Sarda rescue dogs in Scotland

Search dog sitting beside its handler

Across Scotland, Search and Rescue Dog Association (Sarda) members work as volunteers, helping police and mountain rescue teams find lost walkers and missing persons in challenging outdoor environments.

Sarda Scotland and Sarda (Southern Scotland) are two Search and Rescue Dog Associations active in Scotland, both affiliated with the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland (MCofS).

The organisations are responsible for the training and deployment of air scenting search and rescue dogs in mountainous and moorland areas, as well as occasionally carrying out searches in lowland, rural and urban areas.

Members of either organisation work across any area in Scotland depending on their availability at the time of a search call-out.

Following a 999 call, deployment of Sarda and Sarda (Southern Scotland) dogs is coordinated by police search and rescue and by Mountain Rescue, via a Sarda call-out officer who is responsible for contacting each dog handler. SARDA handlers sometimes also work directly for the police.

Search dog lying down, wearing one paw shoe

Sarda dog handlers are all volunteers, and must be members of a mountain rescue team approved by the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland (MCofS) before they can apply to select and train a dog. The handlers and their dogs are often airlifted to dangerous mountain areas in winter conditions, so winter mountain skills and navigation are crucial.

The fact that Sarda dogs are trained to follow an air-borne scent makes them useful in different ways to other search dogs such as those used to seek drugs, bombs or search buildings and collapsed structures. Most of those dogs are instead trained to follow a relatively recent scent along the ground, or to chase visual targets.

Sarda dogs are usually deployed in the early stages of a mountain rescue call-out, before too many other human search teams reach the area and cause confusion for an air-scenting nose.

Toy dog bone

Collies are commonly used as they are lighter than the traditional German shepherds, making them easier for their handlers to lift. Highly-motivated working dogs, their focus is on the game, and the prize for finding a body is a game with their toy. This play motivation is instilled in the dogs from the earliest puppy training stage.

'Dogsbodies' or 'bravos' are used in the training of dogs from an early stage, and volunteer to lie out on the hill waiting to be found. Dogs are tested for their reaction to sheep, and are trained to become accustomed to flares and the noise of helicopters.

The equipment Sarda handlers use is the same as that of a mountain rescue team member, with the extra equipment necessary for their dog's health and safety.

Both Sarda Scotland and Sarda (Southern Scotland) are registered charities, and rely on sponsorship as well as public funding and donations to pay for training costs, assessments costs, insurance, communications equipment and costs, as well as essential outdoor equipment.

According to Sarda (Southern Scotland), it takes £12-15,000 per year to run their organisation. MRCofS is funding almost half of this sum, via the Scottish Executive, in 2009. This shows an increase in funding by almost double the amounts awarded in the years 2003-2008.

Here some of the equipment the dog handlers may carry, over and above a normal mountain rescue team member's kit:

Light sticks - put on the dogs at night so they can be seen
Blankets - keep the dogs warm after an exhausting search
Bootees - sometimes used to protect paws
Collapsible drinking bowl - usually only used in the summer
Dog toy - used as a motivational aid
Dog jacket - holds fluorescent sticks to keep the dog visible at night, or in some cases LED cycling lamps
Crate - the back of the handler's car acts as a safe haven for their dog
Dog first aid - over and above the handler's first aid kit: bandages; pads; snake antivenom
Whistle - used along with shouts, visual signals
Harness - with bell and attachment for helicopter winching

Do you have a rescue dog, or have you had an experience where you have been helped by a rescue dog? Add your comments in the form below.

Page first published on Tuesday 24th February 2009
Page last updated on Friday 6th March 2009

Your Views

David Gibson, Mountaineering Council of Scotland
It's good to see the BBC featuring articles like this. There is a great deal of work going on to support mountaineers and hill walkers in Scotland - much of it voluntary and done with limited budgets - and not all of it is publicised. However, your article incorrectly refers to MCofS (The Mountaineering Council of Scotland) which provides advice on mountain safety on it's website and employs Scotland's Mountain Safety Adviser. In the context of your article you should be referring to MRCofS - The Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland. MCofS and MRCofS do work closely on a range of initiatives and projects, but it's better to be accurate.

People, stop whinging, just go out (prepared) in the hills and relax. There's more to life than bouncing comments off each other. It may even be sunny !

