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“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.” – Sylvia Plath

What do mountain running, or trail running as we call it in South Africa, and dog training all have in common with each other? The simplest answer is that I can run/walk in the mountains and train my dogs along the way. I am also the mother of a young man who runs up and down mountains for fun. Actually, he is training hard as he has aspirations to become a world-class mountain runner.

I am fortunate enough to own a Belgian Shepherd Malinois (known as the Munchkin), and she is a civilian Search and Rescue dog. She does wilderness searches, and she follows tracks that have been left by people who have gone missing. When all is said and done she has a nose that works overtime. I continue to be amazed by her ability to discriminate between all the different scents that are on the ground, find the correct one, and then follow it to where the person is.

The Bushman’s Neck area in the Southern Drakensberg mountains is one of my favorite places to visit. I am fortunate enough to have friends who own a working dairy farm with a guest cottage underneath Mount Sutherland so I visit them as often as I can. It’s a beautiful place with hundreds of hectares to tramp along. It’s my happy place, where there are wide open spaces with very few inhabitants. In a nutshell, I can walk for ages without seeing anyone.

Finding and searching…   

Because the farm is a large working farm with herds of dairy cattle grazing in the pastures of the whole farm, it’s not a good idea to let the Munchkin run loose when we are training together. She might be tempted to chase the cattle with disastrous consequences for all of us. Therefore, the last time I was at the farm (a couple of weeks ago), I decided that we should practice her man-trailing skills, so I sent the Young Man off on a journey of about 1km to “lose himself.” While we waited for him to “get lost”, I fitted the Munchkin’s tracking harness and made sure that it was tight enough, but not too tight; otherwise, it can chafe especially on a long track.

It is important to bear in mind that a dog burns loads of energy when she is using her nose to find people. Thus, most dogs cannot track for long distances before they get too tired. The Young Man is tough to track because he lays false trails with dead ends along the way. It takes a hard working, competent dog who is able to make her own decisions along the way to sort out the false trails from the actual track. The good news is that the Munchkin is usually able to differentiate between the different trails; thus, I was very curious to see how she coped with such a long, challenging track.

End result

I am still so impressed with the Munchkin and her ability to work through tough scenarios.  At one stage, I thought we might have to admit defeat as just before she found the Young Man, she indicated that she had lost the track. What do we do? How do we pick up the scent again? Well, I took her back to where I knew the track was. Once again, she picked up the trail and led me to where the Young Man was hiding. She was totally exhausted! I have never seen her so tired before; however, she was so happy she found her victim and “saved” someone’s life.

Finally, even though this was a practice run and we were both doing what we love to do, and what we do best, it’s important for her to succeed because she might one day have to work in a live situation.