Meet Morag - the Lake District Mountain Rescue Search Dog
- Credit: Irene Amiet
The former rescue border collie is now a four-legged friend for people in need
Matt Nightingale and his six-year-old border collie share a very special bond. Matt has been a member of Penrith Mountain Rescue Team for 13 years and recently his four-legged friend, Morag, has qualified to work alongside him as a fully-fledged search dog.
Their achievement is all the more remarkable because, Morag, who is now helping to rescue people, was once a rescue dog herself.
'I got Morag from Oak Tree Animals' refuge at Wetheral when she was 18 months old,' Matt said. 'She had previously been in two other rescue centres and was also known to have run away from her adopters. She didn't interact with people at all when I first met her, she wasn't house trained and didn't even know her own name. She was very nervous, and it took me a long time to gain her trust.'
Matt's persistence paid off and after six months of settling into her new home and basic obedience training, Morag was ready to begin the intensive training that would eventually lead to her being awarded the coveted green tag of a Lake District Mountain Search Dog Association graded search dog.
The Lake District Mountain Search Dog Association is a specialist team dedicated to training, developing and deploying search dogs to search for missing people. Handlers, who must already be a full member of a Lake District Mountain Rescue Team, choose to train a search dog to assist their own team and other teams within the Lake District region and further afield if necessary. To make the grade as a search dog Matt and Morag had to train for three years and pass rigorous assessments along the way.
Initially Morag had to show that, alongside basic obedience, she was friendly around people. She passed with flying colours and was then ready to move on to the next stage which shows how far she had already come from her days as a stray on the streets.
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'It's been a steep learning curve for us both,' says Matt. 'Each training session was a bit of an on- going assessment and if things went well then we progressed on to more challenging things. The next step was to get her used to working with lots of different people. We have volunteers called dogsbodies who are a crucial part of our training.' Dogsbodies are volunteers who routinely hide in the Lake District fells for the search dogs to find. They hide in all weathers, day or night and are essential to the successful training of the dogs with their handlers.
'To begin with we make it fun for the dogs and make sure that after a game of chase there is always an exciting reward - for Morag it's a squeaky toy. Eventually the dog will find the hidden dogsbody using scent only and will bark to indicate a find.'
Matt explains that teaching a dog to bark on command is only achieved through repetitive training and reward. 'Now when Morag finds someone she will bark and then return to me and bark before returning to the find. Sometimes she will do shuttles between me and the casualty to make sure I can keep up with her, knowing she will eventually be rewarded by her toy, and praise of course.'
It is essential that Morag is calm and steady as Matt may need to assist the casualty, give medical attention or radio for help. Helicopters may be called to the scene and Morag has been trained to take all these different scenarios in her stride.
'When working Morag wears a high viz jacket and a bell so I can keep track of where she is. The Penrith team cover a large area of northern Lake District which means we can be called out at any time, in all weathers to search varied terrain including mountains, farmland and woodland.'
Essential parts of training are night searches and avalanche training. 'We do avalanche training for six days every year where hardy volunteers are happy to spend several hours hidden at least a metre under the snow. Dogs are excellent at finding people under the snow; Morag has already found someone a metre and a half down. If you don't have a transceiver then a dog is the best thing to find you as they are trained to search thoroughly and slowly and focus on finding breath rather than items.'
The dogs' phenomenal sense of smell and the fact they can cover ground much quicker than humans means they are a great asset to any team and can be life savers, often proving more effective than many of the latest technological gadgets.
Morag, who has been operational for a year, has already proved her worth by assisting on many call outs and has helped in searches to locate vulnerable people. 'On one occasion, a group of people had got lost on Cross Fell in the Pennines,' Matt said. 'They were cold, wet and tired so it was good that Morag could locate them quickly and we could get them down safely.'
On the day we meet, Morag demonstrates her drive, stamina and agility as she chases a frisbee on the fell. She bounds effortlessly over rough terrain and through knee-high bracken, her bell tinkling and, at times, only the white tip of her tail visible. She is totally focused yet waits politely for each throw. Matt, who lives in Penrith with his wife and two-year-old daughter, spends much of his time dealing with rescues. He is employed as a rope rescue instructor at Lyon Equipment Work and Rescue Training Centre based at Tebay and is also a member of Cumbria Ore Mines Rescue Unit. Despite leading such a full life, Matt still finds time to practise searches weekly with Morag and his team, and to spend one weekend a month training. It's clear Morag thrives as a search dog and that the strong bond with her master stands them both in good stead for any challenging situations that may lay ahead.
Lake District Mountain Rescue Search Dogs are an entirely voluntary organisation and rely solely on the generosity of public donations.
So far this year handlers and their dogs have attended 15 call outs.
For further information go to lakes-searchdogs.org or penrithmrt.org.uk.