A life-saving dog that has attended nearly 50 call-outs as a member of Keswick mountain rescue team and the Lake District Mountain Rescue Search Dogs has retired from duty.
Bracken, a dark brown fluffy tri-coloured collie with a striking white blaze up his face, has enjoyed a near 12-year career working on the fells with his handler Elly Whiteford.
One of his most memorable rescues happened when he found an elderly diabetic man who had been missing for two cold winter nights in west Cumbria
The police, Cockermouth mountain rescue team and local people had all attempted to find the man and despite their best efforts , the gentleman had not been found and the search dogs were called in to assist.
“We were searching fields separated by deep tidal ditches and scrub,” said Elly.
“It was mid to late afternoon and we had been searching for over five hours and when heading to investigate a sighting of a black hat, that some locals had told me about, Bracken found the gentleman in an area of rough ground in a field that had already been searched earlier that day.
“Bracken was out of sight so I couldn’t see the gentleman until Bracken barked and I saw the flash of his orange jacket and ran towards him.
“I could see a figure lying on the ground along the bottom of the fence and under some vegetation.
“As I approached, he moved and raised his arm.
“He was amazingly alive though severely hypothermic and was flown to hospital in the air ambulance.
“It is hard to describe the emotions when your dog finds a missing person.
“It doesn’t feel quite real at the time and the adrenaline is rushing as you assess the casualty whilst getting on the radio to get information out about location and condition for assistance, then treating the casualty the best you can until more people and equipment arrive along with the medics.
“After the casualty had been evacuated, there was Bracken sitting, temporarily forgotten, in amongst the contents of my rucksack that was dispersed in a hurry to find thermal blankets and a shelter to protect the casualty.
“He then had a play and a fuss and lots of people telling him what a good boy he was. I was very proud of him for a job well done and that all his training had finally paid off.”
Bracken was Elly’s third trainee search dog and she said that he responded well to encouragement and reward and was eager to please.
She had not initially planned to train him for search work but Meg, her current search dog, had at the time developed a recurring leg injury and Bracken had already taken to short exercises she had tasked him with such as running to find hidden articles, picking them up quickly and then indicating.
Bracken and Elly were graded as a fully trained search team in July 2014 following a gruelling final assessment which took them to the summit ridges of the Coniston fells working for nearly five hours though bog, steep scree, crags, boulder fields, steep grass and bracken.
In 2015 the pair travelled to Killarney in southern Ireland with several other search dogs from the Lakes to attend the International Congress of Alpine Rescue (ICAR) where mountain rescue representatives from all over the world gather to discuss advances in technology, medical treatment, avalanche and wilderness rescue and produce guidelines of best practice that can be used in all countries.
They worked with the Irish Search Dogs and met dog handlers from many countries to discuss training and learn from each other.
They set up demonstrations to show how dogs searched the ground and indicated back to the handler when they had found a casualty. Elly and Bracken were also filmed as part of the conference and appeared on Irish television.
In spring 2016 Bracken suffered a serious injury when his foreleg went down a hole while he was running and he suffered ligament and bone damage to his wrist.
This resulted in the joint being fused and Elly thought that was going to be the end of his career as a search dog.
“His leg healed well and he coped amazingly, so following discussions with the vets I decided to see how he coped on the fells,” said Elly.
It was during his second search on his return to work that he found the elderly diabetic man in West Cumbria.
“He has been a pleasure to work and be on the hill with, typically,” said Elly. “He is my best friend and companion and through COVID he has been my anchor and got me though the low points with his constant affection and companionship, playfulness and happy disposition.
“I cannot fail to smile at his beautiful fluffy face and the expressions and looks he gives me and can’t believe how fast time has gone.
“He now deserves his rest and to stay in the warm when the pager goes off, though I know he would always rather be out with me.”