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A Nose for Trouble - Search Dogs and Their Handlers

© Helen Howe

With their unique sense of smell, dogs can be invaluable in the hunt for people missing on the hills. So what are the challenges and rewards of working with dogs in a mountain rescue setting; and do the dogs themselves enjoy it? We asked two experienced search dog handlers.


Helen Howe of SARDA Wales, and her collie Cluanie

Helen is a member of the Search and Rescue Dog Association (SARDA) Wales and Llanberis MRT. She was Chairman of SARDA Wales from 2012 – 2015. She originally worked as a Geography teacher in Lancashire which funded her mountain walking holidays & weekends, and being on a mountain rescue team. She moved to Wales in 2006 and now runs Snowdonia First Aid with her husband Steve, offering courses such as Mountain Leader, winter skills and outdoor first aid.

Cluanie is a nine year old border collie of Cumbrian origin. She is a lively dog, never happier than when she is in the mountains on walks or searching (or sleeping on the bed). She also enjoys outdoor swimming.

Helen Howe and Cluanie  © Helen Howe
Helen Howe and Cluanie
© Helen Howe

How long have you been involved with SARDA Wales? And before them SARDA England?

I joined SARDA England in 1991 as a ‘dogsbody’ intending to train a dog when I passed my probationary period with Rossendale and Pendle Search and Rescue Team. I started training my first search dog, Skye, in 1993 and we passed both our Novice and Upgrade assessments in 1995.

When I moved to Wales I transferred to SARDA Wales (I had to be assessed with my second dog, Linnhe to make sure we were working at the same standard) and also joined Llanberis MRT.

"In good conditions dogs can smell a human over one kilometre away. In bad visibility this means that a dog is far more efficient at searching a large area than humans who rely on their eyes"

Can you describe your route into SARDA: Did you originally come to it through Mountain Rescue, or through knowing about dogs?

I read an article about SARDA dogs when I was at university, (it was after the Lockerbie disaster) and I remember thinking what an amazing ‘job’ it sounded. I had enjoyed working border collies on farms as a teenager but knew that I wasn’t going to be a farmer, and saw this was another way that I could work with a border collie combined with my hobby of mountain walking.

I joined a mountain rescue team because I wanted to train a dog, but I was already an active hillwalker. Incidentally, this is not really the best way in. Most dog handlers are members of rescue teams and then become interested in training a dog. I was kept back from full membership for over a year as some team members at the time were sceptical as I was only twenty two and a ‘mere slip of a girl'. Even on my Novice Mountain Assessment with Skye, there were comments about small females being blown away. Skye and I passed in blizzard conditions and gales and any scepticism disappeared!

What can a dog bring to a search for a casualty that a human cannot? (I’d imagine it’s a lot to do with smell?)

Dogs search with their noses as well as their eyes which brings a huge different dimension to their search capabilities. Each human gives out scent as minute rafts of skin (a bit like dandruff) and breath gases which get moved away from the casualty on the wind or by air movement. This is what the dog smells. In good conditions (not gale force winds as this breaks up the scent cone) dogs can smell a human over one kilometre away. In bad visibility this means that a dog is far more efficient at searching a large area than humans who rely on their eyes.

Under what circumstances are dog handlers brought in to assist MRTS?

SARDA dogs are called when there are large or complicated areas to clear. This might be someone who has not returned from a mountain walk and has been reported missing, it may be someone who has phoned for help but has no idea whereabouts they are, or it may be for a missing child, elderly person or someone suffering from depression in lowland areas.

Winter training  © Helen Howe
Winter training
© Helen Howe
Locating a buried Dogsbody  © Helen Howe
Locating a buried Dogsbody
© Helen Howe

"There is a very special bond between a search dog and handler. I trust Cluanie implicitly not to let me down. Just knowing she is there with me, and is going to give it all she has, is an amazing feeling"

Is there such a thing as a typical incident, and if so what would it look like?

In the mountains often a person is reported missing when they fail to return home either after a weekend or a holiday. The MRT will look at the information provided to them by the police and then call SARDA in if they feel the dogs are needed. A SARDA co-ordinator will then respond and look at the information on the police log and put out a call for dogs if they are needed (sometimes in a lowland callout, there may not be enough information or open areas for a dog to be appropriate or it may be more appropriate for the SARDA Wales Trailing dog to attend and sometimes it may be decided that more information is needed).

Can you tell us about a couple of the more memorable call-outs you’ve been involved with?

The searches that tend to stick in a dog handler’s mind are either the epics due to weather and location, or because your dog has a find.

