2015 – 50 Years of SARDA

2015 saw a great celebration – 50 years since the first Search Dogs were introduced to UK Mountain Rescue. We asked Malcolm Grindrod (Vice President) for his memories of those early days  and of those who have helped shape SARDA Lakes and now Lake District Mountain Rescue Search Dog Association, into today’s professional but voluntary service.


“In 1963 Hamish McInnis from Glencoe attended an avalanche dog-training course in Thrubsee, Engelberg in Switzerland. Hamish was the first British person to attend such a course, although he couldn’t take his own dogs owing to quarantine regulations. Hamish came back with enough knowledge to start training Search and Rescue dogs with his friends in Glencoe.

On 14 December 1964, the first national course for mountain rescue dogs was held in Glencoe. The course was advertised nationally and included people from Scotland, England and Wales. The five day course included members of the press, including the BBC.

A grading system was devised:  A for a Novice,  B for the more Experienced dogs and C for a dog that had made a find during a call-out. For the more experienced dogs and handlers, the initial M was given to denote them as Mountaineers. In May 1965 a meeting was held in Glencoe, with the aim of raising funds to meet the cost of training dogs and handlers to find missing walkers and climbers in the mountainous areas of Britain.

So the Search And Rescue Dog Association (SARDA) came into being.  It was agreed that a course would be held each year to train and grade dogs and handlers. Volunteers included those from a mountain background, policemen, gamekeepers etc.  Jim Coyle BEM, with his dog Rock, was one of the first SARDA members from the Lakes.

By 1971 SARDA had become so large geographically, that it was decided to split the Association into three groups, Scotland, England and Wales.

My first association with SARDA was at a Mountain Rescue Conference (MRC) held at Eskdale Outward Bound in 1972. At that time, I had an Irish Setter called ‘Jan’ – she was quite a steady dog for an Irish Setter. So I started training her, and on the first SARDA England course held at the Kings Head, Thirlmere in January 1973 we attained A5M grade. I remember watching Jim Coyle work with his dog Rock in a blizzard among the crags above the Kings Head. The casualty was buried in snow up a gully, the exact location was a little unclear, and it was a great relief to everyone when Jim and Rock came up trumps; Jim became a very proud C Grade Dog Handler – with an M for Mountaineer of course.

Dog training was mostly done at nights with the help of our faithful bodies. It was necessary to train at least once a week, and more often if possible. Each January, a four day course was held to test and grade the dogs.  I became Training Officer in the late 70s and started running weekend courses throughout England, which helped to develop and maintain standards. Assessors (elected from the more experienced dog handlers within the Association) have always been responsible for developing and maintaining standards within the Association. Assessors meetings are held at the end of each day’s training, where records are made of each dog and handler’s progress.

One of the outstanding early members of the Association was Dave Riley. He was a body when I started my training in 1972. In 1974 Dave was graded with his dog, Bryn; she was outstanding. Some SARDA members  said that Dave had been lucky to get such a good dog, but this is a misconception.  Yes, she was a good dog, but I would say that the main contributing factor was a tremendous amount of time Dave spent training.

In the early days dogs were put on the call-out list at a much younger age. Training was a lot less rigorous, but I can honestly say, in all my years of training search dogs, I can never remember an instance where a dog, having found the casualty on a real search, failed to take its handler to the missing person.

During my latter years as Training Officer it became apparent that SARDA England was getting too large to carry on as one organization. We had fifty (50) graded dogs, twenty five (25) in the Lakes and twenty five (25) scattered around the rest of England, so a new Association was formed to cater for the dog handlers who were members of the Lake District Mountain Rescue Teams:  SARDA Lakes. Nowadays all the Lakes weekend courses are run within the Lake District, the only exception being the annual one-week Winter course held in the Cairngorms.

