Ginny, Keswick Mountain Rescue's hero dog
PUBLISHED: 00:00 31 March 2016
Meet the border collie who has clocked up more rescue missions than any other in the Lake District. Emily Rothery reports
Ginny, a search dog with Keswick Mountain Rescue team, is a life-saver and a record-breaker. In October of last year she made her 250th call-out - a record for the Lake District.
Since then she has notched up a few more missions – quite an achievement for a border collie of advancing years. Ginny will be 12 next month. That’s 69 in dog years.
Mick Guy, her handler, is justly proud. ‘Ginny is my third rescue dog and easily the best. She loves people but is dependable and remarkably calm in most circumstances. She’s an independent spirit but she has all the social graces.’
The first thing that I notice about Mick and Ginny is their easy rapport and it is this relationship that stands them in good stead when they are called out on searches. Many rescues take place on the Lake District fells, where the terrain and weather can be ever-changing and challenging but the pair may also be called to work with local emergency services to search for people who are missing, such as dementia patients.
‘Dogs are trained to search for human scent and they can cover more terrain than we can, especially in poor visibility. It’s thought that injured or scared people give off certain pheromones, which the dog may pick up. Obedience is essential in a search dog but their stamina and phenomenal sense of smell save us a lot of leg work and time.
‘My classic example of a bad place to search would be on Allonby beach on a Bank Holiday weekend which I was once asked to do! There must have been thousands of people there,’ laughs Mick.
‘When I’m out with Ginny we do have a great working relationship – there’s a definite linkage between us although we’re part of a team. I need her to respond instantly to my commands but not be glued to my side and reliant on me. She will readily cover ground for me but will come and walk with me if I need her close. I use a lot of body movements that Ginny will mirror so that I can move her to where I want her.’
When on duty Ginny’s welfare is paramount. She wears a distinctive mesh jacket that is cool in summer. In winter she will wear a dark rain jacket underneath to keep her dry and warm. She wears a bell which allows Mick to track her at night or if visibility is poor and an illuminated collar in the dark. They also alert the person who needs rescuing that help is at hand. A squeaky toy is all the reward that this remarkable dog needs after making a find.
‘Dogs indicate that they have found a person by barking first at the person and then coming back to the handler to bark which indicates that they have made a find. They will then lead the handler to the correct spot. Ginny is canny though - she now returns just to where she can see me before barking which shows that she’s very smart and can adapt to the circumstances’, says Mick.
‘I got Ginny at eight weeks and worked on basic obedience and making her sound with stock so she could be trusted in any circumstances. She has also been trained to deal with loud sounds such as helicopters and gun shots.
Dogs aren’t ready to train until they develop an adult bark at around six or seven months. She qualified as a search dog in 2006 and hasn’t looked back.’
When asked about memorable rescues Mick explains that very early after she graded, Ginny was the first to locate an elderly honeymoon couple on the fells. The couple had got lost and were actually talking to the Mountain Rescue base on their phone when they were surprised, and more than a little relieved, to see a search dog appearing through the mist.
‘Another brilliant find was near Thirlmere when we found a guy who had been missing for 11 days in mostly blistering hot sun. The team were in the forest but Ginny, knowing her own mind, took off up the fell and then came hurtling back over a wall to indicate that she had made a find. I steeled myself for the worst as I approached a figure lying next to a boulder. Ginny continued to bark and as I got inches from the man I got the shock of my life as he sat up! He was seriously unwell but Ginny had played her part in locating him in time’.
Mick, a retired head teacher, explains that search dogs and their handlers can expect to be called out at any time in any weather so on-going training is essential. Regular practices take place where a group of volunteers act as ‘bodies’ in a variety of search situations. For Mick and Ginny however, training takes place daily. ‘Every walk is a training session, making sure that she is secure with commands and extending the range that she can cover.’
With Ginny’s well-being in mind as she gets older, Mick is now tailoring the jobs for her. ‘She is as keen as ever and very fit, and has been remarkably free of injury and illness, but is starting with cataracts so we are tending to do lower level stuff and easier routes. I‘ll know when she isn’t coping. There will come a time in the fairly near future, however, when she can’t work anymore so she’ll retire and just enjoy life as a family pet.’
When asked if he would have another search dog Mick doesn’t need time to ponder on the matter. ‘Working with the team and my dogs has been the love of my life for 25 years. My wife has put up with me disappearing at all times of day and night so perhaps it’s time to wind down. One thing’s for certain though – I don’t think that I could ever find another dog that would equal Ginny. She’s such a fantastic dog.’