SARDA Assessment Weekend March 2018

I don’t know if it’s a sign of age but the twice-yearly Search Dog assessments seem to come round more quickly every year. However, they take place over three days from Friday to Sunday and Lanyon Bowdler are good enough to allow me time off for the Friday so I get my full doggy-fix!

We always use a Girl Guide centre at Caeathro, near Caernarfon, for our assessment accommodation as it has plenty of bunk-room for all the assessors that will turn up from Search & Rescue teams from all over the country (and sometimes Ireland). There is also a large kitchen from which the wonderful Hilary can work her magic, she is a former search dog handler and Mountain Rescue member and now much-loved caterer for a variety of tastes. She is completely unfazed by vegetarian, vegans, nut-allergies, dairy allergies, gluten-intolerance and the raging hunger of a day out on the hills, she produces a cooked breakfast, packed lunches and three-course dinners over three days, on a budget, to suit all tastes. There are picnic benches outside for people who want to take some time out, plenty of woodland for exercising dogs and – most importantly – an open fire and squishy armchairs for those long, sociable evenings chatting, drinking and playing cards.

Toast duty

This time we were joined by assessors from the North of England and Kent, who had all made epic journeys to be there whilst facing a miserable forecast for their return journey on Sunday. We made sure to show them some good Welsh hospitality, of course – meaning Harold was on his usual late-night toast duty and dealt manfully with shouts for brown, white, some with butter, some with dairy-free spread……

Ready for assessment

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Up for assessment were Alex and his lovely collie Ben, who have trained hard for a couple of years to be in the position where they were ready to be assessed to join the callout list. Alex is a busy Ambulance Technician and member of Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue on top of training a search dog, and Ben has come a long way from being a slightly nervous dog from a rescue centre to being a really cuddly furry bundle with a real mission in life. Richard and Scout, and Helen and her dog Cluanie, both members of Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team, were being re-assessed, as is required of all dogs and handlers every three years. Although assessment is the priority for the weekend other trainee and graded dogs will be working and training where there are spare bodies available, and it’s just as important to bring them on at every stage, especially those dogs and handlers who might be ready for the next assessment in November.

Sedate night

It was an unusually sedate night on Thursday when I got there around 10pm, we sat and chatted by the fire, had a couple of glasses of wine and some snacks and caught up with each other but we were all in bed by 1am (I set the record in February, together with two other people, for a 5.30am bedtime, up and training at 7am……). I have given up trying to fend off the snoring in the bunkrooms and have slept in my car for many years now, no mean feat in a Corsa, but this time I decided to try “foetal position in the back seat”, instead of putting the front seat back as far as it will go and wishing there was space in the glove box for my feet – and it worked a treat! I slept solidly for almost four hours until the rain on the roof woke me around 5am, I settled down to enjoy the sound and slept some more until 6.45am when it was time to get up.

Friday morning

People are always milling around by 6.45am, exercising their dogs, sorting their kit and drinking mugs of tea in the morning light, so there is no shortage of company as you assess the weather and pack your kit from the back of the car accordingly. This is always punctuated by dogs rushing up to greet you as they are let out of vehicles from a night’s sleep, investigating the boot of your car for the inevitable treats they know all bodies have hidden there and plying for cuddles – it’s a great time of the day. However, there are also sandwiches to be made and flasks to be filled before breakfast at 7.30am and the briefing at 8.30am.

24 hour cross trail

I was asked to do trailing up at Parc Glynllifon, an area of land belonging to Lord Newborough and where we are very generously allowed to train. In particular I was asked to do a 24-hour cross trail. The idea here is that some missing people will, over an extended period, walk back over a scent trail they might have left earlier, because they are trying to self-rescue or are confused. A trailing dog can distinguish between the older and fresher scent of a missing person who has crossed over their own trail and, if they are following the older trail, they will then turn off at the point the fresher scent crosses the trail and follow the fresher scent. This required me to leave an article of my clothing in a sealed bag and set off at Parc Glynllifon to walk a trail and leave my scent behind me. I left my car keys with a dog handler who then brought my car to collect me because I could not walk back to my car as I would over-lay a fresher scent on top of what I had already walked. It’s pretty unnerving to see your own car being driven past you, let me tell you!

Body-buddy Maya

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Having laid that trail I then went to join the others at Fort Belan, near Dinas Dinlle. This is by Caernarfon Airport where the air ambulance and the Coastguard helicopter are based so there is always the opportunity for some great views if you are a helicopter nerd like me! I was asked if I would like to take my body-buddy, Maya the collie, out with me to replicate a missing dog-walker. Once again Maya, who now knows the word “bodying”, danced along beside me as I laid a trail along the concrete path.

I went down to the water’s edge to throw sticks into the water for Maya before we doubled back up to the sand dunes and dipped in between them to another inlet where I found a lovely spot on the edge of the sand, overlooking the Nantlle Ridge and Yr Eifl with the sea dividing them and lapping just feet away from me. We watched flocks of oystercatchers, enjoying their “peep, peep, peep” as they darted from us in sharp-focus black and white scurries and I poured a cup of my tea, blew on it for Maya as I know she likes tea, then she lapped from it once before turning her nose up, meaning I had to jettison the whole cup. On the second attempt she licked around the rim of the cup. Thanks Maya…….

It was raining gently but steadily so I hunkered down into my bivvy bag whilst Maya pottered around to find various sticks and other debris for me to throw for her.

