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Business as Usual for Search & Rescue Teams

Even with the dire weather forecasts of snow, gales and heavy rain, depending on where you happened to be, last weekend it was business as usual for the country’s voluntary Mountain Rescue and Lowland Search & Rescue Teams who braced themselves for whatever Nature threw at them and went out to train and, in many cases, put that training into action to rescue people.

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I have been involved with SARDA Wales for almost nine years and my long-suffering partner Kevin Thomas, a partner in our Private Client department in Oswestry, was finally persuaded to come with me and see what “bodying” was all about. I spent a very frosty Saturday training with friends in the Peak District before Kevin joined us for a “debrief” (for that read: sampling local ale and some delicious venison sausages by the fire) that evening at the excellent Devonshire Arms in Hartington, followed up by a further whisky-based debrief by the fire at dog handler Nick’s lovely home. It’s probably fair to say that Kevin likes dogs a lot but isn’t as crazy about them as I am so it was only completely typical that by the end of the evening he was the one entirely surrounded by dogs snuggled up against him and in front of him! – although it might have had something to do with his having the closest seat to the fire!

9am Start at Cannock Chase

Staffordshire Lowland Search & Rescue Team had invited us to join them for their weekly search dog training on Sunday, at 9am. Whisky and early starts are not happy bedfellows, especially when it’s raining but we were out of the door by 8am and at Cannock Chase by 9am to meet at Glacial Boulder.

By the time we arrived it was a bright, clear, chilly morning with lovely views far out across the Chase and only a few clouds in the sky. For me it was an opportunity to meet up with old friends from Staffordshire Search & Rescue and meet new people, but I remembered on Kevin’s behalf how daunting it had been for me, nine years ago, when I turned up at a training weekend with only my kit and a love of dogs to sustain me, knowing only a handful of people and I really admired Kevin for the way he threw himself into it.

As someone once said, once you are ingrained in Search & Rescue there is a tendency for everything to be said in shorthand and it forced me to reflect on all those things I take for granted now:

  • using a radio
  • making sure your kit is adequate for a whole day out in any weather, lying motionless except for a burst of activity every hour or so when a dog finds you and you have a frenetic five-minute play session
  • actually fitting all that kit into a rucksack
  • the usual amount of food you would take for a day’s very strenuous walking in the mountains is nowhere near enough for a motionless day lying on a hill, when there is often little to do except hunker down and nibble and drink tea
  • how many calories you actually use up staying warm whilst not moving (frequently I come back from training weekends with all their filling cooked breakfasts and evening meals and inevitable alcohol intake down the pub each night, doing nothing during the day except lying in a sleeping bag on a hillside and throwing the occasional ball or tugging on a rope with a dog, and find I have lost a couple of pounds)
  • how to react when each dog finds you. Go on – think about it – do you know what to do when a trainee search dog finds you?!

By 9.30 we had been briefed on our search areas and were heading into where we would be hiding for four hours.

Kevin was briefed with absolute clarity about how to use his radio, what was expected and not expected of him, how to react when the dogs come in (answer: when the dog first arrives do not react, acknowledge it, move or make a sound – the dogs are ultimately being trained to find people who may be unconscious or dead so they can’t expect any sort of reaction. Only when the dog goes back and brings the handler to you and the handler shouts something like “Yay, good boy / girl” and hands you a toy or a pouch of dog food do you then react, and quickly, so the dog gets its reward promptly).

Bodying

Kevin was placed about 50 metres from the edge of a popular path and I was placed further into the valley which involved some significant wading through uneven heather and bracken. We had camouflage bivvy bags and climbed into them, rucksacks being deployed as pillows. A rare treat was the fact that we both had 4G signal on our phones so we could spend a happy few hours texting and surfing the net – and it meant I could call Kevin and check up on him if radio traffic went quiet. We were deep in the heather, absolutely hidden from anyone.

