Its been a bit of a week for Scout my trainee Mountain Rescue search and rescue Border Collie. On a training exercise Monday night, Scout had to find a hidden person, Paul Richmond, a friend who regularly gives up his Monday nights to act as a body for Scout. He set off searching woodland as he normally does, trying to detect any scent from a human in the air and unknown to me, picked up the scent of two people lost in the woods, without a torch and unable to get out to safety.
Scout still has a year of training to do, but he performed, exactly as he should, returning to tell me he had found some people then making multiple runs between them and me guiding me to their location. They were a little scared and desperate to get out of the woods. Scout an I escorted them out and then Scout continued on with his search to find Paul, eventually locating him and bringing me to his position.
It’s a big moment in his development, he did what he had trained to do, without thought or hesitation. I am so proud of him.
Training a SARDA Search and Rescue dog takes time and patience, mainly on the part of the dog, because it is the handler who is most/always at fault. Scout always comes up with the goods, in the way of a find. He worked hard on Eyam Moor this weekend in hard conditions. The bracken is still dense and hard to get through, combined with deep snow, it makes it extra tiring for Scout to get around. He battled his way around to find three hidden bodies, with little scent moving about to guide him, so he really had to work for it. He started to get tired after find number two, I could tell he was needing a break.
Tiredness is something I have been working on with him. Taking him on long moorland walks, he probably runs about three times the distance I walk. It’s good to get him working over rough ground, boulder fields are particularly good, if you have ever tried negotiating a boulder field in summer, think about it under thick slippery snow where you cannot see the gaps.
The other major work is building up the return sequence. This is where he finds a body and returns back to get me then lead me back to the body. It is an important tool, especially when covering large areas effectively. He soon got the hang of the sequence, and then worked out that if he starts returning to me and he can see that I can see him, he doesn’t need to come all the way back, but can just bark his command. Pretty sneaky and clever of him to work that one out. I need him back to me, because we may be out of sight from each other and I need to know for definite that he has a find.
Training is frustrating. Sleepless nights, going over and over what went wrong on the last session and how to correct it. Worrying over whether he will make the grade. But, when it goes right, when he works his socks off and I don’t screw it up, it is the best feeling in the world.
Its raining cats and dogs in Sheffield this morning. Scout my trainee Search and Rescue Dog and I are off down to Dartmoor where it seems to be just as wet.
We are going for a weekend of training on the moors with lots of other dogs, handlers and most importantly the bodies. People and dogs will come from all over England to spend the days training in the techniques of dog search and rescue in hill and mountainous areas.
Scout is a Border Collie, the most common dog used because of their intelligence, hard-working attitude and hardiness in the face of all kinds of weather. Both of the parents of Scout are working sheepdogs on farms in the Lake District and Scout has a few half brothers also in Mountain Rescue.
The training I guess, is really about the handler, the weakest link in the team. It is the handler who has to find the right combination of rewards that promotes the behaviour required in the dog. Training is reward based, infinitely better than any other option. The dogs want to do it.
When Scout sets off on a run to find a body, he is really wanting his toy, a ball on a string. If he gets that he is happy and will repeat the behaviour time and again.
Some say it’s a bit like training men.
It’s mostly women that say that, but only to each other.
I had a lovely little walk yesterday with Scout. We crossed from one side of a valley to another, from one gritstone edge to another, and in between we passed through time.
It was hot, hotter than I expected with the temperature continuing to rise well up to the afternoon zenith. We had skirted below a long low gritstone edge waving to a climber, a new learner, as he tried to workout a simple route. He was confident enough to turn around and wave to us, one of his companions, a girl, talked on a mobile phone, hands gesticulating as she fired off staccato monosyllables to the person on the other end of the line. Scout and I pressed on, wondering if there was anyone on the end of the belay line.
Finding our turning point we followed a wall west then turned south with the wall still on our left. Long grass spread out on the flat land between two slopes. Heather dotted the landscape and long thin fingers of trees marched out like walls of a corridor.
