Paula and search dog Amber make the most formidable rescue team

The responsibilities of a Mountain Rescue volunteer can be incredibly challenging, especially in situations many of us would dread.

Paula and search dog Amber make the most formidable rescue team

But it’s an important job carried out by the skilled rescuers who give up their spare time to protect those who find themselves in danger.

From joining the police in finding missing people across urban and rural land, to supporting agencies with extreme weather such as floods, there are some serious responsibilities that comes with the uniform Mountain Rescue wears.

However, for Dr Paula Holbrook, Executive Business Manager and consultant in the South West, it’s a responsibility she has loved for more than 30 years. And recently, she became a qualified mountain rescue dog handler and the Thinking Schools Academy Trust are bursting with pride.

“I learned about Mountain Rescue when I attended a local agricultural show and saw a Dartmoor Rescue stand. I started chatting to team members and was invited to come along to a training night. I used to be a hill shepherd but moved into an indoor job, so having a reason to go out onto the moor really appealed,” Paula said.

Paula always enjoyed life in the wild hills with her sheepdog in a previous career, so the thought of joining the mountain rescue team filled her with excitement.

Before being considered to become a dog handler for the Dartmoor Search and Rescue Team – Ashburton, the branch which Paula volunteers with, there was a requirement to commit to other duties. Paula’s team roles include being a casualty carer, technical rope instructor, hill party leader, search manager, and a practitioner of psychological trauma risk management. A requirement of volunteering with the team was also having the ability to navigate at night and in no visibility as a basic skill, by counting their footsteps, as well as working on timings and bearings.  Paula is also a trustee for her team and the region.

Speaking about the process Paula had to complete to become a volunteer dog handler with Mountain Rescue Search Dogs England, Paula said the challenge was physically and mentally demanding.

She said: “Amber, my dog, and I had to pass an assessment as a search dog team in order to qualify. We had to go to the Lake District to search five mountain areas over three days while being watched closely by highly experienced handlers from the mountain regions of the UK.

“It was physically demanding because of the terrain – we don’t stick to footpaths like other hill users, but working your way through the area in the safest and most efficient way for you and your dog. It is mentally demanding because our dogs are non-discriminating air-scenting dogs. This means we have to take into account the weather, terrain, time of day and wind conditions to execute a strategy to navigate the dog’s amazing nose through the area, so that they can pick up any human scent in that area”.

When a dog picks up a scent, they follow that up and find the source – a person – return and bark to indicate to the handler someone is there, before guiding the handler in. Amber is a long-range dog that is skilled at detecting the faintest threads of human scent hundreds of meters away and is comfortable working hundreds of meters away from Paula, which allows them to make the most formidable rescue team.