Mountain Rescue Search Dogs England is a charity that’s been saving lives for 50 years – but it couldn’t carry out its priceless work without a dedicated breed of unsung heroes. PETER BARRON joins them for a night of training...

WHY on earth am I lying on open moorland, looking up at the stars on an eerily dark winter’s night, when I could be at home in the warm, watching telly?

It’s a very good question, and the answer is that I’m finding out what it’s like to be a ‘dogsbody’.

Beside me in the undergrowth, on the edge of Swaledale, is veteran mountaineer, Alan Hinkes, patron of Mountain Rescue Search Dogs England, and we’re waiting to be rescued by a working sheep dog, called Cassie.

Dogsbodies are selfless volunteers who give up their time, in all weathers, to help train the dogs that are a vital part of mountain rescue services across the country.

Alan, the first Briton to climb the world’s 14 highest mountains, has been an ambassador for the charity for ten years, and patron for three. On average, he volunteers as a dogsbody once a month.

“I just love getting out into the countryside, looking up at the Milky Way, and enjoying the craic” he explains. “It can be lashing down, blowing a gale, or they might be in a blizzard, but these guys still give up their time.”

There are five other volunteer dogsbodies hidden somewhere out on the moor tonight, and they're being tracked down by two handlers from military backgrounds – Cassie’s owner, Tim Cain, and Mike Needham, who’s with his border collie, Tarn.

“I can’t believe what a balmy night it is for February,” whispers Alan, as we hunker down against a drystone wall that’s seen better days. “We’ve got it easy-peasy. Not a breath of wind – I don’t even need my gloves.”

Balmy? It’s all very well for him to call it ‘balmy’ but this is a fella who’s survived temperatures of minus 40 at the top of Everest. Granted, we’re lucky the weather’s not a lot worse, but it’s 8.25pm, we’ve been “missing” for nearly an hour, and I'm starting to wish the rescuers would hurry up so we can get to the pub.

“We must be barking mad,” I suggest to my fellow dogsbody.

“Shhh – I think they’re coming,” replies Alan, like an excited childhood pal in the middle of a game of hide and seek.

Just then, the silence is broken by the distant tinkling of a bell, and a red dot – like an angry firefly in the blackness – can be seen zig-zagging towards us. It’s the light on the jackets that mountain search and rescue dogs wear while on duty.

“Away, find" shouts Cassie’s handler, Tim Cain, and the red light dances closer.

“Warmer, you’re getting warmer,” I say in my head, but then the firefly suddenly moves off in another direction as Tim lets out more cries of “Away, find” and “Show me.”

A cheer goes up, followed by “Good girl, Cassie!”. She’s found another dogsbody in the darkness a few hundred yards away, and her reward is having a ball thrown for her to chase, before Tim gets her back to work.

The firefly hovers ever closer, then circles us, before Cassie bursts through the grass and barks, triumphantly, at her second discovery of the night. More cheers, more enthusiastic praise, and Cassie gets to chase her ball again.

Having been discovered, Tim asks if I want a go at being a handler. My job is to work with Cassie to find Ron Allan, a local government officer, from Thornton-le-Beans. Perhaps it’s down to my expert handling, or more likely Cassie’s experience, but we find Ron relatively quickly, over by what Alan tells me is known by the volunteers as 'Scary Wood'.

“Why’s it called Scary Wood?” I ask.

“Strange happenings,” he replies. I decide not to ask for details.

Despite her enthusiasm for the job, Cassie has arthritis, and, at eight-and-a-half, she realistically only has a couple of years left as a search and rescue dog. Therefore, Tim is training up another sheepdog, one-year-old Gem, to step into the breach.

It’s Gem’s turn to carry on her training, so Tim returns to the car park to give Cassie a rest and to collect her protégé, so she can come and find us. It’s a big test for Gem because, four months into her training, this is her first night-time search.

While we wait, I ask Ron what makes him volunteer to be a dogsbody. “I’ve seen what these dogs can do – they save lives,” he explains. “On top of that, I get to see bits of the countryside I’d never see otherwise. It gets me out of the house and it’s good for my mental health.”

Another bell tinkles, a red light appears, and shouts of “Show me” are heard. Gem’s passed her test and she’s very pleased with herself, barking frantically and demanding that Ron throws her ball.

Training's over for another night, so it’s time to warm up back at the George and Dragon, in Hudswell, where the dogs enjoy well-earned pork scratching treats, and I get to chat to the dedicated team over a beer.

Tim, an infantry officer with the King’s Regiment for 30 years, was awarded the MBE in 2004. Both he and his wife, Helen, are members of the Swaledale Mountain Rescue Team. Mike, ex RAF, is from the Teesdale and Weardale Search and Rescue Team.

The dogsbodies are introduced one by one: alongside Ron Allan, there’s Ian Wharton, Deb Southwell, Austen Floyd, and Sam De Belle, who’s travelled furthest because she’s a zookeeper at Flamingo Land, an hour-and-a-half away at Kirby Misperton.

“The value of dogsbodies can’t be underestimated,” declares Tim. “They’re every bit as important as the handlers and the dogs. Without them, we can’t operate.”

To be a dog handler, you have to have been a dogsbody, and Tim and Mike have both served their time hidden in the undergrowth.

“It’s a huge commitment from everyone and the volunteers put their hearts and souls into it – often missing family occasions and holidays,” adds Mike.

It can take between two and three years to train a dog, developing its ability to find a person over progressively more difficult pieces of ground, culminating in an arduous, three-day mountainous assessment in the Lake District or South Wales before they are “graded”.

“I cried when Tarn was graded,” admits Mike. “Your emotions run wild because so much has gone into it.”

But the commitment is worth it. The charity had more than 150 call-outs to reports of missing vulnerable or injured people across the North-East last year, with dogs deployed in around a third of the cases.

“We can’t thank the dogsbodies enough for the priceless part they play – and we’re always on the lookout for more volunteers,” adds Mike.

It's home time, but they'll be back for more next week – whatever the weather.

Dogsbody – Oxford English Dictionary: a person who does all the boring jobs that nobody else wants to do, and who is treated as being less important than other people.

Dogsbody – Mountain Rescue Search Dogs England: a person who does a crucial job and whose selfless contribution to saving lives is immensely appreciated.