Theres not much fun
in lying on a rain-soaked
Pennine moor for a couple
of days in all weathers, yet that
is exactly how some members of
the National Search and Rescue Dog
Association spend their weekends.
Michael Edwards reports
REGULAR training is essential for dogs and handlers of the National Search and Rescue Dog Association (NSARDA) and on this particular session in the West Pennine Moors near Turton, members had come from as far away as Cornwall.
The dogs are employed in a wide range of incidents from locating lost walkers and climbers to missing children and possible victims of crime. When operating under the control of a mountain rescue search co-ordinator, the handler and dog will follow instructions and integrate their abilities with that of other searchers.
In more and more incidents the handlers and dogs are responding to situations which do not involve other mountain rescue elements – in particular when searching with police officers for possible crime victims. In these circumstances the dog handler will rely strongly on his own skills and resources to fulfil the demands of the work.
Search and rescue dogs and handlers will work anywhere in Britain, often travelling long distances to respond to call-outs. The four NSARDA groups operate as: England, English Lake District, Scottish Borders and Wales. As with all mountain rescue services, NSARDA works for the police. In practice, handlers and dogs respond to requests from police forces across the UK to assist in a wide variety of duties.
The dogs are usually summoned by police control rooms via a NSARDA call-out co-ordinator who, after discussing the details, will establish the necessary resource required. Handlers are usually contacted by telephone or message pager.
Summoning dogs early gives the best chance of success. Provision is commonly made for dogs and handlers to be deployed by aircraft to cut down on the walk in times. To this end, NSARDA enjoys a very good relationship with the RAF and Navy rescue squadrons, with the dogs soon becoming accustomed to being winched into and out of helicopters. Speed is essential. In a blizzard with freezing temperatures every minute really counts. A dog can cover in five minutes ground that would take a man two hours.
Northumberland member, Ian Thompson was a body in one of todays exercises. It was the task of Lancashire member, Peter Shaws Border collie, Bracken, to locate him high on the windy flanks of a fell above Mankinholes and Bracken performed impeccably. Covering the Bow-land and Pennine moors area, most of Peters call-outs are searches, though he is sometimes recruited to find missing people in more urban situations. "Descending cloud cover is the usual reason why people get lost in the uplands," he explained, "especially after dark if they have misjudged the time. An experienced hill walker with the necessary equipment would just bivouac until morning, but so many of the public are ill equipped – day trippers who go for a walk on a hot, sunny day only to be hit with bad weather on the top."
* Urban situations
NSARDA has responded to many types of incident over the 30 plus years of its existence. While their dogs are primarily trained for mountain rescue incidents, the training has proved equally successful for situations in urban and rural areas. In 1988 all the available dogs in the country attended the Lockerbie air disaster, the dogs quickly adapting to the work asked of them and invaluable experience was gained by the handlers.
* Minimum service
Although honorary members who act as bodies are not affiliated to mountain rescue, a handler must be familiar with the rescue environment and have actually served a minimum of 12 months with an official mountain rescue team. "Members train their animals at home," said Peter, "and bring them along to the training courses to progress onto the next stage and take back with them learned skills to work on. We generally run 12 courses each year, including an annual assessment of dogs in January."
Because all dogs, like humans, are different and individual in character, they each have their own weakness, as Nicki Lyons, chairman of NSARDS England, explained. "Border collies are the most popular breed with members because they are so agile. They train well and like to please and love human contact. Some members, though prefer other breeds like German shepherd, springer spaniel or Labrador. Im biased towards the latter. We train initially, in three stages, starting with suitable eight-week-old puppies."
There are now more than 90 qualified search dogs in NSARDA on 24-hour call, 365 days of the year. Most regions say the Christmas holiday period often sees a call-out and they stay prepared and usually have to swing into action.