Chew Road

The Chew Road rises eight hundred feet in a little over a mile from the reservoir at the bottom in the valley to the reservoir at the top on Long Ridge Moss moor. In summer it is a hellish slog along the rough tarmac that carves its way along the northern side of the Chew Valley. There is no shade and what water is available, has spent millions of years slicing a narrow ‘V” between north and south. The side so precipitous to the streambed and so strewn with a tumble of rocks and steep scree, that it will break a leg as easily as snapping a twig. The landscape is bleak and barren devoid of what any normal person might call beauty. In winter it is hell.

            The Devil’s reign over this domain is further buttressed by the names that accompany each major geological feature. Wilderness Gully, Charnal Clough, Charnal Hole, Deadman’s Layby, Indians Head, and The Wilderness. Many people have died and have come to die here. Some brought by the thrill of climbing the vertical crags, only to be reminded for a final time that gravity makes no allowance for skill, wealth, age or beauty. There have been few escapes from the rocks that line the water below. Others possibly attracted by its remoteness fancy it as a final resting place, Deadman’s Layby being the layby of choice for at least two people.

            Scout and I now crouch down in Deadman’s . We are waiting to commence a search and getting low gets us out of a biting wind that runs up the valley and cuts straight through us. Scout chooses his position well and uses me as his windbreak, his nose pointing out into the wind sampling the scents that are being driven airborne up the road to the top. Border Collie dogs are noted for their ability to survive and thrive in harsh conditions.

            My attention is drawn to the rime ice from the low cloud that has formed on the heather and long grasses that cover the moor. The ice extends from the plant stems growing one crystal at a time in the direction of the north wind.  I study the one nearest to me. Fine horizontal icicles twinkle as I move my head around to study the structure. It is made of blocks of ice so delicate I can see how each has formed from the previous one, gradually building outwards like a suspension bridge.

            I give Scout his release command and he darts down the slope towards the water. The wind is coming up the valley so I need to guide him to the top then we can work our way down heading into the wind. His nose is around two hundred million times more powerful than mine, I use my eyes to map the ground, and he uses his sense of smell. My aim is to keep him at ninety degrees to the wind, working in a zig zag pattern as we progress down one side. I watch him carefully as he explores the boulders that lay under inches of snow. This makes my progress slow, as I have to take care not to have my leg down a deep hole or leg breakers as they are known.

            As Scout quarters back and forth I watch from vantage points to note if his nose goes up in the air indicating he has locked on to a smell. Humans shed forty thousand cells every minute. They fall to the ground forming a pool around our feet that then begins to dissipate on the wind making rafts of scent over the landscape. This is what a dog detects when you see it nosing the wind. The difference with Scout is that it tells him there maybe a body close by and if there is a body that means playtime with his toy if he gets me to the location. It sounds simple but in practice there are a thousand things that can affect that flow of cells. Wind and temperature are the most crucial. A rising temperature will take a scent up hill and vice versa for cooling air. Wind can do strange things with scent. It can lift it hundreds of feet into the air then dump the cells on to a plateau whilst the body lies on the valley floor. Water has a similar effect. If Scout starts to track along a streambed chances are that the water is transporting scent down from a location higher up.

            Scout is heading across the wind towards me now and as he does so his nose snaps into the wind and he brakes suddenly then turns into the wind and heads with purpose through the snow. He works his way through a boulder field, moving left and right, sometimes stopping to sniff between rocks as scent works its way under the covering of snow. I support him, telling him to ‘Find him out’, and the command to intensify his searching. His concentration is now total, nothing else exists, not even me. He disappears around a rock pinnacle and I hear his falconry bell chiming as he climbs the rock face. Then, all is silent.

