#143 – Dogged determination – Training a Search and Rescue dog in the mountains of North Wales

Search dog and handler at work in the mountains of North Wales (RA)

Search dog and handler at work in the mountains of North Wales (RA)

Although it doesn’t feel like it, ten months have passed since ‘Mist’ and I were accepted for training as a search team by SARDA Wales (Search And Rescue Dog Association).  “Time flies when you’re enjoying yourself”, as the expression goes, but the training fills a huge part of our lives at the moment.  Looking back it’s incredible how much has been packed in, and looking ahead there’s much more to come.  Here’s a glimpse of the last few months.

Where it starts – The stock and obedience test (RA)

Where it starts – The stock and obedience test (RA)

Bob and ‘Freddie’ – one wrong move here, and the story comes to a sudden end   (They passed!)   (RA)

Bob and ‘Freddie’ – one wrong move here, and the story comes to a sudden end (They passed!) (RA)

Everything starts with the stock and obedience test.  Before training for search and rescue can begin, the dog and handler have to demonstrate that they can work safely amongst sheep and other animals – a high level of control and obedience is also expected, and a wrong move here means that the story comes to a sudden end!  Once over that hurdle, training begins with ‘run-outs’.

Ester and ‘Izzy’ getting ready for a ‘run-out’ (RA)

Ester and ‘Izzy’ getting ready for a ‘run-out’ (RA)

And they’re off! (RA)

And they’re off! (RA)

 ‘Izzy’ leading Ester into the body (RA)

‘Izzy’ leading Ester into the body (RA)

‘Run-outs’ are the foundation of all that follows.  The dog learns to play hide and seek with a ‘body’ who runs away taking the dog’s toy – when the dog reaches the body there is an instant reward in the form of a game, and a handler/dog team will spend weeks or even months on ‘run-outs’ before doing anything more difficult.  The ‘run-outs’ are done into wind, so the dog is learning sub-consciously to associate human scent with the game

C-search diagram – Body in blue, dog in red

C-search diagram – Body in blue, dog in red

The next stage is known as a C-search.  The dog sees the body run away to hide as usual – the dog’s eyes are then covered while the body moves to a different location upwind.  When the dog is released, it goes to where it expects the body to be, to find … nothing!  At the same time, the body’s scent is being carried from the new location towards the dog, who soon realises that by running into the scent cone it will find the body.

The author and ‘Mist’ searching on more difficult ground (RA)

The author and ‘Mist’ searching on more difficult ground (RA)

Another successful find by Antony and ‘Moss’ (RA)

Another successful find by Antony and ‘Moss’ (RA)

Black Labrador ‘Indy’ at work (RA)

Black Labrador ‘Indy’ at work (RA)

Search dog ‘Indy’ and handler Gareth working in the Llanberis Pass on a warm summer day (RA)

Search dog ‘Indy’ and handler Gareth working in the Llanberis Pass on a warm summer day (RA)

The dog is also trained from the early days that the game doesn’t start until it has gone back to the handler and indicated the find by barking.  Once the dog can search on wind-borne ‘air scent’, and can give a reliable indication every time on finding the body, the training can move onto more difficult ground.

 The author and ‘Mist’ doing ‘run-outs’ in the snow (JB)

The author and ‘Mist’ doing ‘run-outs’ in the snow (JB)

Dog and handler reach the body (JB)

Dog and handler reach the body (JB)

What the body sees! (JB)

What the body sees! (JB)

Training continues all year round, in good and bad weather.  As ‘Mist’ and I started training in January, some of our early training was done in the snow, but for the dog it’s exactly the same game.

Preparing a snow cave for training for avalanche rescue (DH)

Preparing a snow cave for training for avalanche rescue (DH)

Completing the snow cave where the body will hide (DH)

Completing the snow cave where the body will hide (DH)

Mountain Rescue dog Cluanie at work (DH)

Mountain Rescue dog Cluanie at work (DH)

The qualified dogs also get to play in the snow, but their games are more serious and more complicated, searching for victims buried in snow.

A misty day in the mountains of North Wales ….

A misty day in the mountains of North Wales ….

…. but the training continues (RA)

…. but the training continues (RA)

Big open spaces for the dogs and handlers (RA)

Big open spaces for the dogs and handlers (RA)

Training continues whatever the weather.  The warm days of summer, with dogs and handlers basking in the sun as they wait for their search, are now just a memory – mist and wind are on the menu now, but the big open spaces of the mountains do not change.

Fundraising – the author and ‘Mist’ on the summit of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) (MR)

Fundraising – the author and ‘Mist’ on the summit of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) (MR)

‘Mist’ lends a hand (or paw!)  (MR)

‘Mist’ lends a hand (or paw!) (MR)

As well as training, we also have to think about fundraising.  As with all mountain rescue in the UK, the search dog handlers, and the bodies who help them to train, are all volunteers, and most of the funding comes from donations from the public.  It’s worth it though, if only for the fantastic days out in the Welsh mountains.

