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Back with SARDA Wales

The weeks feel like they’re getting shorter and shorter as the spring days get longer and I found myself back with the search dogs at the weekend, near Caernarfon.

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Being so close to Bank Holidays a lot of team members, especially those working in the outdoor industry, are off in exotic climes such as the Alps and the Highlands so we were a little thin on the ground this month.  However, as far as the dogs are concerned all you need is one ‘smelly’ person with a squeaky toy for the day to be a roaring success so after tea and hash browns we all dispersed into our little corners of Snowdonia.

I remained at our base with the scent-specific trailing dogs and, as is becoming the norm, was asked to stick some pieces of gauze inside my clothing for an hour or so, to make them smell of me.  With the amount of clothing I was having to wear against the not very spring-like weather it was touch-and-go if I’d ever find them again!

I was then sent off for a rainy walk across some fields to woodland by the river, along the river, over a bridge and along the road, shedding my scent along the way.  Humans shed about 40,000 scent bacteria every minute and these are blown on the wind and stick to walls and vegetation where they multiply at a rate according to the temperature and other conditions, providing a scented “picture” of where that person has been.

Having returned from my little walk I couldn’t go anywhere else in the area or I would contaminate it with my scent which, for the training level of the dogs we were working with, would make it hard to assess their progress.

The difficulty with not being able to see scent is that training searches have to be set up with meticulous precision in order to avoid cross-contamination of scent.  Whilst the dog might not struggle with it, for the human assessing the dog to see if it is ready to move on to its next stage of training, we have to be certain the dog has been doing what the human has set it up to do, or eventually you could end up making all sorts of flawed assumptions about the dog’s abilities with potentially very unpleasant consequences when it comes to looking for a real casualty.

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(Skye is pictured above)

Trainee Trailing Dogs Skye and Izzy went off to do “box work”, an early stage of training which involves ensuring the dog can discriminate between various scents on boxes, identify the target scent and accurately and clearly indicate that to its handler.  The set-up is, again, painstaking.  As well as the risk of a flawed set-up compromising the dog’s training it can be very demoralising for the handler if it’s not clear why things repeatedly go wrong and sometimes all it takes is a eureka moment for the dog’s training to be pulled back on track.

I and my scent were exiled to the car park but I was allowed to take Retired Search Dog Fly with me.  Fly is a beautiful 14-year old border collie who, in her illustrious career, saved a number of lives and although her eyesight and hearing aren’t what they used to be (I suspect there is a selective element to her deafness……..!) her nose is still up to scratch, she loves coming along with her doggy pals and I reckon she gives them tips when our backs are turned!

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(This is Fly)

Fly and I spent some time exploring the leaf piles and interesting smells in the car park (well, she did rather more of it than I did, obviously…..) before settling down on a log to contemplate life and have cuddles whilst my scent “cooked” on the trail I had laid earlier.

Fly shares her home with a boisterous young Labrador called Will, who is training to be a trailing dog.  It was now Will’s turn to show what he could do so his handler Geraint took one of the gauzes from inside my clothes (mercifully I was allowed to retrieve it myself!)I and put it in a bag.  I was sent off to sit near the end of my trail with two other decoy ‘bodies’ nearby so we could be sure that not only could Will follow my trail over a distance but, at the end of it, distinguish between me and the other two people and correctly identify me to his handler by my scent.

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(Here's Will) 

He made swift work of the trail, taking his handler for a very brisk walk.  The wind was blowing from my right, carrying my scent away from me to the left and sure enough Will ignored the first body, ignored me and walked past me following my scent on the wind to my left then, as it got weaker the further he went from me, he noticed this and turned round, came back to me, sat by me and barked.  For this he gets a tub of beef chunks which he devours with the customary table manners of a Labrador, followed by a game of tuggy-toy.  We made sure we all ploughed in to the game as he had done a really great job .

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(Above is Boris)

It was then the turn of Boris, who has been qualified for a couple of years, to make it look far too easy.  He likes to get his reward directly from the body when training so I was sent off to sit on the trail with a plastic bag full of ham (honestly, when did my life get this glamorous?!) in my jacket pocket.  There’s nothing to focus a body’s mind quite like a full-grown German Pointer running full-pelt in your direction, slobbering at the thought of ham and I’ve learnt over time to make sure the food is to hand as soon as he finds me or it just becomes a very wet game of rough and tumble.

The dogs all worked brilliantly and made real progress, some were signed off various stages so they could move on to the next stage of their training and even Fly, the retired search dog, got to play at searching for me once again.  Fly doesn’t use a scent article, she works to general human scent coming off the body on the wind, so I was sent to go and hide in a little hut in the woods.  Despite her eyes, ears and back legs being those of a “grand lady of more mature years” it was a joy to see her trotting up the hill towards me, her nose in the air as she detected someone nearby (that someone being me), she found her way into the hut, sniffed at me and found her way back to Geraint to bark at him and get him to follow her back to me, where we had a game and lots of cuddles.

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An unexpected treat on my drive home was seeing Rescue 122, the RAF Search & Rescue helicopter, possibly my last time before the Sea King helicopters are retired from service in Wales in the summer.  A walker had been injured on Snowdon and the helicopter flew low over me then dropped off rescue team members before circling in the cwm alongside Crib Goch until they were ready to winch the casualty off to hospital.  I’ve been lucky enough to train with and fly in the helicopters and they really are grand old workhorses staffed by dedicated and highly-skilled rescuers, it was rather moving to know I might not see one working again.

For more pictures of dogs and news of what SARDA volunteers do, please visit www.sardwales.org.uk