THIS month, Des Toward of The Teesdale and Weardale Search and Mountain Rescue Team, pictured above, achieves 40 years’ service as a full team member with Mountain Rescue.

Des, or dog Des as he is known in the team, was born in 1963 during a snow storm at the end of what had been the coldest winter in 200 years, on a small farm in upper Teesdale close to High Force. As a teenager Mr Toward loved motorsport and spent many happy hours watching rally cars speed through local forests in the middle of the night, however one evening at the local youth club he heard a talk by a member of a fell rescue team, known then as The upper Teesdale and Weardale Fell Rescue Association.

At that time they had a cadet group for 16 to 18 year olds which Mr Toward joined as soon as he could. The cadets took part in training sessions and other activities, but not callouts. As soon as he was 18 he applied to become a full team member and, after a probationary period, was allowed in and given a team badge, a prized possession he still treasures today. So in actual fact he has been part of the team for 42 years.

At an early stage in his membership, Mr Toward saw a documentary on TV called “search dogs of the summits” featuring a search dog handler from the Yorkshire Dales. “It was brilliant,” said Mr Toward, and the seed was planted. Shortly afterwards Mr Toward and his dog, Spot attended a registration day with SARDA, the Search and Rescue Dog Association in the Lake District. Unfortunately, at that time Spot didn’t have the same enthusiasm that his owner did, but after many hours of practice, Spot and Mr Toward were accepted to train as a search and rescue dog team. It took another 18 months of training and assessments before they were deemed suitable to be on the callout list.

Their first real job was to search for a missing skier on Dun Fell in the high Pennines. From then on jobs came in on a regular basis, as at that time there was only three search dogs in the North-East.

Mr Toward is now on his fourth search dog, Wisp, and has been SARDA representative, now MRSDE, (Mountain Rescue Search Dogs England), and is one of the most experienced and respected dog handlers in the country. He is still heavily involved in training handlers.