#92 – “Just doggin’ around …. ”

Cwm Llugwy below Carnedd Llewelyn

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.

The author being told to “Get lost!” (SH)

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.

Indicating the line taken by the ‘body’ (SH)

Marking the scent trail (SH)

A ‘body’s’ view of the search (SH)

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.

Sue sets off with Graded Search Dog Dog, ‘Nellie’ (SH)

Dog and handler getting closer (SH)

‘Nellie’ closing in for a ‘find’ (SH)

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.

Sue and ‘Nellie’ preparing for a longer search in Betws y Coed

Typical working ground for the ‘Trailing’ search dog

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!

Searching a popular woodland walk ….

…. and a riverside path

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.

On the golf course

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.

Next to the river

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.

Water break for dog and handler on a hot day

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.

Back in town at Betws y Coed railway station

‘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!

Sue and ‘Nellie’ find Ray

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

About Paul Shorrock

I've been mucking about in the mountains for longer than I care to mention. I started out by walking my local hills, then went on to rock climbing, mountaineering and skiing. Still doing it, and still getting a buzz. I'm now sharing the fun, through my guided walking business (Hillcraft Guided Walking) and by writing routes for other publishers, mainly Walking World and Discovery Walking Guides. Just to make sure I keep really busy, I am also currently a member of my local mountain rescue team.
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12 Responses to #92 – “Just doggin’ around …. ”

  1. nittylizzyrozzy says:

    All fascinating stuff. If only people knew all the work that goes on behind the scenes – I’m sure some must think you can just take any random dog up on the mountains or whatever and it instinctively knows what it’s supposed to be doing. Good ‘body’s’ eye view too.


    • You can harness a great deal of instinct Anita, especially in working breeds. Collies are workaholics anyway, and spend their lives looking at you, almost saying “What do you want me to do now?” They are as curious as cats, but choose to work with us as members of their pack, co-operation being another canine instinct that we harness. But yes, it does take a lot of hard work before a search team of human and dog learn to read each other and to work together effectively – it’s pretty good when it works though 🙂


  2. LensScaper says:

    A fascinating post. I’ve learnt so much just reading it. On a tangential thought – is it believed that dogs can smell ‘fear’.


    • I’m not sure about being able to smell fear Andy, but what dogs are amazingly good at is reading body language – a stiff posture caused by fear will certainly be picked up by a dog, especially dogs well socialised to humans. They read us far better than we read them, but that’s natural – their communication is non-verbal, so they have to be able to pick up signs of aggression, dominance, fear, etc. I’m constantly surprised (even now after five Border Collies) how they pick up the most subtle changes in our moods.
      Our ‘search dog’ project is far from a forgone conclusion, but a dog from a working breed needs a job, and I’m not into running round an arena a la Crufts 🙂


  3. smackedpentax says:

    they are amazing, you never really think of them but are bloody glad they are there if you need them..


  4. Pingback: #100 – What we did on our holidays | Paul Shorrock – One Man's Mountains AKA One Pillock's Hillocks

  5. Pingback: #105 – Lost in the Clwydian Hills | Paul Shorrock – One Man's Mountains AKA One Pillock's Hillocks

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  7. Pingback: #107 – Training ‘Search and Rescue’ Dogs – The story continues …. | Paul Shorrock – One Man's Mountains AKA One Pillock's Hillocks

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