First they faced a series of unexpected difficulties in training their two lively young dogs to carry out search and rescue missions across harsh landscapes, with Paul’s efforts with Rogue, a strapping Belgian Malinois bitch, proving particularly difficult.
Then, as he invested countless hours into easing Rogue into her new role, Paul was faced with a personal crisis: a sudden string of stumbles as he navigated hilly terrain turned out to be linked to a hidden bleed, deep in his brain.
He faced immediate surgery to repair it and then a slow recovery back to health.
Undaunted however, the Aberdeenshire couple carried on with their dogs’ intensive training regime, going on to pass external assessments 12 months earlier than would normally be expected.
Within weeks, Paul and Rogue were called into action alongside their colleagues from Braemar Mountain Rescue team in search for a missing hillwalker lost in snowy conditions on Ben MacDui, Britain’s second highest mountain.
The happy ending saw Paul and Rogue become only the second Search & Rescue Dog Association Scotland dog team to find a missing hillwalker on their first official search call out.
Now Paul, wife Sam and their two dogs are to receive a special 20th anniversary award from the organisers of the Fort William Mountain Festival.
The Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture – Special 20th Anniversary Award recognises their personal efforts alongside the contributions of search and rescue dog teams to mountain culture throughout Scotland.
It is one of a number of prestigious Scottish Awards for Excellence in Mountain Culture given by the Festival in recognition of inspiring individuals and their outstanding contributions to Scotland’s outdoor culture, and span sport, theatre, art, photography, film and literature.
This year’s recipients include former professional mountain biker and champion for women in the outdoors, Lee Craigie, and Scottish Youth Award winner, climber Caitlin Connor, a member of the GB Ice Climbing Team.
They receive their awards next Thursday as part of the opening day of the four-day festival’s 20th Anniversary programme.
Paul, who has summited Everest twice, and wife Sam are both seasoned mountaineers, observers for the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) and members of Braemar Mountain Rescue Team, which each year deals with at least 40 incidents.
They decided to train as SARDA Scotland novice dog handlers after witnessing the exceptional benefits that highly trained dogs bring during emergencies and search and rescue missions.
The training, however, can be particularly difficult and Sam’s first dog struggled, meaning she had to start again with another dog, her Border Collie, Bowie. Training went so well, the pair received a special award from SARDA Scotland.
Paul’s dog Rogue, meanwhile, is not a typical ‘search and rescue’ breed, and so required special attention.
“I wanted a Belgian Malinois, which is known as a good dog to have for an avalanche rescue,” he said. “But she would get really agitated waiting for me during training, so much so that if I left her too long she would bite the volunteer ‘body’.”
Training search and rescue dogs begins at just 12 weeks old and involves mock rescue exercises, with real volunteers often spending hours on a hillside waiting for the trainee dog to find them.
Dogs need to have exceptional scenting ability, be strong and fit enough to cope with the rigours of a mountain terrain and undergo helicopter training, including being winched from air to ground.
While for handlers, training dogs for search and rescue is particularly time consuming, and involves devoting significant spare time to attending general mountain rescue training events and separate dog training sessions.
In Rogue’s case, Paul had to introduce a muzzle and develop a special training regime to help her overcome her agitation.
At the same time his own health problem, linked to a fall on ice when he bumped his head weeks earlier, started to emerge.
A diagnosis revealed a brain bleed, requiring immediate surgery and the revocation of Paul’s driving licence due to the risk of seizures.
Paul said: “I wonder now if Rogue knew something was wrong with me, and that was why she became so agitated during training.
“When I came home from hospital, she brought every toy she had to my bed. She is a good girl.”
He added: “I have to rely heavily on Sam and it has made things much harder than they should have been. But it’s like being out on the hill, you look after each other.”
The couple say they are honoured to receive the special award.
“Mountains are our life and we’ve been fortunate to complete many routes and summits that have been difficult,” they said.
“Becoming a search dog team has been, in some ways, a similar challenge. Ultimately it requires absolute commitment, with major highs and lows during the journey. Getting back up again when you’ve been knocked down is perhaps the hardest part.
“We are proud to be part of it and call ourselves Search Dogs and Handlers. Most important of all, without our Bowie and Rogue’s trust and love, our lives would feel a lot emptier.”
SARDA Scotland, the Scottish charity dedicated to training dogs and their volunteer handlers to search for missing persons, runs more than 20 teams of trained dogs and their volunteer handlers based at locations across the country. Stu McIntyre, Training Officer, said: “This is fantastic recognition for their outstanding contributions to Mountain Culture.
“Their unwavering dedication and service to SARDA, Mountain Rescue and the Scottish Avalanche Information Service is an inspiration to us all.”
Anna Danby, the Fort William Mountain Festival Coordinator, said: “We wished to recognise the contribution that SARDA make to Mountain Rescue with this special one-off award.
“Both Sam and Bowie and Paul and Rogue are wholly deserving recipients, and their unique story was a huge factor in them winning.”