Dogs to the rescue in Scotland
Dog Tom, as he is known to his mountain rescue colleagues, has spent close to three decades searching for lost and injured souls across Scotland’s most breathtaking and treacherous terrain. But his memory of that first call-out is as clear as unbroken snow. Tom Gilchrist and his dog, then a Border collie named Orna, were dropped off by helicopter just before dawn on to the Five Sisters of Kintail, an 8km ridge that rises steeply out of Glen Shiel in the north-west Highlands. “The sun was rising and the dog just went off, following a scent.” The ground they covered was rough and dangerous as the pair searched for a missing hillwalker, who had lost his bearings and hunkered down for the night. “Watching a dog work is a joyous thing,” said Gilchrist. The Search and Rescue Dogs Association (SARDA) Scotland runs just over 20 teams of trained dogs and their volunteer handlers from Wick to Peebles, available at any hour and in all weathers to play their unique part in the constellation of life-saving services. In a series of rare interviews, SARDA handlers explain the fine balance of trust, discipline and instinct that defines the rescuing partnership between dog and human.
“First and foremost they are family pets,” says Gilchrist, who now works with six-year-old Meagaidh, another Border collie. “When the children were playing hide-and-seek, they always wanted them on their side,” he laughs.
In terms of training, said Gilchrist, “You need to get some very basic obedience into the dog early – the commands sit, stay and come.” Dogs are trained to come in three ways: to a whistle, hand movement or a shout, in order to work in poor visibility or when they are too far away to hear. “When you know a dog will come, then you can trust it to go some distance away from you. When you let the dog run and run, your own instinct is to call it back but you have to let it think for itself. “You want to hone their hunting instinct but also use their herding so that they can search in big circles.”
SARDA was conceived in 1965 by Hamish MacInnes, one of Scotland’s foremost mountaineers and mountain rescue experts, after he visited an avalanche dog training course in Switzerland. MacInnes remained the association’s president until his death in late November.
Search dogs start their training from the age of 12 weeks, said SARDA Scotland’s secretary, Philip Gaskell but it can take two to three years for a dog team to fully qualify. “The dog quite often picks it up more quickly than the handler because the dog is using its innate hunting skills, using its sense of smell to locate a person or article with human scent on it. A dog does that naturally and learns to associate finding a person with a reward. But the handler needs to learn how to use this asset, which means putting the dog into the best place.”
For this, handlers must understand the logistics of mountaineering – all prospective handlers must be active members of a mountain rescue team – and also how scent moves across ground depending on topography and weather. Finally, the handler has to have confidence in the dog that it will follow the scent to its source without further command. “This is the balance between training and letting the dog have its own head,” Gaskell said.
Search dogs are mostly hunting breeds – border collie, Labrador, springer spaniel – and must be inquisitive, sociable and agile enough to handle the physical demands of the role. Of course, they require excellent scenting ability to detect human scent, the 20 000 to 30 000 dead skin cells we shed every minute, in the air.
“One dog can do the work of many searchers,” said Gaskell. “They can find people who can’t be seen by human eyes and can cover a much bigger area.”
But SARDA Scotland volunteers emphasise that it is the partnership between dog and handler that develops these particular search abilities to their fullest potential. “The relationship depends on the dog,” said Stu McIntyre, whose 20-month-old collie-kelpie cross, Pippa, qualified earlier this year. “Just like humans, they all have their own character and I’m still finding out about Pippa. As the dog matures, the balance of power shifts. You may be trying to second guess a younger dog that doesn’t have the confidence to go with its instincts.”
McIntyre gives an example from a recent assessment weekend, “The [mock] body was a long way off but the wind was carrying the scent well. She went after it, then about 100 metres away from me she stopped and looked back to say, ‘Am I right, Dad?’ Because I was following, she knew she should go on. An older dog wouldn’t have looked back; they know there’s something at the end of the scent.”
This trust flows both ways, he adds. In 2015, McIntyre was involved in the search on Ben Nevis for Rachel Slater and Tim Newton, a young couple who went missing on Valentine’s Day before their bodies were found buried together under the snow five weeks later. “It was the first time as a rescuer I felt in danger,” he said. “You could just sense that the dogs were uneasy – when she was afraid of avalanche, Nell [his earlier search dog] would come in close and not range very far. It was a warning to me.”
Source: The Guardian, Libby Brooks Photography: Murdo MacLeod