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VIDEO: Peak District dogs to the rescue

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It’s a drizzly Sunday morning and I’m lying in a forest in Burbage Bridge, near Hathersage, wrapped in a khaki bivvy bag waiting to be rescued.

My heart lifts as I hear the jingling of bells nearby, signifying the search and rescue dogs are getting closer.

Jake, a one-year-old springer spaniel, bounds towards me having discovered my scent.

But as soon as he’s by my side, he’s off again running into the distance barking, alerting his handler, Andy Keen, to his find.

He shuttles to and fro from me to Andy, indicating where I am in the woods.

Once they are both next to me, Jake is rewarded with his prized squeaky toy and some chocolate treats.

It’s all a game to him. And he’s won again.

Thankfully, this was all a drill, part of a training exercise with the Peak District mountain rescue dogs, and I am uninjured, but it’s allowed me a small insight into how a rescue operation is performed.

Jake, a member of Buxton Mountain Rescue Team, is not yet qualified and is currently in stage one of three of his training to become an air scenting dog, which takes two to three years.

Air scenting dogs are the most numerous in mountain rescue and run free on the hillside under the guidance of a handler smelling for any human scent.

They do not as a general rule track the missing person, but react to a human scent being blown towards them by the wind or air currents.

This means that as long as the dog is searching downwind of a casualty, they should find them.

When a scent cone is found the dog investigates, and if a casualty is found, will return to the handler to indicate and bring the handler to the casualty.

These dogs can smell a human many hundreds of metres away and can cover areas faster than many multiple human search teams, especially in the dark, fog and undergrowth.

Air scenting dogs are often Belgian sheepdogs, border collies, tolling or golden retrievers, labradors or springer spaniels.

From age eight weeks, Jake was taught obedience, to ignore stock such as sheep and birds and to have an obsession with his toy, in his case a small, pink, squishy rugby ball.

Now he is being taught that people lost on hills have his favourite toy and if he finds them and indicates so, he will get that toy.

By starting with someone running away with the toy in full view of the dog, or by popping up from behind an obstacle with the toy, the dogs are taught that the aim of the game is to find the human with their nose.

Stage two involves the handler taking the dog onto a hillside, where he or she knows where bodies are hidden, and directing it so it hits the scent cone and hones in on the body.

In stage three, the handler does not where the bodies are.

Air scenting rescue dogs are assisted by trailing dogs, usually German shepherds, dobermans and bloodhounds.

Trailing dogs are trained to discriminate on the scent of a particular human.

If a team has a missing person who is known and has access to a scent article, such as a hat or pillowcase etc, the dog can follow the trail of where this person walked several days after they passed ignoring smells from other people.

These dogs can therefore either lead rescuers either directly to a missing person or give them a huge clue as to where they are and where to direct the air scenting dogs who cover a wider area to finish the job.

The rescue dogs train every Sunday for a few hours from 9am and learn to find people by having volunteers hide on hills, in bushes and even up trees.

There are seven teams in the Peak District: Buxton, Kinder, Edale, Glossop, Derby, Oldham and Woodhead.

All members have full time jobs, team duties such as training, fundraising and call outs, families and hobbies to balance around search dog training.

Andy, of Buxton, said: “It is a huge pressure on members’ time and finances but the rewards are worth it when you see dogs making finds.

The people who hide from the dogs for training purposes, known as ‘dogsbodies’, are also volunteers.

Andy added: “They come out every week in all weathers to train the dogs. They are amazing, as nothing would happen without them. They are so important to us. Dogsbodies assist from the very start of the dogs training. Their help is paramount.”

The first rescue dogs were trained in 1964 in Glencoe, in the Scottish Highlands, after the village’s rescue team leader, Hamish MacInnes, saw dogs being used to search for people after avalanches in Switzerland.

He saw the potential for using dogs to search for lost walkers and climbers within the UK and started training his two German shepherds.

The Search and Rescue Dogs Association, an organisation who trains members of mountain rescue teams to become search dog handlers, was formed in 1965.

To make a donation, visit sardaengland.org.uk.

For more information on volunteering or becoming a dogsbody with the Buxton team, visit buxtonmountainrescue.org.uk.

 

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