Search and Rescue Dogs training at Rothbury
PUBLISHED: 15:56 15 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:03 20 February 2013
Dogs are invaluable but often overlooked members of search and rescue teams. Guy Kiddey joined them as they trained in the woods near Rothbury
Sitting to attention in the boot of the car alongside Beth, nine years his senior, three-year-old Ben is called forward and hops out into a muddy puddle. Beth is desperately disappointed, and barks plaintively, her breath misting up the glass of the rear window.
There will be no fun for her tonight.After a cursory sniff around the back tyres and some inquisitive trotting along the edge of a line of bushes, Ben bounds back and sits at heel. While Beth settles back down to sleep, Ben cocks his head ever so slightly with eyes wide and bright, waiting for the command.
Ben come! He stands, stock still and completely focussed while his master, Ian Thompson, feeds the border collies stocky legs through straps and braces. This business suit is a fluorescent and reflective garment is worn with two bells and a glow stick.
Ian, who has 12 years rescue dog experience and is chairman of Englands Search and Rescue Dog Association (SARDA), sends Ben off to find the scent: Way find!
When he detects human scent, Ben can do the work of 10-15 men to search for and rescue a casualty. Out in the bracken are three dogsbodies volunteers who pose as casualties for the dogs to find.
They are absolutely crucial to the training process, and were always looking for more people to sit out in all weathers, throughout the year, said Ian.
Ben races back to Ian. He barks and jumps up and shuttle-runs between Ian and the hidden body, leading him ever closer to Val Allport, snuggled on a bed of bracken and hidden in a depression in floor of woods near Rothbury.
It may seem a strange way to spend your free time, but Val, 59, and a dogsbody for over 30 years, is in high spirits.
She rewards Ben with a squeaky toy, which he chews ecstatically before letting go and is soon off again to find the next body.
Its all a game to him he lives for the moment but he loves to work. You have to show lots of enthusiasm and let the casualty praise him, always encouraging him to run to a scent, Ian added.
Ians wife, Kath, is phlegmatic about the hours spent alone on a windswept hillside, with only the damp pages of a book for company. It is, she says, an obligation of marriage.
But for Stefan Sooter, who for three years worked a tracker dog searching for explosives in the Army, nights out on the forest floor are one of many hurdles to scale on the way to becoming a graded handler.
For the dogs, it is a two or three year training process, beginning with obedience.Border collies, whose noses are particularly sensitive and whose bodies are well-adapted to moving over steep and rocky ground, need special help to overcome their natural interest in sheep.
And the training ends with the ultimate test to lock on to a scent cone from up to a quarter of a mile away and draw the handler to the body.
Most of the dogs work, though, is urban. They are at their best finding missing people at night and are often deployed to track down dementia sufferers and suspected suicide victims. They located about 20 people last year.
SARDA works directly with mountain rescue there are two teams in Northumberland and all services are volunteer-run. For the first time the Government provided funding last year, but that only accounted for a fraction of the 15-20,000 it takes to keep a mountain rescue team in operation each year.