Mad Dog
I woluld love to hear from which orqinisations all the negative comments are coming fron/ being a ex police officer and a serving ambulance office. please define your comments and experience. most police dog handlers can readily work with sarda handlers . but maybe we are losing the plot by not fully assesing all dogs maybe NSARDA is out dated . i look forward to you replies with interestMad Dog

T Paterson
I can't believe a small, innocent article can have people in such a tizzy. I was involved with SARDA (Highland) now SARDA Scotland for around 6-7 years in the late 1990's and owned a beautiful and very talented collie for 13 years. He loved his time with SARDA, he was trained to make it seem like a big game to him and he found many people in his time as a search dog, both alive and dead. This article is about SARDA and no other organisation, I often find that people who feel the need to spout forth about their own abilities are often there for their own glory and the limelight, and believe me, we had a few of these type of people try, usually unsuccessfully, to join SARDA. Also we had many police dog handlers who were members who trained their police dogs for dual purposes as both police dogs and mountain search dogs, so the article is in no way critical of their pedigree!SARDA were solely trained to search for missing people in the mountains (training based on American and Canadian techniques that Hamish McInnes had seen first hand on his travels) but are now used more and more by the police in urban and lowland searches.I have to say that SARDA Scotland was a very professional body with a great mixture of people and dogs who all had two things in common, a love of hill walking and a love of dogs, no other agenda came into it.As for Mr Appleton, I don't know why this article upsets you, but maybe you should go along to a SARDA training weekend and you may pick up some useful knowledge which you seem to be severely lacking in.My dog only ever wore a jacket when the weather on hills was extreme, (although I know SARDA Southern dogs do tend to wear them on all searches!) He wore a harness every time he searched as it was an indicator to him that when the harness went on, he knew he was going on a search. These harnesses were also fitted with hooks to allow light sticks to be attached so that we could see the dogs from a distance on night hill searches.Please all you people critical of this article, get a damn life, you never know when you might be in need of their help!

It is with some relief that I find my ruse exposed, I congratulate Mr Franks on his detective work in exposing my pseudonyms. Reading the last sentence of the post by Mr Appleton, the first poster in this thread, I could not resist the temptation to post using names similar to those of the seminal authors in the field. You can imagine my lack of surprise that anyone but yourself has picked up on the reference. Could it be possible that they haven't actually read any of these authors work?

I see that someone has resorted to name calling already.Has a nerve been struck? Lets keep it reasonable should we.I believe that the majority of people in SCOTLAND would wish to know that if someone is missing etc. every rescource that is available will be used remember we are all talking about saving human lives, after all the human rights act states quite clearly that everyone has a right to life I take that to mean immediatly not just when a police dog or a certain search team can get there.As for the comment regarding fitness ability and professionalism I would suggest is not a very professional attitude in itself and only goes to prove that some of the comments may be closer to the truth than some people would care to think.To help SCOTLAND to be a safer place for everyone to enjoy there will have to be progress and change in this field. A quote by GEORGE BERNARD SHAW I believe sums this up."Progress is impossible without change and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything"Therefore lets all respect each others skills, get together and talk about the way forward. Make progress and change as that seems to be what is required in this, the 21st century

F Bulanda
I suggest that D. Ash reads the title of the article. Clearly the article is about SARDA in Scotland while giving brief mention of other search dog teams and the differences in training required for the various teams specialisms. I cannot find any statement in the article that infers as D.Ash states ‘...comments regarding their capabilities and training is a slur on these professional police dog handlers and their trainers.’ or ‘...why has this article been so public in its criticism of other search criteria and misleading in the training methods use.’ Reaching such conclusions from the grossly simplified description of the various equally important search dog teams and their training as described in this article would seem to verge on the paranoid.

J Pearsall
D. Ash makes some interesting points which may have been valid if it were not for the fact that the article is clearly about the work of Scottish SARDA teams and not SAR in general. The title of the piece is ‘SARDA rescue dogs in Scotland’, it is not about the excellent work and training done by the teams that seek drugs and bombs or search buildings and collapsed structures, who are only mentioned in the article in order to give context to where SARDA fits within the greater SAR landscape. If the BBC was to publish an article about Manchester United football team and indicated that their training was different from that of rugby teams I would be somewhat surprised if people came to the conclusion that the BBC was being critical of rugby or rugby training! The non SARDA groups are mentioned only once in the article in a single paragraph that seem to be the focus of some of the views expressed. This paragraph is made up of only two sentences. The first can be summarised as stating that SARDA dogs, and dogs trained to search for bombs or drugs or to search buildings or collapsed structures are all trained in different ways, something I would assume most would agree with. This leaves the second sentence which I assume must therefore be the one giving all the problem which is a gross oversimplification of how dogs are trained but then again anybody expecting a clear and accurate description of dog training in 21 words is being a bit optimistic. These same 21 words however have spurred some on to state: ‘There has been some rubbish written about search dogs but this article has out done most of them.’ or ‘This is just another statement that SARDA don't actually do they job or know how to do the job they are supposedly hired for’ or ‘I read this and I cried’ or ‘Perhaps the BBC should regain its neutrality by speaking to some of the other groups and stop spewing this propaganda.’ or from D Ash himself ‘so why has this article been so public in its criticism of other search criteria and misleading in the training methods use.’ pretty good for 21 words. Obviously the author of the article is one of those rare people who can impart a wealth of information with such minimal use of the English language!

