National Search & Rescue Dogs Association Puppy Course

Following on from my February blog entry about my exploits in the name of training search dogs, sitting at a freezing bus stop for almost five hours pretending to have dementia so a search dog could be trained to locate me, it was with some trepidation that I drove up the M6 one Friday night at the end of April through the driving rain, wondering what on earth would they dream up for me this time......

I was attending a condensed version of the NSARDA (National Search & Rescue Dogs Association) puppy course I first went to for a week in 2012, and it was wonderful to see the pups and delegates from that course two years ago prepare for their gruelling assessments, in a bid to become fully fledged trailing search dogs and handlers this summer.  As those individuals work through the ranks, there is a steady supply of people from Search & Rescue Teams all over the country who have seen what trailing dogs can offer, and who are keen to learn to fill the shoes / paw prints of their predecessors.

To many, this might seem to herald a weekend of rolling around with wet nosed puppies in snuffly delight, and although there was plenty of that to be had, the amount of theory and science involved in trailing also meant a lot of aching brains by lunchtime on Saturday, as we grappled with bacteria metabolic rates, some gentle genetics and a bit of canine anatomy and physiology thrown in for good measure!

After three hours of theory teaching it was a relief to get out and about in the afternoon. I accompanied the youngest dogs to watch them work on scent discrimination, one of the very earliest things a trainee trailing dog will learn.

For some of the handlers this was the first time they had worked in front of an audience (not only other delegates but also members of the public stopping to watch what was going on), and it takes real mastery to stop the nerves transferring to the dog.

Young dogs are taught scent discrimination by the use of a number of Tupperware boxes into each of which their favourite food treat is placed and sealed, and one of the boxes then has a small amount of a substance such as a herb, oil or even toothpaste put on its lid.  The dog is presented with the same substance in a bag, or on a piece of gauze, and has to distinguish the box with that substance on it from all the other “blank” boxes and indicate the find to the handler, usually by lying down next to the box, when it then gets the food reward from inside the box.

As the dog progresses, each box will have a different smell smeared on it and the dog has to work to find the “master” scent it has been presented with and distinguish it from the scents on the other boxes, and indicate the find in the usual way for the food reward in the box.

These are the early stepping stones for the process of the dog ultimately learning to distinguish the scent of a missing person from an object in contact with that person, from all the other smells in the area, and follow the trail of scent left by the person.

Each dog and handler was put through his / her paces under the experienced eyes of the lecturers and they generally performed really well.

I was then asked to "body" (ie, play the part of the missing person) for Fletcher, who is training in a slightly different way.  Fletcher is a young collie from North Clwyd Animal Rescue who was rehomed by Harold, an experienced search dog handler of many years' standing from SARDA Wales.  Harold is training Fletcher in a new way to combine the two main disciplines of search dog work, so unlike trailing dogs he will not work on a long line but freely in the search area but will still work to the specific scent of the missing person.

Fletcher needed something belonging to me and we had learnt in the morning's lectures that an article about 24 hours old is better than something worn more recently by the missing person, if it is available, as the scent bacteria will have multiplied in that time.  The only thing I had with me that I had worn the previous day was, to put it delicately (ahem) the undergarment under my T-shirt!  Since there was no way I was removing that out on the hillside it was also the perfect opportunity to practise "cloning" scent.  This is a technique whereby pieces of damp gauze are placed in contact with the scent article to absorb the scent bacteria – this required me to stuff bits of gauze down my front and keep them there for an hour or so, to the general amusement of the assembled male members of the Team!

Having dug them back out (far more difficult than it sounds under layers of outdoor clothing with an audience!) and placed them in a sealed bag for Harold I then went off and bog-trotted to climb and hide on a little ridge on the hillside.  I had a fantastic dry spot in a sun-trap and lay there hidden in the grass, listening to the magical call of the curlews - I think I might even have had a sneaky snooze because the next thing I knew, about 25 minutes later, I was startled by a wet nose in my face as Fletcher struck on my scent on the wind by matching it with that on the gauze he’d been given, and raced up the hillside to investigate and make sure it was me by licking my face and standing on me, before running down to Harold to indicate to him that he had found me, knowing by now that this means he will get a lovely little box of his favourite meat. 

Bodies can’t react until the dog brings the handler back with them, because in real life scenarios they may be searching for unconscious or dead people and can’t be trained to expect a response.  Not laughing or hiding your face when you have a dog clambering all over you and licking you to confirm the smell, is probably the biggest challenge of the role!

After coming down off the hill I found a shaft of sunlight coming down through the trees onto the path where Fletcher and I enjoyed a quality cuddle.

Sunday morning was spent on more practical matters such as equipment (who ever knew that leads could be so interesting?!), proper collection of scent articles and communication with external agencies such as the police before we went back outside to watch the canine fashion parade as each dog's working harness was critically appraised by the instructors to check it was right for their size, breed, build, temperament, etc.  Taking things down to such detail always leaves me intensely proud of the level of professionalism demanded from and demonstrated by volunteers.

Goodbyes at Smelt Mill always take a while and are lingering affairs with lots of hugs and exchanges of email addresses, promises of Facebook connections, etc.  We work hard by day but play equally hard in the evenings and there is a quite unique connection between a group of people working so closely together on something about which they all feel so passionately.  Each time I come away feeling a little empty at the prospect of having to wait a few months before the next course but with a warm sense of satisfaction - and usually covered in dog hairs and with a stray and slightly irritating piece of gauze somewhere in my clothing!!!!!!!!!!

Fletcher and Caroline

Fletcher and I enjoy a snuggle in the sun


Fletcher trainee Mountain Rescue dog

Fletcher the trainee Mountain Rescue dog - being very playful