‘I teach dog and humans to work as a team, rather than the human in charge and the dog doing what it’s told’

Tom Middlemas search and rescue bloodhounds.
Tom Middlemas search and rescue bloodhounds.

Sandy Neil talks to Tom Middlemas, 61, from Jedburgh, of Arthurshiel Rescue Centre near St Boswells, a trainer of search and rescue dogs for 45 years -– and a man who thinks nothing of taking 24 dogs for a walk simultaneously

Tom’S collie, Labrador and bloodhound students detect earthquake victims, murderers and missing dementia sufferers, as well as smelling cancers, epileptic fits, mobile phone batteries and escaping criminals. He most surely debunks the myth that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.

Our 367 Scents

“Dogs can be taught to detect any combination of chemicals: we just have to teach the dog that’s the one we want it to find. In search and rescue, we use the scents of the dead skin cells that come off your body.

“About 367 scents that come off the human body, and there are 14 that are totally individual to you, the dog will find just one of them. Each minute you are losing 40,000 skin cells, and some of those have maybe got two or three bacteria on them, so you’re looking at 80,000 bacteria that come off every minute. Now the bacteria all have a vapour cloud, and that’s what the dog smells.”

Search and Rescue Call-out

“Most search and rescue teams only have one or two dogs, and 30 or 40 people. We were called out to Pitlochry at the weekend to look for a missing lady with dementia who disappeared last Tuesday, and nobody has seen her since.

“When we went to this lady’s house, we found her nightdress that she had slept in, so I took that with me to give her scent to the dog, Balou. We had three types of dog there: an air scenting dog, a trailing dog and a cadaver dog.

“A trailing dog can find where a person has walked: it finds the scent from their body, and indicates it has found that scent by lying or sitting down. Then we put the dog on a trailing harness, and they will follow that scent until they get to that person.

“An air scenting dog is taught to go out there and it will find anybody, whereas the trailing dog is a ‘scent-specific dog’, and will only find the one person he is looking for – which you need in a busy park with lots of walkers out.

“Years ago, we didn’t need trailing dogs, because if rescuers found someone lying on the mountain, there was a fair chance he was who you were looking for. Nowadays, search and rescue is moving more and more into urban areas, looking for people with dementia: the population is getting older, so search and rescue is not in the mountains where it used to be.”

“The Nose is in Charge”

“Trailing is new to the UK, but I’ve been teaching this for about the last 15 or 16 years in Europe. Dog-handlers in all these countries tend to come from military-style training, but I bring a different attitude altogether: I teach the dog and human to work as a team, rather than the human taking charge and the dog doing what it’s told, because if a human speaks or commands at the wrong time, he can turn a dog away, and that may be the only scent coming from the missing person, and that may end in disaster. Once the dogs are trained, their noses are in charge.”

Detecting Murderers to Turkish Earthquake Victims

“There are about seven or eight bloodhound crosses I’ve bred doing remarkable work across Europe. One of them works Hamburg city, and the police have stopped the traffic in Hamburg at 5 o’ clock on a Friday night so the dog could work. Can you imagine that happening here? It would be World War III. That’s how respected those dogs are.

“I’ve got a puppy in Luxembourg: anybody who goes missing, she’ll be looking for them. In Germany the dogs look for anything from depressed youngsters to people from old folk’s homes, walkers and hunters. In Bavaria the dogs are doing criminal work: if there’s been a murder, and the police find a murder weapon, the dogs will trail it back to the person who has thrown the weapon away.

“Seven of our dogs from Arthurshiel Rescue Centre are working in Turkey, and they were all doing search and rescue in the last earthquake [in October 2011]. One of the Labradors found a little girl, three days after the quake. Emotionally it’s really gratifying when the dogs find someone. The keepers all text me, and thanks to the internet, we get sent video clips too. So we keep in touch with all our dogs.”

Smelling Smuggled Lithium Batteries to Epileptic Fits

“Once you teach dogs the system to discriminate scent, they can go and do anything you want: to the dog its just another smell to go and find.

“We’ve got two dogs out in Glasgow working for the prison service, and we’ve got a couple down at Durham – one is scanning all the visitors, not for drugs, but for mobile phone batteries. Prisoners can get mobile phones sneaked into prison, but they can’t get the batteries very easily. So the visitors smuggle the batteries in, and the dog is trained to go for the lithium in the batteries. It gives off a very strong smell.

“We’ve got one dog working for Lothian and Borders Police who can find cash, various types of drugs and firearms. Some dogs can even sniff out cancer cells – again it’s the chemical reaction that comes off them.

“We’ve got dogs that smell an oncoming epileptic fit, and they can give the owner half an hour or 45 minutes of warning. The electric impulses in the body wind up to a fit, which changes the adrenalin, which changes the smell coming off the body, so the dog recognises the body scent has changed and adrenalin is very exciting to a dog.

“A dog will follow an escaping prisoner a lot faster, because a prisoner is giving off a lot of adrenalin. It goes back to nature: if a rabbit’s being chased by an animal, it gives off a phenomenal amount of adrenalin, so a dog recognises that smell means the excitement of a chase. That’s what the dog feels when someone’s injured or going to have a fit.”

Bond Between Man and Dog

“Working with dogs is fascinating. Each one is an individual. You never forget your working dogs. Most dogs you hope to get about 10 years of working life out of them, so it’s not a great number.

“You form a strong bond, because the dog has to trust you, and you have to trust the dog. It’s a partnership, rather than a human being a leader, and a dog doing what it’s told.

“Dogs are like people in the army: they want someone above them to tell them what to do, and to look after them. They don’t really want to make decisions. Each one has its place in the pack.

“I took 24 dogs out on a walk the other day, and I had a new dog. It was interesting watching the others watching him, and he was trying to find his place. Once he’d found his place and settled in, there’s no problems.

“A dog needs man for three things: he wants to be provided with food, shelter and protection. Most owners get the first two right, but very few understand that the dog needs you to protect it: the dog expects you to be its protector.

“That’s where most of the dog aggression comes from. If a dog feels its owner is not being protective, it feels he has to be the protector. And dogs do it in the same way that humans do, by making themselves as fierce as possible.

“The dog also wants you to be very fair: they can’t understand why a human gets mad and stays mad at them for hours on end. Two minutes after a dog has done something, he‘s completely forgotten it. They don’t hold grudges.”

Arthurshiel Appeal

“At Arthurshiel Rescue Centre we get 500-odd strays a year that we rehome. As much as we can, we train them to be safe in the country and at home. If we don’t, they just come back to the centre.

“If there’s nothing wrong with them, we keep them – we don’t put them to sleep. Taking everything into account, if the dog doesn’t need any vets bills or vaccinations (which are about £30 a time), you’re looking at £4 or £5 a week just to feed the dog.”

z If you wish to donate to Arthurshiel Rescue Centre, or for more information about its work, visit the website www.arthurshielrescuecentre.co.uk.