I was ready, prepared for several hours of sitting behind a rock in Cwm Llugwy, in the Carneddau mountains of North Wales. Coffee in flask, foam sit mat at the ready, extra fleece layers and full waterproofs – a day in the Carneddau can bring all four seasons in the space of a few hours. Instead, I found myself in a field near Llanrwst, enjoying an amazing display of Search and Rescue dogs at work.
In post #89 I was sat behind another rock, acting as a ‘body’ on a training exercise for SARDA Wales (Search And Rescue Dog Association). As well as providing a target for the working dogs to find, I am currently being assessed for suitability as a trainee dog handler. I last did this 25 years ago, with a dog trained to follow human scent carried on the wind.
25 years ago it was believed by most UK search dog handlers that dogs could not be trained to discriminate between different scents to search for a specific person. 25 years on, that’s exactly what some of the handlers in SARDA Wales are doing.
Training a scent-discriminating dog is far from easy, but the end result is a dog that can identify a particular human scent from, say, an item of clothing, and can then follow the scent trail left by that person. The science is mind boggling! We all leave our own unique trail as we walk about, but unless you have particularly bad body odour, most of us are totally unaware of it.
The scent trail we leave drifts about slightly before settling, and the trail that the dog follows might be a few metres from where the person walked. What’s more, the scent usually improves over a period of time, as bacteria contained in the scent trail become active, and the scent starts to ripen – it’s similar to the way a smelly Camembert develops a life of its own!
Being able to separate the scent being followed from dozens of other scents gives the ‘trailing’ dog one big advantage over the ‘air-scenting’ dog. An ‘air-scenting’ dog will follow any human scent it picks up, and on a busy day in Snowdonia that includes any other walkers in the area. For that reason, ‘air-scenting’ dogs are not as effective in urban searches.
North Wales is comprised of much more than the mountains of Snowdonia – the coastal area is heavily developed, with holiday developments and caravan sites, and increasingly search dogs are being asked to search for missing persons in these areas. The ‘trailing dog’ excels in these scenarios, whilst their ‘air-scenting’ mates can’t be beaten at searching vast amounts of mountain in poor visibility or at night.
The dogs of SARDA Wales complement each other in the ways that they can work together – a ‘trailing’ dog can sometimes indicate which path a walker took from a car park, thereby greatly reducing the area that the ‘air-scenting’ dogs have to search on the mountains, and both types of dog can do the work of dozens of human searchers.
Back in my field at Llanrwst, I worked with Geoff and ‘Bonny’ on a couple of searches, whilst Sean bodied first for Sue and ‘Nellie’ then Roly and ‘Shadow’. When we had finished, we returned to Betws y Coed, where ‘body’ Ray had walked a trail several hours earlier. Sue and ‘Nellie’ followed Ray’s trail for an hour, down streets, riverside paths, a golf course and Betws y Coed railway station, before ‘Nellie’ turned a corner and walked straight to Ray.
‘Nellie’ ignored the scents of literally hundreds of people, and followed Ray’s trail until the successful ‘find’. If that’s impressive there’s something even more amazing being tried – Roly is training ‘Shadow’ to discriminate on an air scent, which would enable the dog to range free, covering much more ground but following a specific scent. It’s never been done in UK Search and Rescue, but then again 25 years ago some of us were saying that dogs couldn’t scent discriminate at all!
You can find out how to support the work of these amazing dogs by following the link below.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock except –
Images tagged (SH) © Sean Halligan and SARDA image and logo © SARDA Wales