More training with SARDA Wales

After a few months away from training with SARDA Wales due to clashes of commitments, it was wonderful to get back to training with them in July at Rhyd Ddu, at the foot of Snowdon.  It was certainly a weekend of contrasts, weather-wise, but the one thing that remains reliably consistent is the fun and the exceptional dedication of all the handlers.

Friday was a customary late night of sitting up chatting and partaking of life’s little pleasures before heading off to bed in the small hours.  It was a fearsomely humid night and we knew storms were forecast so many handlers elected to sleep in their vehicles with their dogs so as to keep them calm if a storm struck in the night.  I tend to sleep in my car just because I seem to be able to hear people snoring within a 10-mile radius so I settled down into a warm car and had the best night’s sleep on my back seat that I’ve ever had!  At around 7am on Saturday I was woken by a distant rumble of thunder and after checking my watch I knew I had half an hour in which I could just snuggle down and enjoy it – nothing raises my energy more than a good storm (apart from chocolate)….

It certainly delivered as, for 45 minutes, cars were rattled by thunderclaps, the sky was illuminated by jagged flashes of lightning and it went awesomely dark, hail pounded the roof of my car – and I debated the wisdom of having parked under a tree the previous night…..!

However, based on the outdoors mantra “no such thing as bad weather – just bad kit and planning” we all emerged for breakfast (although some dogs were a tad reluctant to come out even for food after the light & sound display!) and got our briefings for the day.  I was asked to multi-task by bodying not only for the lowland open area search dogs but also for a scent specific open area dog, who will search a wide area for my scent from an article belonging to me, rather than homing in on general human scent.  This meant indulging in what was becoming a tradition by now of stuffing an article of clothing down my front to build up the scent before handing it over to be bagged up and “cooked”.

We headed up to Cwm Dyli, on the road between Pen y Pass and Beddgelert, where I and my rucksack were unceremoniously dropped over a steep wall by two burly RAF types hanging onto my arms (it’s a hard life!) and I was asked to find somewhere cosy in the vast expanse at the foot of the mountains and wait a few hours.  I found a lovely spot in the trees and settled down into my bivvy bag but it was unbearably humid, probably the first time in years that I have bodied in Snowdonia in just a t-shirt, and the still air meant that the midges feasted royally on me if I stuck my head out of the bivvy bag but if I hid inside it I felt suffocated within seconds.  Ages were spent manoeuvring myself into a position against the rocks, wedged against a tree, where I wouldn’t slide downhill and where I could be mostly covered up against bites but with a small gap to breathe and I settled down to watch the cloudscapes, catch up on emails on my phone, snooze and listen out for dogs.

I had my first visit from Red, a qualified search dog with Staffordshire Lowland Search & Rescue Team.  I heard the bells on his jacket from some distance off and hunkered down to play dead, being shortly rewarded with a wet doggy kiss on the head as he snuffled around me before racing off to find his handler Dave and bark at him to indicate he’d found something.  He then shuttled back and forth between Dave and me (forgetting that his four legs are better than Dave’s two for negotiating a slippery mountainside downhill!), enticing Dave ever closer, barking madly whilst Dave emphasised the play-element of a search by saying repeatedly “What is it?  What have you got?  Show me then!” before finally shouting “wa-hay!” and producing Red’s treasured squeaky bone.  I emerged from my bivvy bag and had a great game of “throw the squeaky bone” with Red who then flopped down and panted contentedly at my side for a few minutes before posing obligingly for a picture and heading off to find more bodies hiding in the area.

Minutes after they left the temperature dropped suddenly as the rain and wind came in and I went within 10 minutes from wearing a t-shirt to being wrapped up in a waterproof jacket and a down jacket over the top, woolly hat and thermal gloves tucked into a sleeping bag inside the bivvy bag.  A clear reminder of how quickly conditions change in the hills and how less well-equipped people very quickly risk becoming casualties.

Following a squall which headed menacingly up the valley before clearing as suddenly as it had arrived, Trainee Search Dog Penny could be heard by her bells, excitedly homing in on my scent.  This was something of an experiment since this was her first time training with Wales rather than her usual stomping ground of Staffordshire and the instructors wanted to see what she was capable of.  Her handler was concerned that a search area of this size and complexity might be beyond what she was used to but she pulled it off with aplomb, bring her dad slithering down the hill whilst she bounced manically on her front paws, demanding that he turn up with her toy, which I soon learnt is known as Tuggy Monkey!  Because of her achievement I made sure I gave her an especially long and enthusiastic game of tug and throw and also enjoyed a long cuddle with her, to which she seemed to have very few objections!

Handlers are entitled to play-time too and we gathered at Cwm Dyli in what was now bright sunshine, for ice cream and a debrief, before heading back to the bunkhouse to dry out kit and eat dinner.  Cars were cunningly deployed as washing lines, with trousers, jackets, hats and gloves draped over wing mirrors and open doors to dry before the next burst of rain came in.  As can be seen from the picture below, Search Dog Cluanie takes her duties as Protector of the Drying Kit very seriously and took up sentinel duty in the front seat of handler Helen’s car.

Sunday was a glorious day so it was decided to head to the seaside at Dinas Dinlle, to give the dogs experience in searching very different terrain among sand dunes and along the beach, which presents its own challenges due to the scent contamination left by beach-goers, the strong offshore winds and fluctuating wind currents through dunes and the effect of the water and tide on scent.

I was placed in the sand dunes where I spent five wonderful hours snoozing in just a T-shirt, reading, and putting on my best “dead face” when I heard a dog approaching.  All four Open Area dogs found me before trainee Trailing Dog Will, a handsome but very strong and playful (and characteristically food-obsessed!) Labrador was sent in to look for me using a scent article I had left with his handler that morning.

The area had taken a lashing in February’s storms and plenty of marine debris could be found, having been tossed over the dunes in the enormous waves.  When Will found me he gave me his usual wet slobbery “kiss” but this tasted distinctly fishy and when his handler arrived I asked if he had been feeding Will “fish treat” dog biscuits.  “No,” came the reply.  “He found a dead decaying catfish over there which was thrown over in the storms and he tried to eat it just now……..” – well, that was me off my sandwiches for the rest of the day!

In the stunning weather we all re-grouped and spent a lovely hour just lying in the sunshine with the dogs flopped contentedly beside us, chatting lazily about everything other than dog-training and wondering when we would next get weather like this for a training weekend…….

Roll on training this month.

Photo of search dog Red

Great shot of search dog Red

photo of trainee search dog Penny

Trainee search dog Penny

photo search dog Claunie

Search dog Cluanie guards the drying kit.