Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
“Search dog handlers now have better clothing, better footwear and better equipment – GPS devices, mobile phones, radios – but a dog still goes out in its birthday suit, covering the ground with a speed and efficiency no human could ever dream of.”
The first man in Britain to train search dogs was Hamish MacInnes. He’d spent his National Service in the Tyrol and worked with the search dogs there. Working in Glencoe, as skiing was being developed in Scotland, he started training two dogs, both Alsatians, Tiki, and Rangi. The key was the understanding that grew between dog and handler and that the handler had to learn to trust the dog’s instincts.
Others took an interest in the systematic way Hamish was training his animals and came to learn from him. In 1965 SARDA, the Search and Rescue Dog Association, was formed with distinguished patrons including Lord Hunt of Everest fame, and Sir Vivian Fuchs of the Antarctic
Beginning with Rangi - “looking up at his master . . . an expression in his almond eyes which Hamish had rarely seen before. Those eyes, fiery and unblinking were trying to convey something.” – SARDA has spread across Great Britain. The Lake District association, LDSAMRA, is independent, and consists of dog handlers attached to the separate mountain rescue teams.
The dogs work with their sense of smell. “All humans release groups, or rafts, of dead skin cells. Which are carried away in the wind. . . .Whatever the particular composition of human scent, dogs can detect it in very small quantities, and low levels of concentration. This is the key to their remarkable ability to locate people using smell alone.”
The process of training is long and hard – it can take up to three years - and is based on the development of a deep understanding between handler and dog. The dog first learns the end game – finding the target body – and is suitably rewarded. The second stage develops the handler’s understanding. He will know where the body is located and, by careful observation, will learn how his dog goes about finding it. He will learn to read the dog’s body language. In the final stage, the search is for an unknown body over increasingly wider and more challenging terrain. The handler learns to trust the dog’s instincts and dog and handler become a team.
Stephen Austin, for instance, was told, after an intensive two day assessment that his dog, Sky, was fantastic, but that he had more work to do.
Tom Gilchrist sums up the position of everyone who does this charitable work: “Fools wanted for hazardous searches. No wages. Long nights of complete darkness, cold and wet. Two years of monthly training, danger of failing, dog hair all over your fleece, car and home. Pay out of your own pocket until dog on call-out list. Honour and recognition in case of success doubtful.” If that’s the challenge, a picture of Andy Fleming shows why people are so committed to this work. Andy strides through the mountain grass in the cold and wet and his dog, Angus, an Alsatian, bright-eyed, alert, tongue lolling out of his mouth, bounds across the grass, intent on his task. Man and dog are as one in a determined search to save a life.
This is a remarkably thorough book, covering everything from the stories of individual dogs and their handlers to the scientific details of scent and smell and the growth and administration of SARDA.
Above everything it is a celebration of man and dog. There is something very special about the relationship between a handler and his search dog, but there is something miraculous about a dog’s ability to follow a scent across the most rugged terrain in the most inhospitable of weather.