John Franks
I have read all of these items with interest. SARDA do sterling work and help save lives. Well done. The innacuracies which some people feel strongly about must be important and therefore addressed. As the publisher / broadcaster I trust our national public service broadcaster will do all it can to investigate the accuracy of the statements. I have done a lot of web searching and hunting myself since I read the article and find that some of the concerns are possibly true. There is also a secondary political agenda to be seen here from some of the comments. My best guess is that the comments come from people close to these problems. I think again this raises an issue which our public service broadcaster might investigate. There are comments about public funds in this arena and I as a taxpayer would be interested to hear an accurate and unbiased report on what is going on nationally to provoke such vitriol in people, all of whom, I presume have the same basic agenda - the preservation of human life. On a personal note I think all search dogs are simply amazing. I am delighted to see that some of the people posting are well read having possibly adopted pseudonyms from two of America's most prolific dog search training authors.(the www is a mighty powerful tool)

I read this article with enthusiasm to start, but i was reduced to tears! I'm afraid I agree with D.ash's comments. P.snovack i dont believe that other comments being left are as you say 'sniping' they are simply saying that whoever reported should have checked the facts! If i'm not mistaken bomb, drugs and other search and rescue dogs do use air scent in order to find their objective. Being a member of one of these 'fringe' groups as P.snovak puts it. I have worked with many professional dog trainers with 20 to 30years experience they are some of the fittest people i know and i'm sure if they were to read the article above they would be 'fizzing'. I'm sure that SardaAnd Sarda Scotland take their role's very seriously but, the information that is put across is seems to be misleading and in my opinion unprofessional.

Val Ashpool
Mr. or perhaps Ms SnovakI am writing here as Chairman of a highly skilled highly qualified search dog group and would like you to qualify what a ' fringe club' is and the groupeis that are attached to it. The assessments and training guidelines we follow were set by HMFSI and the Deputy Prime ministers office. We have rigorously independantly assesed by qualified professionals from organisations such as the police and coastguard. We do not do mountains nor do we wish to do mountains that is your expertise. What we do want however is a level playing field. Our prime directive is to find the missing person and hopefully save a life surely it is why we all volunteer and spend many hours training to do

H. Keating, from Scotland
I read the article by the SARDA Handler, and found it to contain a great deal of previously published material (i.e. nothing new). Please do not think that I am decrying the work of the Mountain Rescue Teams and SARDA Handlers throughout the country,because I am not. Because of us, all people should be able to rest assured that if required, there will be enough personnel available to search and locate our fellow outdoor enthusiasts. Funding is always an issue for voluntary organisations. In Scotland we are lucky to have Goverment funding, to a degree, whereas our counterparts in England and Wales do not. There was a comment from a reader about training other dogs for their own specific disciplines. You can not lump all dog training together, as each subject has its own requirements, and therefore methods of training. There are other organisations in the U.K.,who are not affilliated to the SARDA or Mountain Rescue Councils, that have trained dogs for their own type of search/recovery work. They appear to have been left out of the public gaze, for one reason or another. Funding and acceptability has always been an issue, as well as the correct training for their own subjects. It is difficult to find a reason for the availability of such teams to be given the cold shoulder by Local Councils, Government Departments, or local Police Forces, when they are often required to supplement manpower. It appears that those who have already commented on the SARDA article, are of a similar mind. I do not think that any of them are complaining about the work done by the search dogs, but it tends to show that in this time of accountability, maybe some 'Public Organisations' are not utilising all means possible to meet the expectations or requirements of the public who they are supposed to protect and assist.SARDA dogs, and other trained dogs, will always be looked after and cared for by their handlers in the home or kennel environment,but as previously commented, they will always be a tool of the trade, as you would have any other piece of equipment. This is the harsh reality of search and rescue work. Most of the Search and Rescue Teams are voluntary and Donation Funded; as we all know the RAF has its own Search Teams, as do some of the Scottish Police Forces. They do not require public donations.Please look around your local areas and support all organisations that are trained to help the public when they are needing it most. Next time it may be you that is in need of the 'nearest' help. Let us hope that the Authorities call for them.

re sarda article I don't believe that the comments were meant to be unpleasant but were made out of frustration and passion. The info. regarding drugs, explosive and building collapse search dogs is in my opinion misleading and seriously flawed regards the target issue. If this is the general knowledge level of how search dogs work then the scottish government should take a serious look at the £1.5 (approx) given in the last 5yrs.As a retired police dog handler GP & explosive detection dogs (at the same time) + drug dogs in HM Forces the comments regarding their capabilities and training is a slur on these professional police dog handlers and their trainers.These people work in difficult,extreme and often dangerous circumstances.I would suggest that some people need to be reminded that just because they enjoy funding from the pubic purse it does not make them professional they need to act it as well.I am sure that none of the other non- SARDA groups in Scotland would call into question other groups training or capabilities so why has this article been so public in its critisism of other search criteria and misleading in the training methods use. This is not as G. Syrotuck suggests an 'insignificant' paragraph but surely the whole reason for dogs being used in SAR.

