#107 – Training ‘Search and Rescue’ Dogs – The story continues ….

Looking north down the Nant Ffrancon valley at Ogwen

Looking north down the Nant Ffrancon valley at Ogwen

The Search and Rescue Dog Association of Wales (SARDA Cymru) holds two assessment weekends every year, where novice dogs demonstrate their searching abilities, and qualified dogs progress to a higher level.  Originally intended to search for lost or injured people in the mountains, the members of the association are now just as likely to be searching for a lost child or a confused pensioner.  Whatever the task, the training starts here in the hills and mountains of North Wales.

The view from my hiding place- the slopes of Foel Coch above Nant Ffrancon

The view from my hiding place- the slopes of Foel Coch above Nant Ffrancon

Just three weeks after the last assessment weekend, the search dogs were out again.  For the majority of the ‘air-scenting’ welsh dogs it was the real thing, searching for a lost grandfather just over the border in England – for the ‘trailing’ dogs it was business as usual at Ogwen in Snowdonia, training the dogs in the vital work of following human scents.

Sue and ‘Nellie’, ready for action

Sue and ‘Nellie’, ready for action

Successful find – ‘Nellie’ finds me at my hiding place with Sue close behind

Successful find – ‘Nellie’ finds me at my hiding place with Sue close behind

I’ve written about the work of the ‘trailing’ dogs before (see post #92) – they are trained to scent discriminate, and can follow the individual scent-trail left by a person whilst ignoring all other smells, including other humans.  My first job was to hide while German Shepherd ‘Nellie’ brought handler Sue to find me, ignoring a decoy body (Margaret) along the way.

Sue gives ‘Nellie’ her reward ….

Sue gives ‘Nellie’ her reward ….

…. while well camouflaged  body Margaret packs up her gear

…. while well camouflaged body Margaret packs up her gear

Despite a poor weather forecast, the morning was surprisingly warm, and there wasn’t enough time for me to get cold before ‘Nellie’ brought Sue to my location – the dogs are always rewarded, usually with food or a favourite toy, sometimes both.  We walked back to the start line, collecting Margaret along the way, just in time to see Roly and ‘Shadow’ in action.

Roly and ‘Shadow’ on a short search

Roly and ‘Shadow’ on a short search

Border Collie ‘Shadow’ was working at a more basic level, but with a big difference.  The ‘trailing’ dogs learn to scent-discriminate by finding plastic boxes carrying a distinctive smell – they then learn to follow an individual smell, avoiding decoys.  Eventually they work up to finding a person by following the trail of their unique human smell.

‘Shadow’ closing in on the objective ….

‘Shadow’ closing in on the objective ….

…. and a successful find.

…. and a successful find.

Although ‘Shadow’ was working at an earlier stage of training than ‘Nellie’, she was working without a ‘trailing’ lead, using ‘air-scenting’ ability to close in on the objective.  In effect, Roly is training the dog in two techniques, to produce an ‘air-scenting’ dog that can also scent discriminate.  I watched ‘Shadow’ on her first successful run of the day, before I was called back to work as a body for Geoff and ‘Bonny’.

Geoff and ‘Bonny’ following my trail down the road, followed by training advisors

Geoff and ‘Bonny’ following my trail down the road, followed by training advisors

Geoff and ‘Bonny’ moving in for the find

Geoff and ‘Bonny’ moving in for the find

John placed me in position on the hillside, then went back to follow Geoff in.  I’ve bodied for Geoff before (see post #105) and ‘Bonny’ can best be described as a four-legged Exocet – she’s half Spaniel with just two speeds, ‘on’ or ‘off’, and ‘on’ is flat out!  Again, there was no time to get cold before dog and handler had found me.

Sue and ‘Nellie’ set off for the last search of the day

Sue and ‘Nellie’ set off for the last search of the day

Closing in on the ‘body’

Closing in on the ‘body’

There was just time to watch Sue and ‘Nellie’ complete a final search before the training session ended.  I was on my own for this weekend – my Border Collie ‘Mist’ was on a light exercise regime following a minor injury, and was back at home sulking!  By the following mid-week she was getting ready for a decent walk out, so I took her along to a morning training session in the Clwydian Hills with Geoff and ‘Bonny’.

