You might well ask the question, “why is a ‘supposed’ adult hiding behind a boulder on a Welsh hillside?” The question is more pointed when you realise that I’ve swopped a comfortable sofa and ‘Eastenders’ on the TV for a hard piece of rock and a grey view that occasionally disappears behind a shower of rain. The weather is not being kind tonight!
It’s Tuesday night in North Wales and for members of SARDA Wales (Search And Rescue Dog Association) that means training night. The association is made up from unpaid volunteer dog handlers who provide a search and rescue service to the Police, Mountain Rescue and Coastguard. They are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and in any weather.
The dogs are mostly ‘air scenting’, that is dogs that follow human scent carried on the wind rather than on the ground. A dog’s sense of smell is 1000 times more sensitive than that of a human, and it isn’t unusual for a dog to pick up a scent on the wind over distances of half a mile or more. By harnessing this ability, it’s possible for one dog to search an area that would require 30 human searchers. (SARDA Wales are also pioneers in the use of ground scenting ‘trailing’ dogs in UK Search and Rescue)
The dogs and handlers of SARDA Wales attend 80-90 callouts a year, in mountain, rural and urban locations, searching for lost hill-walkers, mountaineers, children and vulnerable adults. To be able to search effectively requires a great deal of training for both dog and handler, and as the dogs are trained to follow human scent, a constant supply of humans (and their smell) is required.
That’s what I was doing on a rainy Tuesday night. In SARDA circles, being called a ‘dogsbody’ is high praise, and the ‘bodies’ are a vital part of the training, giving the dogs something to search for. It takes 2-3 years to train a dog and handler team to a working standard, and once a dog has been ‘graded’ (qualified) the training continues to keep dog and handler to the high standard required.
As well as being a ‘body’, the evening was a chance for me to meet some of the handlers and bodies already in the organisation, and for them to meet me and ‘Mist’. Over the next few months, ‘Mist’ and I will be under scrutiny to see if we have the makings of a dog/handler team. If we do, ‘Mist’ then has to pass obedience tests, and also has to demonstrate that she is safe near sheep. If we pass those tests and are accepted for training, we have at least a couple of years or more work ahead of us to reach ‘graded’ status.
I last did this sort of thing 25 years ago, and both ‘Mist’ and I are above what might be considered the conventional age range for trainees, so it looks like being an interesting time, with a far from certain outcome! In the meantime ‘Mist’ and I witnessed a superb master class in searching, as ‘Skye’ then ‘Cluanie’ found us sat behind our boulder. It might have been raining, but it was far better than ‘Eastenders’!
You don’t have to sit behind a boulder to support the work of the Search Dogs – click on the link below to find out how you can support SARDA.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock except the SARDA image and logo which are © SARDA Wales
p.s. sorry about the quality of the photographs, but it was a bit wet!