Want to be a Search and Rescue K-9 Handler?
The decision to become a Search and Rescue K-9 Handler is a difficult one. That's a fact. Are you in the middle of such a decision? If you are, there isn't any single article able to stand alone to help you decide. The only answer is a combination of research and experience.
Hopefully you found these articles below during the beginning stages of your decision-making process. If so, you might fall into one of two general categories. Maybe you're a dog person who would like to take your training to the next level. Or maybe you're experienced in SAR and would like to be the one to add an important resource to your unit. Either side you come from, as a dog-lover or a SAR person, doesn't matter. In the end you must be both.
Thank you to Absaroka Search Dogs for giving permission to use the following articles to help those considering becoming a SAR K-9 Handler.This information is general in nature rather than being a specific position of the McLean County EMA.
Are You A Dog Person Who Knows Little of SAR?
It can be a logical progression for a trainer of working dogs to want to train a dog for SAR. Whether you come from an obedience background, a herding background, or a police background, it can be easy to adjust to training differences.
As a handler, you work hard to make your dog understand exactly what you want from him. But a handler's lack of basic understanding of SAR can make a team unusable. If you know very little of what SAR is about:
- Check out the Internet and the local library. These sources will give you not only general information on what to expect, but also specific people to contact. After reading and discussing your options, if you are still interested...
- Are you physically capable to participate? No need to be a marathon runner here, but an above average fitness level is a requirement. And since you will be working closely with the members of the team, do you like the people who are involved?
- Do you have the time to become comfortable in a disaster or wilderness setting? Local SAR teams meet once or twice a month to train. These days may last anywhere from a few hours to a full weekend. Most members will train on their own in all kinds of weather. This could mean training in maps and compasses, survival, first aid, or radio use and communications. Handling a dog could add as much as 20 hours per week to a normal training schedule.
- How would you feel if a search ended badly? Some searches turn into body recoveries. Some searches end with no one found. Could you handle this?
- Do you have the money to invest? All members of SAR are volunteers. That means all costs of participation from traveling expenses to equipment are absorbed by the individual and not the organization. Costs vary, but on average, handlers can expect to spend $2,000 to $3000 per year to equip and maintain their dog teams.
Are You a SAR Person Who Knows Little of Dog Training?
On average, a person educated in survival and backcountry skills has the highest success rate in becoming a SAR dog handler. This is because less time is used educating the handler and that leaves more time dedicated to dog handling. But if that person knows little about dogs, there are some things to consider.
- In the 18 months to 2 years it takes to get your dog ready for certification, there won't be much time spent away from him. Everything you do will have something to do with training.
- When the dog is old enough to start serious trailing and air-scenting problems, search training (separate from obedience and agility work) should take place a minimum of two to three times per week. This is not a weekend endeavor, and should be consistent and well-planned.
- As the training gets more complex, the time it takes increases accordingly. It can take up to two hours to run a simple hour old trail. Experienced dogs may run trails aged 24 hours or more. Organization involves getting a helper to lay the trail, allowing the trail to age, and then returning to run the trail.
- Are you willing to choose a dog solely for SAR, or do you want to use your family pet? SAR dogs are not selected by breed but by temperament. Successful SAR dogs must have intensive hunt and prey drive, be extremely confident, have solid nerve, and be sociable with all people and animals. Most successful SAR dogs belong to the working, sporting, and herding breeds probably because they are easier to train. A SAR dog needs a strong desire to work. This desire is needed due to the extreme conditions the dogs are required to perform in. The dogs must work in adverse conditions such as disaster debris, thickly wooded areas, intense heat and cold, etc. They must be able to work through distractions (such as heavy equipment being operated at a disaster scene). They must be at ease in cramped places such as helicopters, airplanes, boats, and even if jammed close to several other dogs. They must be tuned in to cues from their handlers, and still possess the ability to work on their own. As you can see, having an exceptional nose is not a prerequisite. All dogs have good noses. The ability to scent is easy; the rest is the hard stuff.
The lure of being a SAR dog handler is real, and the rewards far outweigh the headaches. Being on the front line of 8-12 missions a year can be exciting. For someone who really wants to help their fellow man, the endeavor allows for numerous opportunities to do so. Probably the biggest reward is the close working relationship a handler has with his dog.
K-9 Handlers often share amazement at how they communicate with their canine partners. A hand signal from them, and their dogs change their direction. Momentary eye contact from their dogs and they become acutely aware of their body posture. K-9 Handlers can tell when their dogs are frustrated because there is no scent, or excited because a lost person is near. This communication fosters a bond between handlers and dogs that creates a strong working relationship.
But one SAR dog team does not create a successful mission. As a SAR dog handler, you are expected to do a small job as part of a much larger unit. You must understand the big picture and do your best to fill in any missing pieces of the puzzle. K-9s reward their handlers every day. But that reward is minimal compared to the feeling of working with persons in a SAR unit who fight for a common goal. Sharing the elation of finding a survivor, or the sorrow of finding one deceased, binds members of a SAR unit together like a family.
Further consider the questions below to better assess your ability and commitment to working in SAR.
Questions to Ask Yourself if You Think You Want to be Involved in Search and Rescue Work
Am I cut out for SAR work?
- Am I willing to spend 1 to 2 years training 3 times a week before my dog and I are ready to participate in a search?
- Am I willing to continue training once or twice per week and sometimes for full days, indefinitely?
- Am I (and my family) ready to be a member of an organization that spent approximately 1,400 hours training, 131 hours searching and 32 hours in public demonstrations in one year?
- Am I (and my family) able and willing to spend on average over $2,000 a year of my own money to support the costs of equipment, K-9 care, and travel expenses for both training and searches?
- Am I physically and mentally prepared to spend long hours, day and night in some of the worst weather and terrain conditions? Do I have a high tolerance for physical discomfort?
- Is my job flexible enough to allow me leave for a search? Am I willing to get up at 3:00 am and drive for 5-6 hours before even conducting a search?
- Am I mentally prepared to find a deceased victim? Am I prepared to reward my dog happily when he leads me to a cadaver?
- Am I willing to undergo medical training and other specialized training for search work and learn skills unrelated to dog handling?
- If I do not already have a dog am I (and my family) willing to welcome one into our home and commit to his care whether or not he or I succeed in SAR?
- Am I willing to acquire a new puppy specifically for search work and train for several years?
Is My Dog Cut Out For Search Work?
- Is he an appropriate breed (or mix) and age? Sometimes an older dog takes to searching, but the training may be more difficult and time consuming and the working life of the dog is much shorter. Often handlers must spend considerable time correcting behaviors that are not compatible with the requirements of searching. Many breeds and mixes are suitable for search work but small dogs (under 40 pounds), sighthounds and giant breeds are usually inappropriate. Herding dogs, retrievers, and working breeds have all proven to be successful but remember - the individual dog must have the determination and the drive to search coupled with a completely stable and gentle temperament with both people and animals and must be physically capable to perform the task. This can be a rare combination and you must be realistic about your own dog.
- Does he have a rock solid temperament: outgoing, confident, calm, and non-aggressive to all types of people and animals?
- Does he show intelligence and persistence in solving problems? Does he tend to use his nose to locate things?
- Is he in excellent health?
- Is he closely bonded to me? Is he reliable off-leash?
- Is he a well mannered, obedient dog? Does he have or could he pass the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test?
- Is he comfortable on variable surfaces and debris, with loud noises, and many other types of distractions?
- Am I willing to expose him to a certain level of shared risk?
- If I already own a dog, am I willing to accept that he/she may not be appropriate for SAR work and be willing to acquire another dog that will be more suited for the work?
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