‘Mist’ on the Moel Famau path

‘Mist’ on the Moel Famau path

At the summit of Moel Famau in cold, dank conditions

At the summit of Moel Famau in cold, dank conditions

‘Mist’ hasn’t been accepted as a trainee search dog yet, and in the meantime I’m continuing my apprenticeship by being a ‘body’ for the dogs in training.  My job today was bodying for ‘Bonny’ on a blind search, in other words Geoff didn’t know where I was.  That made no difference at all to ‘Bonny’ who after following a trail through the woods almost dragged Geoff through the trees on the final approach to my hiding place!

Author and ‘Mist’ both well insulated against a cold wind

Author and ‘Mist’ both well insulated against a cold wind

It was a dull day, with a bitterly cold wind, and I was glad to be moving again after the find.  ‘Mist’ in the meantime had been practicing the virtue of patience by waiting in the car, and was rewarded with a brisk walk out over Moel Famau.  By the weekend she was fully recovered from her injury, and it was time for a return to Ogwen for a real mountain day – you can read all about it here next week!

Back to Ogwen for a real mountain day  (JB)

Back to Ogwen for a real mountain day (JB)

Text and images © Paul Shorrock, except image tagged (JB) © John Bamber

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.
This entry was posted in 5. North Wales, Border Collies, General Interest, Mountain Safety and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to #107 – Training ‘Search and Rescue’ Dogs – The story continues ….

  1. Some amazing scenery Paul and Mist looks quite happy sitting in the Mist. Skye would love this kind of thing, very difficult to find mountains in Berlin. 😦

  2. How old is Mist?

    • Like me she’s past the first flush of youth.

      Mist is 4 and at her prime.
      I’m ….. a bit more than 4! Not quite at ‘sell by’ date, but fast approaching 😉

      • Well Mist’s definitely not over the hill, but I’m sure you’re not either 😀

      • Hahaha …. Depends on which hill you mean 😉 😀

        Serously though, I’m under no illusions about Mist and I being automatically accepted by SARDA Wales – I can’t charge up a hill as fast as a 30 year old, but I’ve got more than 40 years of experience to keep me and the dog safe and perhaps to be able to contribute something at the same time.

        And it’s all a bit of a larf at the end of the day, innit?!! 🙂

  3. My 2 favourite photos there are the one of the first find – a real action shot – and that last one’s a blinder too.

    If I was acting as a ‘body’, they’d have to bring a reward of choccie for me too 😉 What’s Mist done to herself? a pad injury or a strain or something?

    Can I just see Atlantic Slab peeping over one of the earlier photos? Have you climbed that? if so, what’s it like? Any good for fairly new climbers or not?

    • Thanks Carol – the pic of the first find would have been even better if I’d been using a film camera. My digi camera isn’t posh enough (i.e. expensive!) to take an image instantly, so there’s a slight time lag – When Nellie arrived she looked straight at me with big expressive eyes before turning her head and body back to Sue. That’s the shot I wish I had taken!

      Mist is fine now – she had a slight limp that persisted for a couple of days, probably a minor soft tissue injury. On day 2 I took her to the vet, and the vet was also cautious and put her on ‘light duties’ for a week, though probably not really necessary.

      I didn’t even know about Atlantic Slab, but I am new here in Wales 🙂 I’ve checked the angles and heights from the photo location, and no you can’t see it. There are some interesting videos of the route if you Google it. Goes at Grade 3 scramble/Moderate climb.
      It looks technically easy, but it’s long (1000 ft in old units). I would say it would need a confident approach, because you’re going to be on that long slab for a long time, like a flea on an elephant’s arse (if you’ll pardon the expression)
      Think of Tryfan Bach, but 3-4 times longer.
      Sometimes something a bit steeper but with lots to get hold of is less stressful for those with less experience. It would probably be a good idea to rope it, unless very confident.

  4. Mountain climbing, mountain biking and now mountain lurking – you could start a craze. Another good ‘behind the scenes’ post. The last photo illustrates very nicely just why we can’t keep away from these sorts of places. Glad to hear Mist is ok. Btw, take care on slopes in all that gear – if you start rolling you’ll never stop!

    • I was relatively lightweight on Moel Famau, but next weeks blog shows me and my mate carrying much more – and yes it was a good idea we didn’t start rolling 😀
      The last pic comes from that trip

      Lurking could catch on – I bet there’s a business opportunity there, selling expensive Gore-tex ‘Lurking’ jackets to the gullible 😉

  5. Neil F says:

    Hi Paul, probably a bit of a cheek! But have a look at my wife’s website http://www.capturedart.co.uk you may see a couple of Collies on there! But please pass on to any other dog lovers. Hopefully meet up at the big reunion 🙂 cheers Neil

  6. Samsara says:

    wonderfull image!

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