One of my recent training runs – a two body search in the Llanberis pass (The handler is the dotted line)

One of my recent training runs – a two body search in the Llanberis pass (The handler is the dotted line)

What the body sees (The search started near the white building in the photo (RA)

What the body sees (The search started near the white building in the photo (RA)

‘Mist’ and I seem to have come a long way since last January – the dog knows her job now but needs to build up to a longer working time, and I’m learning how to position her to make the best use of wind to make a find.  In the search sequence shown above, I knew where the bodies were, but the locations were ‘blind’ to the dog – the next phase of training is for both of us to work blind.  We still have a long way to go before qualifying.

 The author and ‘Mist’ taking a break before the next training session (RA)

The author and ‘Mist’ taking a break before the next training session (RA)

If I make it sound like hard work, it is and it isn’t – there’s a lot to learn and to practice, but there are also some great days out with great people in wonderful surroundings – what more could anyone ask for?

Heading back to the valley after another long training day (RA)

Heading back to the valley after another long training day (RA)

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except –

Images tagged (JB) © John Bamber – images tagged (RA) © ‘Rich Ard’ – images tagged (MR) © Margaret Ross – images tagged (DH) © David Higgs

For permission to use any of the images, please contact the author

p.s.  If you want to find out more about the search and rescue dogs of North Wales, visit the SARDA Wales website here – If you would like to make a donation to the work done by the handler/dog teams click here.

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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25 Responses to #143 – Dogged determination – Training a Search and Rescue dog in the mountains of North Wales

  1. Aren’t these dogs just amazing? Looks like Mist is doing very well for himself. An excellent adventure Paul

  2. johndburns says:

    Great feature. Worked with dogs in the past. They never cease to amaze me.

  3. Great post – with yet more interesting ‘behind the scenes’ stuff. I have to confess I’m getting increasingly annoyed by the sheer number of people around with not just one, but often two, three or more dogs – frequently badly behaved/out of control. How many times have I sighed at ‘he’s just being friendly’ or ‘it’s ok, he won’t hurt you’. They are a menace to other people, and it is no kindness to the dogs. Seeing how they can work usefully like this and be in tune with their ‘owners’ is a refreshing antidote.
    I love those photos of Mist running through the snow. Where are the ones of you doing the same?

    • My pet hate (no irony intended!) is dog shit – it ruins my day when I tread in it. After all, I don’t leave it lying around …. I get Chris to pick it up 😉

      ” ….I love those photos of Mist running through the snow. Where are the ones of you doing the same?….”
      Hmm …. why keep a dog and bark? 😀 😀

  4. lanceleuven says:

    Thanks for this, great post. It’s fascinating to learn how it all works. And it’s reassuring to know that there are fantastic people, such as yourself, prepared to put in all this work and help keep us all safe.

    • Thanks for the kind words Lance, but we really aren’t fantastic people at all – we’re opinionated, grumpy, selfish, in fact we share all the faults that the rest of the population have.
      The only way in which we are unique is that we are lucky enough to have a hobby that is sometimes useful to others – and it’s better than sitting in front of the TV all week 🙂

      • lanceleuven says:

        Opinionated, grumpy and selfish is my definition of a fantastic person! 😉

        Well, whatever your reasons, it’s great work that you do.

  5. IzzySD says:

    Very interesting, informative and entertaining. You have both achieved so much and will go on to make a great search team. Look forward to working with you in the future.

  6. Is the 2 body search Cwm Glas under Crib Goch?

    Great, informative post there Paul 🙂
    Carol.

  7. And I’m sure Mist was a great draw in the fund-raising – it would really help to have a cute-looking dog posing with you. Did the Snowdon Summit Seagull give you any deposits? 😉

  8. Wonderful post! You may be a grumpy soul, but you make for a great person to help others 🙂
    My older border collie hates thunder and hides when he hears it. He hides so well in fact, that we can’t find him at times. I’ve taught my little one to ‘go find your brother’! He searches diligently until he finds him and brings him to us. Maybe he has untapped talent?

    • Haha … thanks for the kind words 🙂

      I think all Border Collies have untapped talent (though I’m a bit biased, as a BC nut!) but your little one seems to have found a good niche.

      My ‘Mist’ has a noise problem as well. In the UK there is an annual celebration on 5th November involving bonfires and fireworks, and every year dogs go missing, running away in terror from the noise – that was last night, and ‘Mist spent most of the evening finding hiding places around the house! Glad that’s over for another year!

  9. LensScaper says:

    Fascinating insights (and Images) into what is involved in training dogs for this valuable work. Great post, Paul.

  10. shayewalsh says:

    Hi, I couldn’t seem to find an email. And I really wanted to ask you a question about your dog?
    –Shaye
    shayewalsh1@gmail.com

    • Hi Shaye, for some reason your comment ended up in the WordPress ‘spam bin’ (??!!)
      If you have a question about ‘Mist’, ask away! 🙂

  11. Pingback: #147 – Ring out the old … 2013 hill memories | Paul Shorrock – One Man's Mountains AKA One Pillock's Hillocks

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