Well done Ginger

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Ginger and his human Luci were tasked to find me and had a neck-buff in a bag that I had been wearing earlier in the day. I didn’t see it all happen but have it on good authority that Ginger trotted along the concrete I had walked on, then went down to the water’s edge exactly where I had been (and the tide had gone out by then, pulling my scent with it) before heading up through the dunes and motoring along the beach towards me. What was brilliant was that he wasn’t at all distracted when he saw Maya – he was so fixed on my scent and the task of finding me that he ignored her, even when she went up to Luci, which could have caused all sorts of jealousy issues, found me and lay down beside me to indicate to Luci that this was the scent he was looking for. This was probably one of the harder trails that Ginger had done in terms of terrain, junctions and possible scent confusion and he seemed to nail it – even more wonderful was the fact that, when we walked out of the area, he trotted along with his toy in his mouth looking so proud of himself, he KNEW he had done well!

Dog kisses

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The weather had started to clear by then and there is always time in SARDA for some sitting around and eating lunch whilst indulging in doggy cuddles. Search Dog Izzy decided that Body Kerry needed to be the object of her attention that day so as Kerry was enjoying a quiet snooze on a bank in the sunshine Izzy decided she needed a wet kiss – and not just one, no. MANY wet kisses.

Caravan encounter

After lots of canine cuddles it was time to head off to our next area and this time we went to a caravan park where I was placed in bushes next to an empty caravan space – that is a sure-fire guarantee that someone will arrive with their caravan and park there and, of course, it happened within 10 minutes of my nestling into the bush.

I knew that the poor hapless couple would get the fright of their lives as they connected to the hook-up but at the same time some woman poking her head out of the bushes and saying “Er, excuse me….” is likely to have a similar effect so it is a no-win situation. They took it very well though, and seemed to enjoy watching as four search dogs found me in the space of two hours, followed by a fabulous flypast by the Coastguard helicopter as it came back to land nearby.

The sun had come out and was beaming down on me, I had downloaded a brilliant podcast onto my phone (“West Cork”, check it out) and was hooked, so the time flew by and before I realised anything it was 4.40pm and I had to be back at Base for 5pm for the debrief, where we all report back on our perception of how things have gone before the assessors have their meeting. Just time to sort out kit, the lucky ones get a shower then it is dinner at 7pm, followed by washing up then more toast and chat in front of the fire until midnight.

Dramatic weather

I slept slightly less well in the back of my car on Friday night and the temperature had definitely dropped – by 7am it was trying to snow and this did not bode well. After breakfast and briefing I went back to Parc Glynllifon to lay a trail at 90 degrees across the one I had laid the previous morning and this time I had Maya with me.

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The weather turned radiant for a couple of hours so Maya and I sat in a field at the end of the cross-trail, leaning against a fence and waiting to be found. Maya found another stick on the walk there and insisted on carrying it all the way so that I, as her slave, could throw it for her repeatedly for ages. I managed to persuade her to settle down (bribed her with a bit of banana, one of her favourite foods……..) and she put her head on my knees and chilled out whilst I carried on with my podcast, enjoying the view up to the mountains.

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In the afternoon we headed up to Cefn Du, a lonely high forested pass between Waunfawr and Llanberis which passes along the foot of Moel Eilio, and where conditions changed rather dramatically. The wind was howling and snow blowing periodically in from the east, stinging the eyes as I laid a trail first on a narrow path above the slate squarry spoils before dropping down to a track, meeting a gate then heading uphill to an exposed point beneath a ruined quarry building. Luckily I found a small dip and nestled in here against the increasingly ferocious conditions, trying to stay warm for a couple of hours and just enjoying a snooze as Ginger bounced exuberantly onto my stomach. He had trailed me in those conditions, by the scent I had left behind and interestingly for a patch had walked on a parallel track about eight feet above where I had dropped down and walked but he kept peering over the edge to my track and tried on a couple of occasions to get down the steep spoils to where I had walked.

The wind was so strong and funnelling along the track that it must had pushed my scent strongly and scattered it all over the slate, and broken it up on the rugged surface so my smell was everywhere and Ginger was picking up hints of it from where he was, just above. As he reached the gate he didn’t even need to go through it to check if my scent had gone through there, he just turned at 90 degrees and motored up the hill to jump on me and disturb my cosy slumber! After a play with his favourite toy we walked back to the vehicles, a fresh snowstorm bearing down on us from behind before it caught us up and engulfed us.

Conditions were pretty ferocious by now, not the worse I have experienced in my role as a body but enough to make you take shelter behind your vehicle and be glad that in spite of some pretty high-performance clothing you are not out there on your own any more.

Congratulations

As we sheltered the news came through that Ben and Alex had passed their assessment, which delighted us as they have worked so hard for this – and, in fact, within a couple of hours of their official recognition as a Search Dog Team there were called out to their first operational search on Anglesey! Richard & Scout re-graded successfully, as did Helen and Cluanie so it was a brilliantly successful time for all concerned and left Sunday for everyone to relax and have some fun with the dogs, doing training searches and enjoying the snow.

Thrill never wanes

Whenever I come home from training I feel slightly bereft, it’s as though I have left a family behind because we live at such close quarters and with only one common aim for a whole weekend, so I console myself with the smell of Nikwax as I wash, dry and re-proof all my kit (that usually takes the best part of a day), upload my photos and exchange messages with people I have only seen that morning, as though we haven’t seen each other for whole months.

It’s a really special crowd of people and one I am immensely proud to be part of. After 12 years I can honestly say that the thrill never wanes, in fact it becomes more addictive and the people a more entangled part of your own, special and slightly weird family – however, all families are slightly weird so who am I to complain?!