A small streak of black and white is zigzagging ahead of me up a steep-sided gully. The sleet has stopped momentarily, and the sky clears above Grindsbrook Clough, near Kinder Scout in the Peak District.
“Go on, get up!” John Coombs calls out. The streak turns in our direction, then surges forward.
I am watching Flash, a Mountain Rescue search dog, hunt for a missing person. It’s a training scenario but the challenges are very real: the sleet is typical of the weather Mountain Rescue teams get called out in, and we’re moving up a precipitous slope through rough vegetation surrounded by loose grit stone boulders. It’s nothing like the route you’d choose as a hiker, but that’s exactly where missing persons tend to be – either they’ve fallen, they’re tucked away trying to shelter from the prevailing weather, they’ve got lost and wandered away from known paths, or they’re vulnerable, despondent people who might be trying to conceal themselves intentionally. Either way, the route of the search and rescue team is not easy – difficult terrain, in the worst of weather.
None of it seems to be hindering Border collie Flash, who leaps gracefully between the boulders, a canine athlete. John, a veteran search dog handler and member of Buxton Mountain Rescue Team, is effortlessly multitasking. He’s not only picking his way through the boulders, directing and encouraging his dog and fielding the radio communications from the rest of the search team, he’s also mentally plotting our course across the hillside, ensuring we stay on track to cover every part of the search area.
I’m struggling to keep up over such challenging terrain. “If she picks up a scent, we’ll have to get moving,” John warns me, as we scramble through the rough heather.
And right on cue, Flash disappears ahead of us, then returns, barking. “Show me what you’ve got! Show me!” John calls, and we scale the last, steep section with Flash shuttling between us and a gnarly tree next to a large boulder. She’s found something.
Mountain Rescue search dogs like Flash are trained to detect scent in the air, rather than follow a scent trail on the ground. Every minute we humans shed some 40,000 particles of skin, sweat, bacteria and other body products. Even clothed, in the rain or cold, these are carried on the wind, floating away from our bodies, diffusing a telltale signature into the air. Once you’re stationary, your scent will spread downwind in a cone shape.
With a sense of smell 100 times more sensitive than a human’s, a search dog’s nose is a life-saving tool. The dog handler’s job is to take into account topography and wind direction, and send the dog across the search area in such a way that they have the best chance of coming across the “scent cone” and then homing in on the source.
As we clamber over the boulder we see a man peeking out of a camouflage bivvy bag. “All right, Alan!” John scrambles down to reward his excited dog and check in with the “casualty”. Alan is a “Dogsbody”, a crucial part of the search dog training regime; it’s his job to ensure that the dogs consider every find to be a good end to a great game. Alan pulls out a squeaky toy in the shape of a hamburger and offers it to Flash. The dog goes wild, careering over the rocks around us, squeaking the life out of her toy. It’s a job well done.
The Peak District Mountain Rescue teams (MRTs) have seven trained dogs to call on across their region. The dogs’ handlers are full members of Mountain Rescue teams, meaning that they’re experienced mountaineers, and proficient in ropework, search techniques and casualty care. They take on the responsibility and commitment of training a search dog from scratch on top of their MRT commitments. Like their MRT colleagues, dog handlers are volunteers, footing the expense of call-outs, equipment, time off work and upwards of 10 hours of training a week themselves.
With 250-300 Mountain Rescue call-outs every year across the Peak District area, being a team member is effectively a part-time job that you end up paying to do.
Dave Mason, a member of Buxton MRT for more than 15 years, holds down a full-time job, has a young family and a fully trained search dog, Megan. “Joining the team isn’t just a personal decision – your whole family make the commitment. When a call comes in the early hours, my wife will get up, make a flask and get Megan ready while I get myself ready.” Megan is 10 years old now, coming up to retirement, so in the summer Dave (and his family) will be taking on a new puppy to train as well.
The dogs that make the grade for search and rescue are “high drive” working breeds that have boundless energy, are task-focused and want to please. They’re primarily family pets, but without a constructive outlet for all their energy and intelligence, they’d end up frustrated and destructive. As search dogs, they thrive.
Flash is John’s fourth search dog. He estimates that it takes two years’ training for a dog to reach operational standard. “You build up slowly with a puppy – always keeping it fun and positive. First of all they see where the ‘body’ is, then they have to use their noses to locate it. And you build from there. We always need ‘Dogsbodies’ to work with – we couldn’t do it without them hiding for hours on end waiting for the dogs to find them.” Once a dog and handler are considered ready, they’re rigorously assessed before being awarded the coveted Search and Rescue Dog Association (SARDA) grading.
For Dave, the challenge is simple. “At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself – if it were you or your loved ones out there, would you trust the dog to find them? If you’re not sure, you’re not ready. People’s lives depend on you.”
If it’s dark or if visibility is poor, a search dog is considered to be worth 20 people on the hill. The incident logbook bears this out – Neil Carruthers, Buxton Mountain Rescue team leader, remembers a call-out in vicious winter conditions to rescue three ill-equipped walkers who telephoned 999 when they got lost and a Christmas walk turned life-threatening. Dave and Megan were tasked to search a sector of rough upland, and Megan made the find. The human search teams would have found the walkers eventually, but her speed meant the stricken hikers were just about able to leave the hill on foot, rather than on stretchers.
Search dogs, paid for and trained by volunteers, save lives every year; the Christmas holiday period is one of their busiest times. Many teams wish they had more trained dogs, but it’s hard to find handlers able to commit the time and money. Standing in the sleet watching John, Flash, Dave and Megan search the hillside is both instructive and humbling.
Twelve hours after I leave them, the men and dogs are called out to attend a real incident in brutal weather conditions. Three hours after that they’re both up for work, juggling the demands of life and life-saving with astonishing skill.