she was never found, how will we deal with that for the rest of our lives.’ 

– February 2 

Lancashire Constabulary spoke with a second witness who they had identified with the help of the public using CCTV – but they told police they did not have any further information to aid their inquiry. 

Officers from the North West Police Underwater and Marine support unit searched the area close to where Ms Bulley’s mobile phone was found, while police divers scoured the River Wyre. 

Meanwhile, Ms Bulley’s family appealed to the public for help tracing her. Speaking with Sky News, her sister Louise Cunningham said: ‘There has got to be somebody who knows something and all we are asking is, no matter how small or big, if there is anything you remember that doesn’t seem right, then please reach out to the police. 

‘Get in touch and get my sister back.’ Ms Bulley’s father said that his family hoped their interview would ‘spark a light’ that would lead to her being found. 

– February 3 

Lancashire Police said they were working on the hypothesis that Ms Bulley may have fallen into the River Wyre. 

Superintendent Sally Riley urged against speculation, but said it was ‘possible’ that an ‘issue’ with Ms Bulley’s dog may have led her to the water’s edge. 

She urged the public to look out for items of clothing Ms Bulley was last seen wearing, and gave an extensive list. 

Ms Bulley’s friends also shared heartfelt appeals via television interviews, including Emma White, who told the BBC that Ms Bulley’s daughters were continually asking where she was. 

– February 4

Friends reveal police are hoping to utilise Ms Bulley’s Fitbit data to help track her.

A new appeal is issued for a mystery ‘woman in yellow’ to come forward. The woman was pictured walking in the same area as Ms Bulley, pushing a stroller with a young child.

Ms Bulley’s partner speaks out to also cast doubt over the police theory she had fallen in the river. Mr Ansell says he will never give up hope of finding her. 

Police confirm there is ‘no evidence’ Ms Bulley fell in the river, despite maintaining it is their lead theory. 

A close family friend, named Tilly Ann, shared 11 key facts about her friend’s disappearance to Facebook. 

 – February 4

Police are pictured scouring the riverbank as they continue to search for Ms Bulley.

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