So, you may have read in other posts about me being an ex trainee search dog with Hampshire Search & Rescue Dogs (HSAR Dogs). This post explains a bit more about the team and my time as a trainee.
HSAR Dogs is a team of volunteers who train their pet dogs to sniff out vulnerable missing people, such as elderly folk with dementia or those who are intending to harm themselves. The team is called out by the police and every operational member is on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Our dogs are non-specific air scenting search dogs, which means they pick up on any human scent rather than tracking a particular one on the ground. They don’t need a ‘scent article’ to sniff before starting a search – so there’s no chance of getting a whiff of something lovely and stinky before we set off. Shame.
You might think the dogs would get confused with so many humans around. Bear in mind, though, that many of the team’s searches are in woodland or more remote areas and often in the middle of the night, so there aren’t scores of people milling around.
I’ve added a link to the team’s website at the end of this post, so if you want to find out more, that’s the place to click.
How we started
Mum first went along to a session in September 2013, after following a few of the team dogs on Twitter and reading a small piece in the local rag about coming along to hide for them.
Coincidentally, her first session was the very same week that I was born and at that time she had no intention of getting a dog. Funny how things pan out.
She joined the team, got me in November that year and the following May I went along to my first session, at eight months old.
I loved it! Although I’m only part collie I’m still pretty quick to learn and I needed something to occupy my brain rather than just running around getting physically tired.
Working = uniform
All team dogs wear a ‘uniform’. No, I don’t mean dressing up your pooch in some ridiculous pink outfit claiming it’s cute. Our uniform is a search harness – a hi-vis reflective harness with a couple of bright lights and bells on. The moment the dogs hear the bells they start getting really excited because they know which game is coming next – their favourite one!
The harness signals to the dogs that they need to focus, ignore other distractions and start putting their nose to work.
Training – and live searches – are a game to the four-legged team members. Each dog has a special toy that they play with only with the team, and it must be something that really revs them up.
The dogs’ reward for finding someone is several minutes of play with their toy, with lots of high pitched squealing from the humans to really get us excited. I used to like playing tuggy, which never wore me out but it did mum!
It’s probably one of the main areas of embarrassment for ‘newbie’ humans on the team. You’re with a load of people you don’t know very well, and you’re expected to run about like a loon screeching ‘Good boyyyyyyyyyy!’ at a dog that isn’t yours. I know mum felt a bit of a fool doing it the first few times, but it soon becomes second nature.
Why did we give it up?
Like learning any skill, you need to practice to get better. In terms of search dog training that means going to as many training sessions as possible – and the team trains twice a week, every week.
That wasn’t an issue for us until mum switched jobs and started working shifts last year. It really impacted on the number of sessions we could make, which meant our progress slowed. With a heavy heart, mum realised that a decision had to be made and so she withdrew me from training in July this year.
It was a really hard decision to make. From the moment she got me four years ago, she knew that I would at least have the opportunity to try out for HSAR Dogs, and she was over the moon when I was assessed as having potential to become an operational search dog and accepted onto the team.
To come to the realisation that it wasn’t going to happen – when I could have made a good search dog – was a tough pill to swallow.
She even got a lump in her throat when she packed my search harness into a bag to return to the team.
The good news is that mum is still an active member of HSAR Dogs. She’s now a training support, so she goes to training when shifts allow and hides for other dogs to find. Even better, I am allowed to come along and while I don’t get to play ‘that game’ any longer, I do get a walk before and after training which is always good fun.
So, there you have it – a little bit about me and my time with the team. And remember – mum and I are doing our Sunrise to Sunset Walk in January to raise funds for HSAR Dogs, an extraordinary team of people and pooches…if you head over to my JustGiving page we will happily relieve you of a few quid!
If you want to find out more about the team, then head over to the HSAR Dogs website.