They work in all weathers, day or night, using their acute sense of smell to find climbers and hillwalkers who are lost or in trouble. But what does it take to become a search and rescue dog? Two volunteers with the Search and Rescue Dogs Association Southern Scotland explain how they became involved and the very special relationship they have with their dogs.

Darryl Urquhart-Dixon, 48, and his dog Ruby

I work as a call-out co-ordinator for the association, which was conceived by the mountaineer Hamish MacInnes in 1965. Hamish brought the idea back from the Tyrol, in the Alps, where he saw how people dealt with avalanches. He thought, "We get avalanches in Scotland – this could work for us."

Our dogs work by scent and when they find somebody, they come and tell us, by barking. They then shuttle back and forward between the handler and the scent until the handler gets to the source.

My labrador Ruby is a fantastic dog and has four finds to her name – two live and two fatalities. The furthest I’ve seen her find a scent is between 350 and 400 metres. She’s made for mountain rescue – I had her dad as a working gundog and took the pick of the litter and I had a hunch about her. My dad was a gamekeeper and I grew up in England around working dogs. Then, when I left the army I had been without a dog for such a long time and I happened across a black labrador and I’ve had seven labs in the last 20 years.

I have a great relationship with Ruby. I can tell her secrets I never tell anyone. Dogs also do as they are told, don’t answer back and their love is unconditional. The dogs are pets but they’re working pets.

Ruby was fully trained after 17 months and it normally takes about three years, although there’s an old shepherd’s saying that there’s a year of maturing in each of a dog’s legs. So they don’t become mature until they’re four and there’s a modicum of truth in that. When they retire depends on the dog.

When I’m working, I move Ruby about the hillside by whistles and hand signals. She will also pretty much work on the hill on her own. Sometimes I do think there’s a little bit of ESP – I’ll think, "Go on Ruby, get into that corner" and she will. But the dogs are doing it for the reward – a squeaky toy or a ball. That element of play between you and the dog at that point is special to them and it enhances the bond.

The dogs are fantastic assets to any mountain rescue team. All the dog handlers are part of mountain rescue teams – first and foremost the dogs are team assets but we also assist the police in looking for vulnerable or missing people – some are disappearing into the woods intent on self-harm and are suicidal but it could also be people who have gone missing with dementia.

I began volunteering after moving to Arran 20 years ago and have been on the local mountain rescue team for nine years. As an ex-infantry soldier, I’ve seen a lot of active service – I’ve got a big wardrobe with a lot of skeletons that I’ve locked and thrown the key away. That’s my coping mechanism. Whether it’s a living person we find or a fatality, it makes no difference, it’s closure – someone wants their loved ones found. That’s the way I deal with it.

Kirstie Smith, 34, trainee handler, and her dog Caileag

I grew up on Arran and I used to go up the hills with my dad. We always had dogs – Mum and Dad had golden retrievers.

The dog rescue came about because I thought, "What can I do for the community that would be exciting?" I became part of the team and met a couple of dog handlers and watched them with their dogs and thought it was amazing.

We got Caileag, which is Gaelic for wee lassie, as a pup from a farmer, and I thought I would give training her as a rescue dog a go. She was from working stock and she was full of energy and obsessed with her toy, which is a really good starting point. The association gave her a little test and she seemed to love it and that was it.

We’re in the middle of the training and Caileag, who’s two, is really interested and wants to work. It doesn’t matter what the breed is – you can have a mongrel or anything – but the drive has to be there. Some dogs aren’t interested and might not be suitable – there has to be an interest in working and getting the reward. You’ve got to make it fun for them. They get excited when you’re going out to look for someone, although they don’t know you’re looking for a person. They just know the scent associated with this person brings ultimate fun.

For me, it’s all about working with the dog who’s your best friend and nothing compares to the bond. It’s special and I have human friends who aren’t the same as Caileag is to me. It’s a deep, knitted bond and the training has bought us even closer.

We’ve been training Caileag for about a year and a half and it has been up and down because it’s a learning process and you can’t rush it. It takes time to understand each other and that doesn’t happen quickly. I have a day job as a postie but me and the dog go out about once a week. I’m confident she’s going to do it. I believe in her.