Border collie, Gem, has completed her training to become a qualified search and rescue dog in Swaledale Mountain Rescue Team, but what does it take to produce a canine lifesaver? PETER BARRON finds out

HIGH on a hillside, in beautiful Bannau Brycheiniog – until recently known as the Brecon Beacons – one man and his dog are justifiably feeling on top of the world.

Border collie, Gem, has just passed the biggest test of her young life, and her handler, Tim Cain MBE, is beaming with pride in the spring sunshine.

Tim, a former infantry officer, is a dedicated member of Swaledale Mountain Rescue Team, and Gem has qualified as a fully operational mountain rescue dog, ready to save lives anywhere in the country, though principally in the north of England.

“What she’s achieved in such a short space of time is phenomenal – she hasn’t put a paw wrong,” smiles Tim.

Gem is aged two years and three months, and her life has been dedicated to being trained to find missing people in the harshest conditions.

The first time I met her was on a cold night in February, 2023, when I sampled what it’s like to be a “dogsbody” – selfless volunteers who give up their time, no matter the weather, to hide in the countryside, so search and rescue dogs can practise finding them.

Alongside legendary mountaineer, Alan Hinkes, the first Briton to climb the world’s 14 highest mountains, and a patron of Mountain Rescue Search Dogs England, I found myself lying on open moorland, on the edge of Swaledale, playing adult hide and seek.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Peter Barron and Alan Hinkes are found by Cassie in February 2023Peter Barron and Alan Hinkes are found by Cassie in February 2023 (Image: Chris Barron)

After an hour or so in the darkness, we were tracked down by Tim and his older dog, Cassie, a search and rescue veteran.

That was followed by a second rescue, with Cassie making way for her protégé, Gem, who was just four months into her training at the time.

Now, just over a year on from that exhilarating night on the moors, Gem has qualified with flying colours after her training came to a climax with the final grading over three arduous days, covering five searches, amid the famous South Wales mountain range.

“The original plan was to take her for assessment in November this year, but I felt she was ready,” adds Tim. “She always had lots of natural ability, but she’s done it much earlier than expected, so I’m ecstatic.”

And Tim has no doubt that Gem’s swift progress has a lot to do with watching and learning from Cassie.

“There was definitely an element of standing on the shoulders of giants,” he says. “Cassie’s been a great role model and, as soon as Gem comes in from training, there’s some form of communication and mentoring going on.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: Swaledale Mountain Rescue dogs Cassie and GemSwaledale Mountain Rescue dogs Cassie and Gem (Image: Swaledale Mountain Rescue)

Tim and his wife, Helen, another member of Swaledale Mountain Rescue Team, also have her "very bright" sister, Fin, although she wasn't trained for search and rescue because the focus was on preparing Cassie at the time.

Gem's path to becoming a search and rescue dog started in the autumn of 2022 with obedience training. Then, the serious business of finding dogsbodies got underway in January 2023, with 'stage one' based on short searches.

"It's all about the toy," explains Tim. The dogs learn that finding a body leads to play, with a squeaky ball being thrown for them to chase.

Stage one ends with a formal "indication test" in woodland. The dog is tasked with finding three dogsbodies and indicating to the handler where they're located.

Stage two sees the introduction of extended distances and more exposed terrain, and Gem passed that milestone in August last year.

She then continued to push the boundaries and extend her experience before a pre-assessment in the Peak District in February, with two days of searches of up to two hours each.

That then led to the final assessment in Bannau Brycheiniog, where Gem was awarded a certificate, confirming her as operational, and able to be called upon anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.

Darlington and Stockton Times: The moment Gem finds a a dogsbodyThe moment Gem finds a a dogsbody (Image: Swaledale Mountain Rescue)

Passing the final assessment also means Gem gets to wear a coveted orange jacket and red tag, alongside Cassie and another experienced canine collague.

It's the reward she gets for training eight evenings a month, plus two Sundays, since the start of 2023.

So far, Gem's still waiting for her first official rescue. She was called out shortly after qualifying but the missing person was thankfully located, via a telephone signal, before she and Tim got out of the car.

With plenty of years ahead of her, there's every chance she'll be needed to make the difference between life and death sooner or later.

Meanwhile, life's about to get a little more relaxed for Cassie, who's been in service for six-and-a-half years since she was four.

After covering hundreds of square kilometres during approximately 60 career searches, she'll now be mainly reserved  for missions on easier terrain.

"She's slowing down – like her handler!" laughs Tim, who's clocked up countless kilometres himself as part of Swaledale Mountain Rescue Team for 21 years, and a mountain search and rescue dog handler for a decade.

However, Tim's keen to stress it's a team effort. Swaledale Mountain Rescue Team, which recently became a charitable incorporated organisation, is run entirely by volunteers.
They include a selfless band of dogsbodies, and Tim insists they are "every bit as important" as the dog handlers.

"Without the dogsbodies, none of it would be possible," he says. "They lie in cold, wet ditches in precarious places, just to help save lives, and we can't thank them enough."

Dogsbodies, handlers, canine lifesavers – every one of them's a gem.