            If the bell goes silent when he is intensely searching I know he has found a body. The bell starts again and I see him re appear at the top of the rocks searching for me. As he spots me he starts to pick his way down the face of the vertical rock. He loves this so much. I stay still watching him as he picks his way through the boulder field towards me. As he draws to my feet he pulls his head back and speaks. A single bark, full throated, I can see right down into his insides his mouth is that wide. Once the bark is out he spins around and returns the same way he came to me. This is his positive indication that he has found a body so I follow up behind him, telling him what a good boy he is. Again he moves out of sight and again he comes into view again and heads back to me to tell me there is a body. He will repeat this until I have arrived at the location where a human lies hidden under a thick blanket of snow.

            I squeal in delight at Scout telling him what a good boy he is then I launch his toy, his reward, the one and only thing he wants out of the whole process. I shout reward, the command for him to play and the signal for the body to come alive and play with Scout.  As they play I look back over the land we have travelled and make a mental note of how the wind is playing amongst the boulders. It has been a good half a kilometre from where the body is located to where Scout first caught his scent. The strike, as we call it, has been impressive, the wind has helped but the snow has chilled the scent rafts and the boulders with their nooks and crannies have absorbed much of the evidence. It’s a good find.  I bend down and secrete two dog chews into the body’s hands. As he gives them to Scout I remove the toy and hide it back into my pocket.

Scout sits there looking around for the toy then looks at me and indicates he is ready to go and find the next body. I ruffle his forehead and I’m sure he smiles then we head off down the valley and the strengthening wind.

The long read…Trust your dog

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Scout. Trainee border collie search dog.

Experienced handlers say that training a dog is as much about trust as anything else.

I’ve asked Paul to walk down a footpath for 200 paces then go right into woodland for 100 paces and lay down. Scout strains at the lead, knowing that the game is on; I let him off and tell him to “go find”. He barks and does his little dance and I tell him to “get on” before he shoots off making ever-larger circles searching for the scent cone of Paul, occasionally blasting past me on his next orbit as we work our way through the woodland.

Suddenly Scout disappears into undergrowth. I stay on the path listening to his falconry bell as it jingles through the bracken. Then it stops. Silence. Eventually the jingle starts again and I see bracken moving as Scout makes his way back to me. He reaches the path and looks around, spots me and heads with purpose towards me as he gets close he barks then immediately turns around and heads back the same way. I have learned that heading back the same way means he has found a person. I follow him as the woodland engulfs him till eventually I am standing by the side of Paul. I give Paul the reward command and he pops up with Scouts toy and has a game of tug, this is Scouts reward and as he plays I tell him what a great dog he is and let Paul know where to go next.

Minutes later Scout and I are heading for a logging track that winds through the forest. Paul will be hiding at it’s top end and I want to approach from the bottom to extend the amount of time for searching. Scout is ahead and I watch him closely looking for any sign that he has found a trace of Paul. He turns sharp right into trees, when I get to the place there is no sight of him. I stand on the track and wait. Minutes pass and nothing. I have told Paul to hide on my left, but Scout is on the right. I whistle for Scout to return. A minute passes then I hear the bell and soon Scout is heading to me. But it’s with a purpose, the look on his face says he has found Paul, but that cannot be right, it’s the wrong area. He barks telling me he has found. I hedge my bets and tell him to get on and he heads straight back along the same line eventually leading me to a tree, but no Paul. There is nothing here I tell him. He looks up, so do I. Nothing. I start to move back to the track 400m away. He refuses to follow, looking at me in a serious way I have not seen before, he barks again, telling me he has found then heads back to the tree. He keeps looking up or at least I think that’s what he is doing. I look around.

There is a fallen tree nearby and a wide gully with a thin stream running down and thick bracken and the outline of the upturned roots of a tree on the opposite bank. A smooth breeze slips straight through us from across the gully. There is nothing else here so I make him reluctantly head back to the track and continue the search. We pass the point where I expect Paul to be and Scout has no interest. It dawns on me that Paul is not here and that the curve in the track I told him about is not this one but the one higher up.