In 1991, Dave Riley and I attended a Winter Training course in Norway. The course involved training dogs and handlers how to find casualties buried in an avalanche.  During the one-week course, the novice dogs started with open “graves” containing live bodies. Graded Dogs progressed up to the stage where they could find live bodies buried to a depth of 2.5 meters. Dave and I had been involved in Winter Training before this course at a very basic level, but this Norwegian course gave us the knowledge to set up our own Winter Training courses, that we still run every year. Avalanches do occur on our Lakeland Fells! We have found that dogs working with buried casualties learn swiftly to concentrate on the scent percolating up from the casualty. They become very focused on the casualty, and this makes them extremely keen to home in and stay focused on the casualty just lying on the open fell. Our Winter courses also give our Dog Handlers the chance to work in the extreme weather conditions often encountered during a severe Winter’s night in the Lakes.

All Lake District Graded Dogs are simply called Search Dogs. Their training covers a much longer period of time (typically 2-3yrs). To be graded as a Search Dog, all our dogs must now pass 14 assessments, covering all aspects of search work including, forest, footpath, moorland and long ‘Mountain Day’ searches. All our Lake District Search Dogs must ‘bark’ at the body, and back at the handler when they make a find. Finally on completion of their assessments they are given the coveted green and white Search Dog tag.

Over the years, we’ve been blessed with a committed group of people who are prepared to lie out in all weathers on the open fell, known as “The Dogsbodies”. They can be buried to a great depth in snow, and ignored for hours on end when put out in a large area for dogs under assessment. They never complain, unless it’s about the price of beer, and who can blame them for that?  To be honest we would find it hard to exist without the dedication of our regular bodies.

Age reduces ability, but memories linger on and I certainly cherish the memories of the happy days spent on the hills with my dogs and of the many characters within our Association who have given the greater part of their lives serving SARDA (Lakes), LDMRSDA and the Mountain Rescue Teams to which they belong. I would fill many sheets of paper if I were to mention them all. And to start naming names would only mean that I would have left someone out.  However we have one member, Jim Coyle BEM, who still serves us today after 45years. Our Association recognises Jim’s outstanding dedication, as a past Team Leader of Cockermouth MRT for many years, and to SARDA. Jim is the LDMRSDA President and still attends training weekends to cast a watchful eye over the Search Dog Teams.

We should also remember Dog Handlers who have sadly passed away after the formation of SARDA (Lakes), and then LDMRSDA.  Ian Forsyth, Kirk Outhwaite,  Dave Watt and Dave Riley, to name only a few who have contributed much to the work of the Association.

Many years ago we were asked if we had a dog that had saved someone’s life. One fateful night my dog Spin happened to be ‘in the right place at the right time’. She found a young girl unconscious in a plastic bag on Fairfield. After a long night trying to rewarm her, she became conscious and was flown off at first light. As a result myself and Spin found ourselves at Thames TV Studio in London on the show “Surprise, Surprise”. Spin was always well behaved and never let me down; however,  I was amazed to find myself sat beside Cilla Black in make up.  Spin was lying quietly at Cilla’s feet, as good as gold, until a dreadful small percolated up from under the dressing table. I thought, “I hope Cilla doesn’t think it’s me!”  I am sure Cilla’s thoughts at that point however, would be related to working with dogs and kids.

Search Dog Handlers all have tales to tell, of shared experiences; like the search in the early days for a young lad who had been missing for a week. SARDA, together with Mountain Rescue Teams from all over the north of England, converged on Grassington in Wharfdale to search the surrounding fells. We expected to find a dead schoolboy. However a member of our line search shouted ‘Who is that walking in front with a rucksack on his back?” It was the missing lad, who had gone to ground in his tent when the mist came down and had lived on Rise and Shine for a week. He packed his tent when the mist cleared and proceeded to walk out. I would find it hard to describe what it is like to be part of a team who found life when we almost certainly expected the worst.

To save a human life is the best feeling that anyone could hope for, but team effort is everything. Our Air Scenting Search Dogs can cover huge areas of open fell and crag. However, success as a Dog Handler relies on being in the right area, at the right time. If we are called out to young or old, fit or infirm, we have always been there when needed.

For many years we have been fortunate in the Lake District to have people with the expertise to train dogs to a very high standard. We are a voluntary organisation, funded by the generosity of you, the general public. At the moment we are fortunate to have members of Mountain Rescue Teams coming forward with dogs to train. One can only hope that this trend will continue.”

Malcolm Grindrod
Vice President,
Lake District Mountain Rescue Search Dogs Association