Training with SARDA Wales

It’s always hard to tell if the winter causes a rise in the numbers of missing people occupying Search & Rescue Teams, or whether they simply prey on your mind more because of the dark and the cold and the dangers winter can pose to vulnerable people. However, the search dogs are kept busy, whatever the weather and season so, as long as people keep going missing, the dogs and handlers will keep going out to train.

Earlier this year saw SARDA Wales back at Rhyd Ddu where there was an enormous turnout of bodies and handlers, ensuring plenty of variety in the training scenarios.

Hiding in strange places

I trained with the trailing dogs but as the Lowland Open Area dogs were working nearby it meant they could also make use of me. As search dogs are called upon increasingly to look for missing people in semi-urban and urban areas, we have to try to replicate the kind of scenario that could arise, and keeping it fresh and entertaining for the dogs and handlers can often entail the bodies being asked to hide in some strange places.

In my time I have hidden up a tree, in a stream outflow pipe in the forest and, on one memorable occasion in Lancashire, I was asked to sit in a bus stop for six hours, which led to considerable confusion on the part of bus drivers and ensured I didn’t have to share my corner of the bus shelter with anyone, as people were VERY keen to stay away from the apparently crazy lady in the corner.

However, this year was the first time I have hidden in a castle………

X marked the spot

I stuck my hat, which I’d been wearing for half an hour, into a ziplock bag to hand to the search coordinator, and then left my car and keys with him (there being the possibility that my car could be used to acquire my scent from my seat or the steering wheel), and set out past a water treatment plant (all sorts of interesting scent contamination there for dogs), across a field and down along the edge of a river (flowing water will also sometimes “pull” scent off course), into the middle of a field where X marked the spot on my map. It turned out to be a children’s play area in a caravan park that was shut for the season (I should emphasise we always have the landowner’s permission for these exercises).

Wooden castle

Even more specifically, I was to climb into the children’s wooden play castle and hide on the top deck among the turrets. This was to encourage the dogs to think outside the box and persist in trying to locate me, if they could smell me but not see me, when they got to the point where my scent was coming from and the handlers to encourage their dogs into unusual places.

I decided against using the climbing wall as my previous climbing records have entailed a crunched up ankle on two occasions and a cracked set of ribs – admittedly I’d sustained those injuries in the Cairngorms and on far bigger things than this, but I just knew that I would fall off the seven foot high children’s climbing wall, finish up in A&E and, perhaps worse of all, end up with the award at the annual dinner for the stupidest thing done in training. Such things don’t get forgotten about very easily, and social media is merciless!

Down the slide!

Instead I climbed the log-ladder and wriggled through the gap (forgetting I had a rucksack on at first and ending up like A.A Milne’s “Wedged Bear In Great Tightness”), and set about making myself comfortable in the castle’s West Wing. Sadly there were no slits through which I could pour boiling oil or fire arrows to liven up a chilly six hour wait but I noted, with some satisfaction, that the best and easiest way out whenever I needed to get out to reward a dog with a game, was down the slide and I’m not ashamed to say I took every opportunity!

I’d downloaded some TV programmes onto my phone and had full signal, and had even remembered to charge and bring my power pack so I could keep the phone going in the cold. Out came the layers, sleeping bag, flask and snacks and I settled down, wedged into a gap to wait for a dog.

Chloe

My first visitor, after a couple of hours, was trainee search dog Chloe with her handler Dave, who struck on my scent from out of sight and came like a bullet across the field, negotiated one of the wooden ramps to check me out then ran back to Dave to tell him she’d found me and bring him back to me with barking and “shuttling” between us. Playing tug in a confined space with her was entertaining, and at the end of the game she refused to believe I no longer had her toy and returned to the castle a couple of times to stand on me, root about and try to find the toy she was convinced I still had!

Izzy

Not long after came search dog Izzy with Ester – due to a recent injury we could forgive Ester for not climbing into the castle after her dog, but this was my chance to come down the slide and have a really long game with Izzy’s beloved tennis ball, she seems impossible to tire and tore about the field for minutes on end, retrieving and returning the ball. When you’ve been bunched up in a small space for a couple of hours and are a bit chilly it takes some effort to get all your limbs moving and a few minutes of ball-games are exhausting.

Diddi

Having returned to my castle I soon had a visit from the gorgeous 11 month old Diddi, a collie I’d not bodied for before. He seemed to work out where I was easily but, having got into the castle, was then a little unsure about which exit to take, which resulted in a few lively moments of him standing on me to get a better view and trampling across me to check out the various ways out. He gives wonderful cuddles though and loved play-growling with me for control over the tuggy-toy, and it was great to see him coming on from the little puppy doing his obedience test last year.

Skye

Next up was Skye, the trailing dog who found me from the scent on the hat I had left behind, and the trail of scent I had left behind on my walk from the car to the castle. She is a tiny spaniel whose hair on the top of her head goes frizzy on damp days (I feel her pain) and utterly endearing. After her treat of a sachet of dog food I came down the slide once more so we could enjoy a game with her tennis ball on a rope.

Indi

Time for some variety when a Labrador paid me a visit later in the afternoon. Indi has been qualified for a number of years and he seemed to enjoy the hiding spot, once he had worked out that coming up the slide was never going to turn out well! Out I came, down the slide, for a game of tug with him and he reminded me just how strong he is, I had to give up after a few minutes, after being pulled over, as I valued my arms still being in my sockets by the evening!

Facebook hero!

Last but by no means least was Matt, the search dog from the Isle of Man. Matt even has his own Facebook page (incredible – no opposable thumbs but works a smartphone and posts regular updates….. check him out). Matt qualified in July last year and in November had his first find, a person missing on the Isle of Man, after searching several areas in the middle of the night. What I love about Matt is that he works with total intensity but, as soon as the find is made, he puts as much effort into seeking out cuddles from everyone around him as he does into the reward game, and he likes to make sure that everyone is included in the experience!

Eventually, after six hours, I was able to crawl out of the castle with all my kit and creak back on stiff, cold legs to the debrief where it was apparent everyone had had a great day and was really positive about the start to their year.

Magical landscapes

My journey back home meant I could catch a glimpse of the river at Pont Glaslyn, a sight that has always made my insides lurch at the sheer perfection and beauty of it all, drive through magical landscapes of groves of winter trees at Nantmor and catch a glorious sunset over the northern end of Cardigan Bay from high up above Tan y Bwlch, before darkness fell and I could reflect instead on how fortunate I am to have such dogs and scenery on my doorstep.

Maya

I do have to end this blog on a reflective note. Many people reading this will remember I have mentioned Maya in the past, a beautiful collie who belonged to one of the handlers and who would often come bodying with me. Sadly, Maya passed away over the Christmas holiday at a good age, peacefully in her sleep. I missed her being up in the castle with me on Saturday – goodness knows what she would have made of it!

Maya could have me in fits of laughter with her antics – we would take a bottle of bubbles out to play with as she was obsessed with them and would chase them endlessly, no pitta bread was safe with her around, you could plonk your hat on her head and she would walk around wearing it, seemingly oblivious to how ludicrous it all was, and as long as there were “Tree-Rats” (squirrels) the world was a good place for her.

She was an incredible bodying-companion, hot-water bottle and friend and even though my eyes are filling up as I write this I am choosing instead to be delighted and grateful that I knew her and that she chose to be my companion on those days out hiding. So please raise a glass or mug of whatever you have to hand, and toast the world’s very best Body-Buddy, Maya. RIP.