Training with SARDA: the Search and Rescue Dogs Association

Saturday, December 08th, 2007

Keen to find out a bit more about the Lake District’s Search and Rescue Dogs Association (SARDA Lakes), we arranged to meet Les Telford, one of the handlers, in a car park in Keswick and follow him to Buttermere, where their weekend training was taking place.  A nail-biting journey then ensued as we tried to negotiate a narrow, slippery mountain pass in the dark before managing to wedge the van between two walls in the narrow entrance and, with the stench of burning clutch burning our nostrils, having to reverse back up the steep drive to find an easier entrance.  Eventually we made it in one piece – phew!

Les then introduced us to Mary and Terry, two other volunteers who had already arrived, and we all headed down to the local pub for a bite to eat and a much-needed drink.  Chatting to the three of them, we managed to learn a lot about SARDA in preparation for the following day’s training.

A voluntary organisation, SARDA trains and works mountain rescue search dogs to help search for and rescue missing persons, or ‘mispers’.  Les is a handler and, having ‘graded’ (completed the training) in 2003, he and his collie Kess are frequently called out to help in searches.  He is also an assessor and would be reviewing how some of the trainees were getting on the following morning.  Mary and Terry help out by being ‘bodies’ for the training days, meaning that they pretend to be a missing person by coming out onto the hill, lying in a bivvy bag and waiting for the dog and handler to find them.  This is a skill in itself, as the dog’s acceptance that the best prize of all is to find a missing person, depends very much on how the body interacts with them in the early stages of their training.  To begin with, it might take the dogs hours to find the body so, whilst in mid-summer bodying could just be a lovely excuse for a snooze on the hillside, looking out the window we didn’t envy their job in December!  Also, spare a thought for the bodies at snow-training time, when they are asked to bury themselves in a narrow gap up to two metres under the surface and wait till a dog comes and digs them out…rather disturbingly, these are called ‘graves’!

There is a SARDA Lakes and a SARDA England; as the Lakes branch, they work predominantly in the Lake District’s mountainous environment, but also in other areas where their skills might be of benefit (they were called out to help find the Morecambe Bay cocklers, for example).  Located where they are, the majority of their callouts are from inexperienced walkers who have lost their way in bad weather.  Being the highest peak in the area, Scarfell Pike is the most trouble as one-off climbers always want to bag the big one to say that they have done it.

In 2006 they had 49 callouts and, so far this year, they have had 55.

Training Process

All SARDA handlers must first be a member of a Mountain Rescue Team so that they have the mountain-environment first aid and survival skills to be able to help a casualty (they are usually first on the scene and generally just search with their dogs) and ensure that they do not become a casualty themselves.  They will also need a dog with which to start their training; most prefer Collies as they are intelligent, long-lived and nimble on uneven terrain, but Lurchers, Labradors and German Shepherds are also used.

It takes around two years to train the average dog/handler partnership, although some do it in less, and they train one weekend a month and mostly once or twice a week in the evening. The training weekends involve meeting up at different locations through out the Lakes and taking part in three different stages, ranging from basic obedience training to assessment.

Training with SARDA: the Search and Rescue Dogs Association

On the Saturday, we went along to watch the Stage 1 obedience training, which checks that the dogs will sit when asked and come over when called without being distracted.  They then work on the basic find sequence, which involves the dog finding the body using air-scent and barking at them, before returning to the handler and barking to show that they have found them and returning to the body and barking again.  At this stage, it is the body’s job to get the dog really excited by fussing over them or using a squeaky toy so the dog recognises that finding a person is the ultimate prize.  If you are serious about being a handler, this is the only game you should ever play with your dog.

Training with SARDA: the Search and Rescue Dogs Association

Obedience training

In Stage 2, the dogs are given larger areas to work and they must learn not to give up until they have found the body.  They must also be taught not to be distracted by other things such as wildlife and water.  In Stage 3, the dog team must pass a minimum of eight formal assessment days in order to be placed on the callout list.

Our aim that day was to watch all three stages in action, but we’re afraid to say that the weather was so bad, and we were so cold, that when we saw snow settling in the distance, we thought it best to leave while we still could and so we only saw the Stage 1 training.

Training with SARDA: the Search and Rescue Dogs Association


So next time you set off up a mountain in the Lake District, think about all the work that goes into being able to find you if you get lost! A bit like the coastguards, mountain rescue teams work on behalf of the police, so in an emergency, dial 999, ask for the police and say you want mountain rescue.

For information about becoming a handler or a body, get in touch with the SARDA training officer, Mick Guy.

SARDA Lakes is totally self-funded; they receive no Government or lottery funding and therefore operate entirely due to the generosity of the public through corporate sponsorship, Gift Aid and cash donations. For more information about how you can help, click here.