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