Being the hottest part of the day and a little worried about Scout I found some shade to stop in. Scout had other ideas and set up camp in the shade of the wall, so I moved there too. It was a good choice; soft grass to sit on, shade from a lone oak tree and a cool gritstone wall to lean against.
I got out our lunch and poured out water and tea. We both sat there quietly enjoying the shade and the soft grass. Two men walked by and did not even notice us just a few metres away. It occurred to me then that this is how you walk in summer, slow pace, find shade, do not be afraid to stop and sit. We spent a whole hour there, nothing much happened, but I looked out at the grass and the trees and saw more as time went by.
Scout snoozed, glad of the rest, his ears flicking the odd insect away his eyes occasionally opening slightly to check that all was still well. I kicked off my shoes and had a look at the map, drank tea, leaned back against the cool wall and relaxed.
Scouts training is really coming on now. He is at stage one, where he begins the sequence of finding a body and then returning to tell me about it before taking me to the site.
It involves lots of repetition of different find sequences with no real limit on time that the whole training has to be completed by.
Unsurprisingly it is not a straight line progression with many steps forward and back. It’s me the handler that causes the steps back, through misreading Scouts actions and not being consistent in approach. One recent example has been a new trick Scout has learned when he is not sure if a body is out there waiting for him with his toy. He will do a little dance around my feet and bark continuously not moving off to search. This is intermittent behaviour that has been hard to deal with.
After one particularly bad training session I was driving home despondent and upset thinking about why he exhibits this behaviour. It dawned on me that this is the same actions he portrays when I take him for a walk and have a game of ball throwing. Where we go there is a short length of path where we cannot throw the ball so he has to wait, getting more and more excited, dancing at my feet and barking. The same behaviour he expresses occasionally in training.
From that day we have not played ball on a walk and he has no more toys in the house, just a tug to naw on. So his only toy play is in training, which I hoped would increase his focus on body finding. The next session we also tried doing a find sequence run, then putting him back in the car, so that his only interaction with the ball toy was in training and with the body. He displayed no issues at all, no dancing, no barking, just great find behaviour, even quartering the area to catch the scent of the body.
Lesson learned. The handler needs to think about play and interaction outside of training times to prevent unwanted behaviour from becoming ingrained and affecting the find sequence.
We are just back from Dartmoor where I took Scout for a weekend of training with the Search and Rescue Dog Association of England (SARDA).
Dogs and handlers from all over the country come together each month to train for finding people out on the hills, in rural environments and woodlands. There are several stages to training. Puppy, then Stages one, two, three, then Graded when the dog and handler become operational. There is no set time, within reason I guess, as to how long a search team, dog and handler, can take to become operational. Most dogs and handlers train each week as well sometimes, several times a week.
Scout is now at Stage One. Learning to go and hunt for a person out on the moor. This weekend was one of learning, some good stuff and stuff that needs work. Scout can find and bark at a find really well. What he needs to do is break free of the hypothetical elastic band that attaches him to me. He has a tendency to want direction from me once he is a certain distance away. So we spent the weekend gradually increasing the distance. It’s a case of three steps forward, two steps back sometimes.
The really great thing is the help that is available and the training from experienced trainers and other handlers. When things are not going to plan, its great to have people around who can explain and give encouragement.
Its Scouts birthday today. Born on 29th February 2016. Scout is a Killiebrae Border Collie and comes from working sheepdog parents. He is also a trainee search and rescue dog for SARDA England, the Search and Rescue Dog Association of England, and works with me in Mountain Rescue.
Scout joined our family about 10 months ago. He has a lovely nature and fits in well. Scout started hi SARDA training when he was twelve weeks old and he just loves been out on the hill, learning how to find people and ultimately find his toy, which is his reward.
Scout was named after Kinder Scout and also the character Scout in Harper Lees book, To Kill a Mockingbird. On Kinder Scout there is a triangulation pillar known as the Scout Trig so it all seemed to fit in.
Now he is a little older we can go for longer walks and I get to spend time with him in a none training environment, which has resulted in us becoming firm buddies.