Ready, Set, Let’s Go! Anyone There?

If you’re still undecided on the perfect sport to take up with Bailey, training her to become a Search and Rescue (SAR) dog might be your cup of tea. SAR dogs have been used for over 300 years. They are highly specialized dogs, that have been trained to search in all sorts of environments. There are two basic types of SAR dogs; tracking and air-scent. Tracking dogs follow trails starting at the last known place of the person to be tracked. They follow the scent with their nose to the ground. Air scent dogs do exactly what the name implies, they use their nose to detect the human scent in the air. There is often an overlap in both types of search and rescue methods.

Ideally, you will train your puppy at eight weeks of age, but dogs must be adults before you begin the certification process. There are a variety of breeds used as SAR dogs, such as retrievers, bloodhounds, and herding breeds. Regardless of the breed, they must have a high prey drive. Training a search and rescue dog is a rigorous and time consuming endeavor. It requires concentration and dedication on both the dog and handler’s part. A SAR handler spends on average one thousand hours to become field ready. SAR dogs must not only be trained in scent detection and notification, but also in obedience and agility. Not all dogs signal or alert a find in the same way. Some dogs bark, some will sit, some will jump, etc. It is vital that a handler know when the dog is alerting them to a find.

There are various organizations that certify SAR dogs:

—Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires “each canine/handler team must pass a rigorous national certification in urban search and rescue. Canine/handler teams must be re-certified every three years in order to participate in search and rescue operations. The canine must be at least 18 months old to attempt the test. Most canines test after they are two years old—well-trained and physically and emotionally mature enough to do this job. For the handler, certification includes tests regarding search strategies and tactics, mapping, search and victim markings, briefing and debriefing skills, in addition to canine handling skills.” Their standards are so difficult to meet that barely 15% of candidates get certified.

—The National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR) has different requirements depending on if you have a dog trained for trailing, area, disaster responder, avalanche responder, human remains, or tracker.

—Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States (SARDUS) provides “certification, training, and education for search and rescue dog teams.”The definition of a SAR dog and handler’s responsibilities is summed up well on their website; “First you must understand what it takes to develop a highly trained life saving resource.Almost all SAR dog handlers are volunteers.They literally give thousands of hours to the cause of training a dog, training themselves and then eventually using their dogs to find lost or missing people.As a volunteer you carry all of financial burden of purchasing equipment, canines, training, cost of transport to searches. This literally costs thousands of dollars in equipment and travel to volunteer to save lives.Unless you start off with a dog that has all of the right characteristics for becoming a SAR dog you have a high likelihood of failing. These dogs are super athletes combined with the highest level of training a dog can receive.You must have a family and work that will support you being gone for the thousands of hours it takes to be a SAR dog handler. Calls always start around dinner time, on the holidays and weekends. Training clinics are usually a week away at some remote location.”

—The National Search Dog Alliance’s (NSDA) mission “is to serve communities through the certification and education of search and rescue and law enforcement canine teams and their support personnel.” They provide certification in many types of rescue.

SAR training is a challenging activity for both you and your dog.It is also an expensive one.The Search Dog Foundation estimates the cost of training to be $30,000.Training a SAR dog can be very fulfilling and rewarding, too.One SAR dog can accomplish the work of up to thirty humans.Best of all, these wonderful SAR teams save thousands of lives every year.