We reach the right curve and head down the adjacent track. Scout runs straight to the bottom then returns and indicates, but it’s half-hearted and I suspect there is nothing there. When I reach him he is down a gully drinking from a stream and I call him out, knowing we have gone too far. I start to work back. The wind is blowing from my right heading for the direction of where Paul should be. Scout is on the wrong side of the wind so will not be able to detect Paul’s scent. Then I see Scout turn sharp left and head into the bracken; I follow him through flattened leaves realising Scout is on Paul’s ground scent. Scout comes back and indicates and in another 50m and I am there with Paul.

As they play I look around. It’s a good spot beneath a huge root ball from an upturned tree, well hidden in the bracken. Downwind is a gully with a small stream and across the gully woodland. As I am looking at this Paul tells me he thought we had him 30 minutes a go when we were the other side of the gully.

What do you mean I ask?

He tells me he heard me saying to Scout that there was nothing there and he points to a fallen tree across the gully. It’s then I realise where I am. We are across from the tree that Scout took me to earlier; it’s less than 20 meters away. It all starts to fit in to place. I realise Scout wasn’t looking up; he was pointing his nose up in the air to catch Paul’s scent. And when he went down to the stream he was picking Paul’s scent up as it drifted down on the water.

I’m stunned. Scout had Paul 30 minutes ago that’s why he would not leave the tree, he was telling me there was something there, that’s where the body was. I think about this and I know I am the weak link in the team. Trust your dog they say.

Later that evening I think about what happened. I’m amazed at Scout and how good he is and I’m disappointed in my performance how my actions let the team down. It is a massive learning experience.

Scout Trainee Search Dog

Scout at 10 & 12 Weeks Old

Scout has been with us two years now. His training to be a search and rescue dog in Mountain Rescue began when he was 12 weeks old, that’s him coming through the tunnel on his very first day of training.

He has a lovely nature, gentle with people and other dogs. Conversely, he likes to work hard, loves rough terrain and harsh weather does not seem to phase him. Training involves learning to go and find a body by detecting scent then coming to tell me, his handler, and guiding me back to the find spot. His reward is a game of ball, preferably a ball on a string that he can have a good game of tug. His favourite body Paul really gets into the game and Scout loves that, it gives him so much enjoyment, he really likes searching for him.

There have been a couple of milestones along the way. The first is a registration test to actually become a trainee dog. This is basic obedience and a stock test to make sure he does not chase livestock. Pass these and he get’s the coveted trainee badge, it’s all about badges! Next milestone is the indication test, where he has to find a body and come back to tell me, then lead me to the find spot. Scout has completed all these tests.

Now, Scout and I are learning to cover an area efficiently, find multiple bodies in varying situations in the day and at night. Scout now accompanies me on my walks and this builds his stamina and strength as well as increasing the good bond we already have. He is a joy to spend time with and walk with for a day.

The training, the game, has changed over the years, now we are trying to develop some directional control, with some success too, he is a quick learner. Scout has an excellent record of finding bodies, in fact, there have been only two occasions when he has failed and this has been in the same area on Baslow Edge each time, we call it Nemesis now. It’s an area where the wind can do all sorts of things and there are lots of boulders around, so it will be interesting to see how we crack it.

It’s not all training for Scout there are other duties and delights too. He is a big draw at the fundraising events, especially at Sheffield train station, he is also starting to join the team on training exercises and events. He even did some avalanche training a year back and loved being inside the snow holes. But mostly he likes to be out in the countryside with people and other dogs and he likes a good game of tug.

Scout
Scout. Trainee Search and Rescue Dog. Photo Mark Harrison

Scout trainee search and rescue dog

Scout
Scout. Trainee Search and Rescue Dog. Photo Mark Harrison

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.

Scouts progress in Search and Rescue

Scout training on Eyam Moor, Peak District National Park
Scout training on Eyam Moor, Peak District National Park

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.

 

 

Search and Rescue Dogs – Peak District

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.

Scout stage one training

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.