I am lucky as Cluanie has had several finds including a despondent male who had run away into quarries intending to kill himself. After half an hour’s searching, Cluanie came back to indicate (bark to tell me she had found) and took me down to the man who was sitting on the edge of a big drop. When he saw me he stood up and shuffled to the edge. As he was not responding to me at all, I ran up to get my husband, Steve who was navigating for me on the callout. Steve managed to talk him away from the edge. A real family effort!

Another callout was for a young man who had gone missing on the Snowdon Horseshoe. As the dogs were training at Pen y Pass, I asked the informant to phone the police to initiate the search but the two mountain dog handlers in attendance decided to do a hasty search on either side of Crib Goch in case he had fallen and was lying injured. I ended up on the Fox’s Path, a very narrow path contouring round below the north Ridge of Crib Goch. This was in the dark and I hadn’t got ice axe or crampons as I had been expecting to train on easy slopes. My only consolation was that if I fell, the rescue team would notice a long red line intersecting all the contour lines on the MR Map from my GPS mike on the radio! Sadly the man was found the following day on the east ridge of Snowdon.

Cluanie is your third search dog: can you explain the emotional connection between dog and handler?

It is very to explain, but there is a very special bond between a search dog and handler. I trust Cluanie implicitly not to let me down. Just knowing she is there with me, and is going to give it all she has, is an amazing feeling. When I first trained Cluanie, because she works so far away from me, I thought there wasn’t a bond. It was a dogsbody who informed me that Cluanie kept turning round while searching and checking on me.

I cried solidly for two days when I lost Skye and then Linnhe. I feel almost naked walking on the mountains without an experienced mountain dog.

It's not just the dogs who enjoy it!  © Helen Howe
It's not just the dogs who enjoy it!
© Helen Howe
It's important to keep things fun  © Helen Howe
It's important to keep things fun
© Helen Howe

"A dogsbody is a selfless individual who goes and lies out on mountainsides for several hours, sometimes in awful weather, waiting to be found by an excited dog. SARDA really could not train dogs without them; they are our unsung heroes"

Are SARDA dogs generally treated as a loved family pet, or as a working dog?

Most definitely family pets. Cluanie and all my search dogs have slept on the bed with me and most of the time life is play for the dog; big walks, fun... Cluanie is probably my closest and most loyal friend.

How, in simple terms, do you go about training a search dog, and how long might it take until they can work effectively and reliably?

If someone wants to train a dog, they must join a Mountain Rescue Team and be a full team member for at least twelve months before applying to train a dog.

They complete an application form and are invited to come along to a SARDA training weekend to get to know the other handlers. They are then required to carry out a minimum of six months bodying for the Association during which they get to know us and we get to know them. It also gives them a chance to find out whether dog handling is all they thought it was cracked up to be. After this period their application is discussed again by the committee and they are accepted to train a dog. Their dog then has to pass a stringent obedience and stock test. The stock test ensures that the dog is safe with livestock; an essential component of being a search dog as the dog may be working out of sight of the handler.

From then on the hard work begins for many months. The dog learns to find the body, run back to the handler, tell the handler by indicating – normally a bark - and then take the handler back to the body. Once this 'find sequence' is bombproof the team can move on to searching small areas until by assessment they should be able to work 1km squared areas within a certain time.

In SARDA Wales the first assessment is at Novice Lowland grade, followed by Novice Mountain and then 6-12 months later an Upgrade assessment is undertaken where a polished performance and efficient search is expected. The dogs are tested in five areas and are expected to pass four out of the five. The whole process from start to finish can take three years.

How are the human handlers trained for their role?

SARDA Wales already expects handlers to have all the rescue skills. We insist potential handlers are members of rescue teams so that they already should be able to navigate, use a radio, cope in bad conditions and on steep ground, carry out First Aid, etc. SARDA trains the handler to train and read their dog, understand how to work areas and to understand how the wind works and moves. Sometimes handlers may not get past the Novice standard and some may have to stay at lowland level as they are not confident or competent enough in steep mountainous areas.

What sort of practise do you need to do in order to stay on top of skills between call-outs?

It really depends on the dog. I am extremely lucky with Cluanie who is a complete natural. She is exceptional in that where most dogs learn by repetition, she learns by doing once! (Could have been a nightmare to train if I hadn’t trained two dogs before and so knew what I was doing as a handler). However, we keep topped up by attending dog weekends, training some evenings with a friend who will go out and hide and then phone me when she is hidden.

You've used the term dogsbody a couple of times - what, or rather who, is it?

A dogsbody is a selfless individual who goes and lies out on mountainsides for several hours, sometimes in awful weather, waiting to be found by an excited dog. SARDA really could not train dogs without them; they are our unsung heroes who get their kicks out of hearing that our dogs have had a find and they have played a part in saving a life.

