A crowded bothy is usually a good indicator of foul weather, and at lunchtime a couple of Saturdays ago the bothy at Ryvoan Pass in the Cairngorms was absolutely rammed.
Mixed in with the windswept hikers were a number of red-and-black-jacketed members of the Search and Rescue Dog Association Scotland (SARDA), who were conducting a training exercise in the area; and milling around at knee level and adding to the general confusion were their dogs – surprisingly well behaved for the most part, but occasionally disagreeing with each other very vocally, as dogs are prone to do.
“There’s a bit of aggravation every now and again,” chuckled experienced SARDA dog handler Stuart Hadden, “but to be fair to the dogs, as soon as you put on a working harness on they’ll work side by side. They might give each other sideways looks, but they’ll work. Take the harness off, though, and it’s play time again.”
Founded in 1965 by Hamish MacInnes, SARDA teaches members of Mountain Rescue teams throughout Scotland how to work with search dogs, and its volunteer members are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to assist with searches. For the exercise at Ryvoan, two search areas had been set up on either side of the bothy. A few hardy volunteers had agreed to act as “bodies” – wandering off into the heather to hide – and the dogs and handlers were taking it in turns to go out into the driving sleet and snow to find them. The dogs tend to work on airborne scent rather than tracking scent, and once they’ve found a casualty they either stay where they are and bark, if their handler is in sight, or else shuttle back and forth between handler and casualty until they are satisfied the handler has taken the hint. For experienced double acts like Hadden and his dog Chivas – a border collie with one striking pale blue eye – the day was merely a chance to refine an already well-developed working relationship, but there were also some novice dogs on the hill, still learning the trade.
Ken Weatherstone has been volunteering with SARDA for 21 years, but Cranna, his third search dog, is yet to gain her full qualifications. “Cranna was abandoned by a previous owner by being tied to a car in a car park,” he explains.
“She was handed in to the kennels in Lochgilphead near where I live and the owner of the kennels asked if we’d be interested in taking her, so that’s how I ended up with her. For the assessments coming up, she has to be able to search a large area and locate multiple casualties in that area. She’s doing very well so far. I don’t want to put a curse on things, but so far it’s going to plan.”
Watching the dogs in action is an odd experience. For much of the time they just seem to be bounding aimlessly around the hill, but when they catch the scent of one of the hidden bodies, they suddenly become focused, running straight to the casualty like guided missiles. As Hadden puts it: “They bimble around the hill, you think they’re not paying attention, then all of a sudden they get a scent and – boom! – they transform. It’s a great thing to see.”
And as another handler, Graeme Dalby, points out, the dogs can make the difference between a successful search and an unsuccessful one.
“One of my previous dogs found a guy who went missing from an old folks’ home in the Borders,” he says. “The Mountain Rescue team thought they’d searched this wood, but the dog ran about ten yards in and started barking. I thought, “Wow, he’s excited tonight” – and the reason he was excited was because there was a chap lying on the floor right underneath him.”
To watch a short film about the SARDA rescue dogs, visit www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/outdoors For more on SARDA see www.sarda-scotland. org