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Helping to Train Trailing Scent Dogs for SARDA

In the recent run of storms and general meteorological foulness you would be totally forgiven for lighting the fire, finding a good book and closing the curtains until spring - however, Oswestry family law solicitors have other ideas about what constitutes a “good time”, involving 5 hours lurking in bus stops.......

I've blogged before about my participation with SARDA, the Mountain Rescue search dog team, and the practical support I receive from Lanyon Bowdler.  In recent years I have become increasingly involved in a specialised branch of search dog training called "trailing".  Unlike the traditional form of search dog work, when a free-ranging dog locates any human scent in the area, trailing involves teaching a dog to work on a very long line, from the scent on an article belonging to the missing person and to distinguish their scent from all other human scent in the surroundings.  In addition to the advantages this brings to our increasing number of urban searches, in vast mountain areas a trailing dog can also be used to show the direction in which a missing person travelled, enabling the traditional open area search dogs to be deployed in a more focused way.

Interest in trailing is growing all across the country so in the second weekend of February I gathered with other equally dedicated (odd??) friends at Smelt Mill, a base belonging to Bowland Pennine Mountain Rescue, in Lancashire’s stunningly beautiful Trough of Bowland.  Delegates had come from Mountain Rescue teams as far apart as Northumberland and Dartmoor, each with the aim of training a trailing dog to assist and support their own team's work back home.

Evenings at Smelt Mill are traditionally made for relaxing in front of the log fire with a bottle or few of something warming.  The forecast storms started to roll in around midnight on Friday, causing the water supply to fail and the electricity to sputter from time to time and I psyched myself up for Saturday in a sleeping bag on a Pennine hillside in a howling gale and horizontal rain, playing dead for the dogs.

Breakfast out of the way on Saturday and the freezing winds drying everything out, we were informed we were heading to the bright lights and big city - Preston.........since urban searching plays a very considerable role in the work of trailing dogs it seemed like the soft option compared to a day on a windy mountainside - how wrong can a girl be?!

So when the organisers had the glint in the eye that I have come to know a little too well and said "We've got just the job for you, Caroline!" I should have taken that as my cue to make my excuses and hit Preston’s shops.  Instead, I found myself being led off to a bus stop on the edge of town and asked to sit in there "for a few hours", pretending to be a missing person.  Missing persons with dementia are often located at bus stops, trying to get back to a childhood home, so this did make some sense.

Buildings, scrappy vegetation, contamination by other humans and animals, petrol fumes, dropped fast food, bins…. these all play havoc with scent and air currents, presenting a whole new set of challenges for the dogs.  In addition to the demands of a search the handler must also be aware of hazards not usually found in the mountains - broken glass, discarded syringes, passing traffic and sadly even human aggression towards the dog.

I should mention at this point that in preparation I had a hat stuffed up my fleece, to make the hat smell of me - the warmth inside the jumper "cooks" my scent bacteria on the hat and causes them to multiply, making the hat 'smellier' for the dog to work from.  That's all well and good in the mountains but when you find yourself in a bus stop in Preston on a Saturday morning, sticking your hand up your jumper and pulling out a hat which you then seal in a police evidence bag and hand to someone to take away for a dog handler, it's easy to see why passers-by might begin to look nervous and apprehensively check their pockets for their mobiles...........  Unfortunately, smiling innocently at them tends only to make things worse.......

So this is how my day unfolded:

First 30 minutes:

Perched on one of those tiny narrow slanting bus stop seats, ignoring the growing discomfort in my rear end and sending texts, checking Facebook and doing all those things you do until your battery starts to die and you realise you ought to preserve it in case they really don't find you!  In the meantime 3 buses pull up for me and I wave the driver on with an inane smile.

30 mins – 1 hour:

Seats too uncomfortable so I try pacing about but soon realise it only makes people even more nervous.  Just take a second to imagine sharing a bus stop with a woman dressed for the mountains with a 65-litre rucksack stuffed with a sleeping bag, flask and food supplies for a week, a squawking 2-way radio and a habit of pulling hats out of her top and stuffing them into police evidence bags and you will perhaps understand their apprehension!  Somehow, though, explaining just seemed too long-winded and as though the lady might be protesting too much.............

1 – 1½ hours :

I become acutely aware of the howling wind blowing under the little gap all around the underside of the bus shelter.  However, it feels less like a gap and more like the entrance to a wind tunnel, the cold wind penetrating into my 4-season boots.  I hunker down on the ground behind my rucksack to try to avoid it but the swirling gusts change direction every few seconds, meaning there is no escape.  In my mind I can hear all those dire warnings from my mother about the various afflictions waiting to claim people foolish enough to sit on cold ground.

1½ - 2 hours:

The same bus drivers have now passed me a few times and I notice a police car pull out of a side street and drive past me.  It goes up to and round the roundabout, drives down the other side of the road while the occupants peer at me before it does a full circle of the other roundabout and passes me again, slowing down this time so the occupants can give me a long stare.  In the time it takes them to go up and down the road I have decided my cunning tactic is to explain the situation then flirt outrageously with the intent of warming up in their vehicle for a short while (say, an hour or so?......)  Fortunately / unfortunately it seems they have radio'd in and learned Mountain Rescue are training in the area and I fit the description so there is no warm squad car for me on this occasion.

2 – 3 hours:

Start Googling hypothermia, as my mind drifts a little over-dramatically to books of mountaineering legends losing limbs to frostbite (admittedly not in bus stops though)…...  One of the trainers and his girlfriend drive past in their lovely snug car and shout "Are you warm enough?!"  I smile graciously..........

3 – 3½ hours:

I delve into my rucksack for all my quilted kit and pile it on.  So not only do I look like a deranged woman loitering in a bus stop, I now look like an ENORMOUS deranged woman loitering, etc...   Quilted mountain gloves mean texting and any form of entertainment requiring page turning are also out of the question and something tells me that snoozing in an urban bus stop might not be wise.  My usual hobby of people-watching doesn’t seem to be appropriate right now either…………. 

3½ - 4 hours :

Text message telling me the first dog is on his way (hopefully with handler in tow!), ETA about half an hour.  There then comes probably the longest half an hour of my life since Administrative Law lectures all those years ago, as I work my way through my dwindling rations.

Then suddenly my world is lifted on wings of song (that’s no exaggeration when you’re that cold, believe me) as, without any warning, Angus the lovely Collie x Labrador sticks his nose around the opening of the bus shelter and we share a moment of mutual delight at seeing each other.  He bounds around me, excitedly awaiting his toy reward and the chunks of sausage he knows his handler Karen has hidden away in her bag, investigating if anything is left in my lunchbox and when he finds that to be empty, checking inside my rucksack to make doubly sure there are no other people (or food) hiding in there.

Despite the cold and feeling slightly stupid for most of the day, when that moment comes it is one of sheer delight and a privilege to be part of this amazing process that will eventually go on to save lives.  It never ceases to amaze me how a dog can locate me by matching the scent on a hat in a bag to the scent I left behind as I walked along, in such difficult wind conditions. 

They are undoubtedly a true asset to every team and area and, as ever, I would just like to remind people that all Mountain / Search & Rescue members and search dog handlers are volunteers, on call 24/7, funded entirely by public donations and enabled to do it only with the support of family, employers and public generosity and cooperation. 

For more information or to make a donation please visit www.nsarda.co.uk


New trainee trailing dog Izzy