ON THE HILLS: Des Toward has spent a lifetime serving Teesdale’s fell rescue team
ON THE HILLS: Des Toward has spent a lifetime serving Teesdale’s fell rescue team

A DOG handler is this month marking an “incredible” 40 years’ service as a full member of Teesdale’s rescue
Des Toward, or “dog Des” as he is affectionately known in the team, was born in 1963 during a snowstorm on a small farm near High Force, upper Teesdale.
As a teenager, he loved motorsport and spent many happy hours watching rally cars speed through local forests.
But one evening a member of the then Upper Teesdale and Weardale Fell Rescue Association gave a talk at the local youth club. It inspired a lifetime of service in the volunteer organisation.
The fell rescue team ran a cadet group and the teenager joined up.
As soon as he was 18, Mr Toward applied to become a full team member, and after a probationary period, earned a team badge – a possession he still treasures today.
Teesdale and Weardale Search and Mountain Rescue Team spokesman Scott Bisset said: “In those days the team had a dog handler who
didn’t really appear to be a part of the team – he would turn up on a job then
wander off into the distance on his own, only reappearing at the end of the search for a brew.”
Mr Toward saw a TV documentary featuring a search dog handler from the Yorkshire Dales.
“It was brilliant,” remembered Mr Toward, who said the seed was well and truly planted.
His first attempt ended in failure when Mr Toward and his dog, Spot, attended a
registration day with the Search and Rescue Dog Association (Sarda) in the Lake District.
Mr Bisset said: “Unfortunately, at that time, Spot didn’t have the same enthusiasm of his owner and so they headed home, tail metaphorically between their legs.”
But after many hours of practice, Spot and Des were accepted to train as a search and rescue dog team.
It took another 18 months of training before they were deemed suitable to be on the callout list.
Their first real job was to search for a missing skier on Great Dun Fell and from then on jobs came in on a regular basis as there were only three search dogs in the North East.
One job forever etched into Mr Toward’s memory was when Spot found what appeared to be a human hand sticking out of the ground.
After several panicked radio messages, he was instructed to see if it was attached to a body.
“On starting to clear leaves and debris from the area, the body sat up.
“For whatever reason the male had tried to bury himself.
“As you can imagine this gave Des some sleepless nights,” Mr Bisset said.
“Since then Des has come a long way – he is now on his fourth search dog, Wisp.
“He has been Sarda representative (now Mountain Rescue Search Dogs England) and has travelled to Iceland to assess their dogs, given lectures to groups in California and South Africa, and is one of the most experienced and respected dog handlers in the country.
“He is still heavily involved in training handlers, giving up many hours of his time for which he receives no recompense – as with all mountain rescue team members, he is a volunteer.
“Des has had plenty of success with his own dogs and feels rightfully proud every time a dog and handler that he has helped to train is involved in a successful find, which often results in a life saved.”