Courage and trust: How rescue dogs work in Scotland
29 December 2020, 16:34
In the world
Photo: Murdo MacLeod / The Guardian
The Guardian Photo Project from Cairngorms National Park.

Winter has arrived in Cairngorms National Park in the north-east of Scotland. The huge territory of the park, most of which is a mountainous plateau, is a place of pilgrimage for tourists, but walks here are unsafe: there is snow on some peaks all year round. The Guardian newspaper publishes reportage photographer Murdo MacLeod, weekdays dedicated search and rescue team - volunteers and their dogs - to help local police and rescue workers look for in a professional Kerngormse missing people. They are all members of Sarda Scotland, the Scottish Search and Rescue Dog Association. It includes two dozen teams of specially trained dogs and their volunteer assistants who are ready to help in any weather and at any time of the day.

Lifeguard Tom Gilchrist has been rescuing people lost in Cairngorms for 30 years. Now he does it with the six-year-old Border Collie Migade. Dogs like his are primarily pets, most of all loving to play with children. As for training, they need to instill elementary obedience from early childhood and teach the commands "sit", "next to", "to me". Search dogs begin their training at 12 weeks of age, but full training sometimes takes two to three years. As Gilchrist says, rescue dogs know how to come to the owner to whistle, to move a hand or to scream. This allows you to work in poor visibility conditions or when the owner and dog are too far from each other. “If you know your dog will definitely return, you can trust him and let him run away. Of course, instinctively you always want to control her, but you have to let her think for herself".

A dog picks up a scent faster than a person: it has such an innate hunting skill as a fine sense of smell. But a person should be able to use this natural talent, bringing the dog to the place where she can use it. To do this, the rescuer must be an experienced climber and understand some specific subjects, for example, know how the smell moves along the ground depending on the relief and weather. Search dogs are mainly border collies, labradors, springer spaniels. They are required curiosity, sociability, as well as endurance and dexterity. And, of course, they must have an excellent sense of smell to smell human scent - the 20,000 to 30,000 dead skin cells that we leave in the air every minute.

One dog can do a job that would require many people: animals are able to find what is inaccessible to the human eye, and cover a much larger area with their searches. But, as the volunteers emphasize, it is the partnership between the dog and the handler that develops these special search abilities to the fullest. Trust must be mutual. Lifeguard Stu McIntyre recalls how in 2015 he was involved in the search for Rachel Slater and Tim Newton, a young couple who disappeared on Valentine's Day: more than a month after their disappearance, their bodies were found together under the snow. “This was the first time that I, as a rescuer, felt danger. I just guessed that the dog was alarmed - Nell was afraid of an avalanche and therefore did not leave me. For me it was a danger warning".

The full photo report can be seen at the link here.