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.
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’.
‘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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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?
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.