P Snovak
Having read the latest posts by the Laws and comparing them with those of Montgomery and Appleton I begin to see a theme, not only in their target but in their inability in basic critical comprehension. I suspect that the previous posters are members of one of the many fringe clubs of groupies that hang around official Search and Rescue, unable themselves to meet the levels of fitness, ability and professionalism required by these organisations and reduced to spiteful sniping from the sidelines. To correct T Law: The article clearly states that for the first time in 2009 SARDA will receive almost half of its funding from the Scottish Executive (up from a quarter for previous years), the balance coming from the generosity of public donations. I too am unaware of search dogs being trained for visual targets and nowhere in the article is it stated that SARDA dogs are trained in this way; as the article is about SARDA dogs and does not, except in passing, refer to any of the many other important official search dog teams I find it odd that such a negative stance is taken by the Laws on such a minor part of the article. To correct A Law who states “...SARDA don’t actually do they(sic) job or know how to do the job they are supposedly hired for.”: SARDA are not ‘hired’ to do anything, they are a purely voluntary organisation that gets donations from the public and the Scottish Executive in the same way that the Mountain Rescue does. SARDA members must undergo extensive training as both members of Mountain Rescue teams and dog handlers. In order to be accepted to call-out status they must also pass regular rigorous formal independent assessments of their ability. A level of training and assessment that the unofficial self-styled search and rescue groups do not meet.

G Syrotuck
I must admit I’m at a loss to understand the bile expressed by the previous two posters (Montgomery and Appleton) against an article I found to be an accurate summary of both the use and training of SARDA search dogs in Scotland; both posters seeming to focus their vitriol on statements made in a single and somewhat insignificant paragraph from the piece referring to non SARDA search dogs.In defense of the author the facts expressed in the article come from having interviewed at least one qualified SARDA handler, as is obvious if the links in the article are followed. SARDA handlers undergo extensive training and rigorous assessment before achieving call-out status. They have expert knowledge of both ‘how dogs work’ and ‘scent work’ referred to by the previous posters and this is reflected accurately in the article. SARDA dogs do indeed wear a coat while working, as can be seen in the gallery associated with the article. Indeed this coat can make the difference between life and death to a dog which may well be working in the Scottish highlands in gale-force winds and temperatures of -20deg C, something that a SARDA handler cares very much about as their dog is not ‘...only another tool of the trade...’ as one of the above posters puts it but a much loved family pet as well.I for one am extremely grateful for the voluntary efforts of both SARDA and Mountain Rescue teams within the UK and thank the author of the article for bring their work into public view.

Tori Law
I like the way it is not mentioned that SARDA get vast amounts of tax-payers money each year for which they are not accountable where other volunteer search groups rely entirely on the generosity of the public.I have yet to see any type of search dog be trained for visual target - human eyesight is far superior so why bother with a dog if the target is so obvious?SARDA is not the only volunteer dog search group in Scotland despite what they would have you think. Perhaps the BBC should regain its neutrality by speaking to some of the other groups and stop spewing this propaganda.

Alistair Law
I read this and I cried. Obviously the person or people who were involved in creating this article have no idea of what they are talking about. I feel sad to know that the people who say they are out to protect us don't actually know what they are talking about or they think that the general public are generally stupid to spew this rubbish and propaganda.This is just another statement that SARDA don't actually do they job or know how to do the job they are supposedly hired for. Maybe the government/local peoples and other organisations should think about putting their funding into proper organisations that do know what they are doing.I am ashamed to see this.A. Law

Penelope P. Montgomery
There has been some rubbish written about search dogs but this article has out done most of them. I suggest you speak to people who actually handle and train drug dogs explosive detection dogs and collapsed structure dogs before printing before printing an artical by someone who bviously hasn't a clue about how dogs work.

Stephen Appleton
Which talented person has written this piece, which others will no doubt have already read before collapsing in fits of laughter. It may be useful for the writer to gain the most basic knowledge of scent work before dropping him/herself in the mire.At what point ,in the writers life ,has he/she seen a drugs/bomb/or collapsed building search dog actually working. I,for one, have never seen any of the above chasing visual targets,in the examples given. Also I was always under the impression that the dog wore a coat or harness to make it visible to the handler whilst searching. This search dog is only another tool of the trade...if properly trained.I would ask that the handler does not overheat her dog whilst it is working as this will have catastrophic results. Please consult the relevent Training Manuals before making anymore mistakes.

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