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Many of the dogs have bells on their jackets but Trainee Search Dog Jake, a very handsome chocolate labrador must have put a silencer on his because he surprised Kevin by running silently in from behind and sniffing him before racing back to his handler Jim and barking loudly, then shuttling between Jim and Kevin to entice Jim into his “find”. I was aware of barking and shouts of “woo-hoo!” in the distance then received a text from Kevin saying “Jake’s on his way – watch out, he’s a bruiser!”

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I’d not met Jake before and about 10 minutes later a handsome chocolate labrador appeared out of nowhere through the heather and, to make absolutely sure I was what he was after, he stuck his nose into my face. He then realised he couldn’t see over the heather to check where his handler was and he needed a vantage point – he decided I was that perfect vantage point and promptly stood on my chest and stomach so as to give himself some extra height over the vegetation. Four stone of labrador on your chest when you can’t react or make a noise, is an entirely new challenge. He went racing off and brought Jim back to me whereupon we had a great game of “chuck the increasingly slobbery squeaky bone” (silly Body Caroline chucked it into the bracken at one point so he had to search for his own toy – the sheer indignity of it after all that hard work!)

Search Dog Red

About an hour later I was minding my own business and enjoying some amusing radio conversations when a beautiful russet collie (appropriately named Red) sniffed at me and disappeared. Search Dog Red qualified as a Lowland Search Dog under the rigorous assessment of SARDA Wales last year and has been very busy since then, and he was certainly not letting the side down today, searching a large area and finding five people successfully. Despite all that hard work he was still up for a game of squeaky toy before heading off for a well-deserved rest.

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Trainee Search Dog Penny

There was still one dog left to find me, Trainee Search Dog Penny who is a beautiful petite border collie. She just LIVES for Monkey, her tuggy toy, and everything she does with her search jacket on is in the name of a game with Monkey. This little search exercise all demonstrated the old adage of “trust your dog”, her handler having one idea of where he wanted to look and Penny (or rather, her nose) having other ideas. She raced up the heather, not quite appreciating that it’s harder for us mere mortals with only two legs to run through tussocks, sniffed at me then barked madly for her handler Rob to join her before realising she would have to run back to him and show the human the way.....

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There is absolutely no time with Penny to get out of your sleeping bag before Tuggy Monkey gets deployed and we ended up with me lying in the heather, Penny standing on top of me tugging on Monkey as though her life depended on it. However, she also rewards her Bodies with soppy cuddles which makes it all worth it!

Search DogsIzzy & Woody

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In the meantime Ester (a member of Cheshire Lowland Search and Rescue Team) and her beautiful collie, Search Dog Izzy who qualified through SARDA Wales in November, were striding off across the Chase in search of other bodies whilst Nick (Buxton Mountain Rescue) and his handsome trainee Trailing Dog, Woody, were following the scent of a volunteer from Staffordshire Search & Rescue who had valiantly sacrificed her hat so as to give Woody an item with her individual smell on. Both had very successful days.

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Kevin emerged from the heather unscathed and cautiously suggested he’d enjoyed it and might do this again some time and I think his mind was made up when we spent a lovely half hour throwing a tennis ball for Trainee Search Dog Penny and Maya, a beautiful collie who had been a stalwart companion to me on Saturday, thus ensuring I wasn’t the only one without a dog. She is one of Search Dog Handler Ester’s companions but has been invited on holidays and mini-breaks to my house any time she wants!

The day rounded up with two hours at the local cafe, rewarding hard work with copious amounts of tea, bacon butties and light-hearted ribbing and laughter. The great news for anyone missing in the region is that these dogs have polished “The Game” (because that’s what it is for them) after months of training and are hoping to undergo assessment in March 2015, which must surely make us sleep a bit easier.

If you would like more information about the work of the search and rescue volunteers involved please do visit the websites of:

Staffordshire Lowland Search & Rescue (www.ssart.org)
Buxton Mountain Rescue Team (http://www.buxtonmountainrescue.org.uk)
Cheshire Lowland Search & Rescue (http://www.cheshire-sarteam.org)

Finally, please do consider donating to their essential work, assisting the lost, injured, vulnerable, sick and despondent of our region and nearby areas.