In a dog, what sort of temperament best suits this work?

A dog who likes to play. When we train a search dog, we are teaching it a game. So long as the dog gets its reward, it will enjoy the game.

Also a dog who likes people is a definite plus. My second dog, Linnhe was scared of people after a bad experience and although she passed all her assessments, she worked for love of me rather than because she really enjoyed it. Cluanie loves the game and would probably work whether I was there or not. Cluanie is related to several search dogs in the Lake District including her litter sister, Einich, who is also a Mountain rescue dog.

Are there particular breeds that tend to be favoured?

Border collies are the most popular breed as they are sure-footed and bred for mountain use and long hours. We do also have a few Labradors and German pointers. German Shepherds who were one of the early breeds in SARDA are not as popular now (probably due to the way they are being bred to give a poor conformation and bad hips).

What rewards do you humans get out of it?

I get a real buzz out of watching my dog work and feeling we are working as a team. I also have a perverse pleasure in going out in bad conditions and sometimes if I have had to spend a day indoors on business admin, it is great to have an excuse to head out into the hills.


Joy Grindrod of the Lake District Mountain Rescue Search Dog Association, and her collie Einich

Joy and Einich  © Cubby Images
Joy and Einich
© Cubby Images

"I know it might sound crackers but my dogs are my mates too. You share your life with them and go through a lot together"

How long have you been involved with search dogs, and how did you first get into it?

I've been involved as a dog handler in the Lake District Mountain Rescue Search Dog Association since late 1991, but I helped out as a 'dogsbody' long before I became a handler. Originally the Lakes search dogs were part of SARDA England.

My father was a member of Langdale Ambleside MRT and a Dog Handler with SARDA. As a teenager, I used to help him train his dogs by hiding out on the fell side so they could find me. I also got to know about the Mountain Rescue Team. It had a big influence on me, I wanted to join the team and train a dog of my own for search work.

Joy and Einich out training in the Kirkstone Pass  © Lake District Mountain Rescue Search Dogs
Joy and Einich out training in the Kirkstone Pass
© Lake District Mountain Rescue Search Dogs

Why are dogs so useful in searches?

We all have a scent which a dog can pick up providing there is a bit of moisture and a slight movement of air. Our scent is carried on the wind. During a search, especially in difficult visibility and low light it would be very difficult to pick out someone who might be lying on a hillside, especially if they are wearing dark clothing. A dog can cover large areas of fell side, hunting for a human scent in a fraction of the time it would take a small foot party to search the same piece of ground.

Dogs are usually called to assist MRTs at the same time they call out the rest of the team if a person is reported missing. This can be for a missing hill walker, or an avalanche, if there is the potential for someone to be buried. We are also called out to search for missing vulnerable people in our region.

Can you tell us about a couple of the more memorable call-outs you’ve been involved with?

A large avalanche in the Cairngorms, where three climbers where buried and died. Even though we train to work in avalanches, nothing can ever prepare you emotionally for an incident like that.

But most searches are memorable when you spend most of the night getting blown off your feet, and you are finishing your search area as the dawn is breaking and the birds start singing.

Einich is your second search dog: how do you feel about them?

With Einich, and like with Anna my first dog, the bond is very close. There is something very moving about watching a dog working around the hillside, and responding to a scent they have picked up on. It's all down the the time and commitment we put into training our dogs, and the passion for it. You develop a strong connection with your dog.

My dogs have always been working dogs but most importantly they are pets. I know it might sound crackers but my dogs are my mates too. You share your life with them and go through a lot together.

What sort of period of training can be required before a dog is fully up to speed?

It's really important for a dog to have a good temperament. If a dog is nervous of people it is at a disadvantage from the start. It takes about two to three years to train a search dog. The training starts from puppyhood when they are socialised, play and have fun with people. This keenness to be with people is built up in small steps until the dog is very keen to hunt for them, with the ultimate reward of play when they have found them. Simply put, this describes where the drive to find someone comes from. During that time the dog learns to bark for the reward which eventually become the 'indication', the dog letting the handler know they have found someone.

We humans learn how to become dog handlers from the start by general dog training classes. You develop an understanding, and working bond with your dog. The search training is passed onto trainees through handlers who have gone through the training and are able to pass on the knowledge. We have a weekend training session once a month, and evening training once or twice a week.

Do the dogs enjoy what they do?
If they didn't enjoy it, it wouldn't be possible to train them. Training is all about fun.

What rewards do you get out of it?
Where do I start?!

 



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