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Playing Dogsbody at Penrhyndeudraeth

Usually the mischievous small gods of Search & Rescue ensure that a week of beautiful autumn weather whilst we are all stuck in the office, will change dramatically on the Friday night as we drive to base for a training weekend, to be followed by a weekend of sideways rain and howling gales before Monday morning dawns bright and crisp once again.

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However, they were in a good mood last weekend for the SARDA Wales pre-assessments. We have assessments twice a year when dogs in training and their handlers who are considered ready to be tested for entry onto the callout list go through three gruelling days of assessed searches, and dogs already on the callout list who are due to undergo their three-yearly reassessment are also put through their paces. In the month before each of those assessments checks are carried out to make sure the candidates really are ready as it is a considerable investment of time and resources and, furthermore, going through an assessment when you are not ready can really shake the confidence of both dog and handler.

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I headed out with the Lowland Search Dogs and trailing dogs to Cook’s, the old explosives works in Penrhyndeudraeth which has been turned into a beautiful area of woodland and walking trails. We are kindly allowed to use it as one of our training areas, it has numerous nooks and crannies, old buildings, trees and rocks which all make excellent hiding spots for the “dogsbodies”.

I was asked, as is becoming habit, to hide a swab of cotton wool down my top for a while to absorb my scent and it was then bagged up to warm up and get really smelly (if you’re a dog!) for trainee trailing dog Wil to use to search for me.

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Two other open area search dogs, Izzy and Jake, would also be searching for me so I was sent off to walk to a spot in the woods. As I walked I would be dropping my scent all around for Wil to follow and would then remain in my spot for a few hours so that Izzy and Jake could work onto the heavy pool of general human scent radiating off of where I was lying (also known as “the scent cone”).

I found a great spot on the roof of a small bunker and climbed up onto it, checked my radio was working then hunkered down into my quilted jacket and bivvy bag and took out the Terry Pratchett book I’d been saving up. Reading whilst bodying is a rare treat because in damp weather your book gets soggy and even the screen of a Kindle gets wet and you can’t turn pages in big gloves, so I was planning to savour this.

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I was found!

The tell-tale tinkling of bells on a collar warned me that a dog was coming after about an hour so I flattened myself down on the roof and Izzy ran into my area, came round one side of the building, pottered about a bit then, I assume because the wind was swirling a bit in the clearing, went round the other side of the building before running towards me and jumped up to peer over the roof of the building to find me lying there. She then ran back to her handler and barked frantically to bring her to me which was followed by a high-octane game of “tuggy toy”.

An hour or so later Jake, a gorgeous three-year old chocolate lab who is training with his handler Jim in Staffordshire, came trotting towards me with his tongue hanging out and, being a bit bigger than Izzy, could see me as he got closer. He turned straight round to fetch his handler and bark to bring him back. Jake’s reward is a squeaky plastic mallard which, by now, was so slobbery and revolting that I didn’t stand a chance of gripping it from him so the game of “throw the duck” morphed into “chase Jake with the soggy duck in his mouth, grab squeaky duck, lose grip on squeaky duck, be pulled over by Jake, wipe hands, stand up, start again…..”.

As the afternoon passed it got a little chillier and I slept for a while until I heard voices. A couple out on a quiet walk were coming towards me, it was clear they had seen me but, as is so often the case, they were trying desperately hard not to catch my eye which is just carte blanche for me to say a cheery “hello”, as though this is entirely normal behaviour in the woods in Wales on a Saturday afternoon! It reminded me of a time when I was training in the Peak District last year and lying in an old sink-hole. Some passing walkers stood a few feet above me, debating if they should call for help and one of them even said “She is alive, isn’t she?!” I knew I had to move, to reassure them, but that it would startle the living daylights out of them when I did!

More bells

More bells alerted me to Wil, who had located me by following the scent off the swabs I’d handed over earlier in the day and matching it to my scent that I had shed everywhere as I walked from the car park along the woodland trails into my hiding area. He jumped up to put his front paws on the roof, stared at me and sniffed to check I really was the smell he was looking for then sat down in front of his handler to indicate he’d found me. Wil loves nothing more than a tub of sausage for his reward, which he scoffed with Labrador gusto before we had a game of catch in the woods.

Debrief

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Back in the car park, before the debrief, I spent some time with my little friend Maya, a beautiful collie who comes along with her little sister Search Dog Izzy. Between the two of them they quickly had me trained into repeatedly hiding and throwing a lump of bark they’d found, out-staring me and laying on a colossal guilt trip if I tried to wrap up the game and bring it to an end. We also needed to work one of the younger dogs, Skye, on getting really excited about human interaction and focussing on her toy as that is the ultimate key to training a search dog so I went just out of sight with her tennis ball and, as soon as she stumbled across me, spent five minutes running around doing the shrieking and whooping required of us to get the dogs excited and focussed, throwing balls, rolling on the ground with her, tugging the ball and generally alarming members of the public who had come for a quiet evening walk.

It was a challenging day for the dogs with swirling winds and strong breezes, coupled with the gunshot from a nearby shooting party, but we’re all motivated for the assessments in November and hoping to welcome more search dogs onto callout lists around the country, ready to assist voluntary search & rescue services any time of day or night.