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You have probably seen them on TV, or even in the flesh, dogs that specialize in finding people in need if they get lost in the woods or following an avalanche.
These are known as search and rescue (SAR) dogs. It is difficult not to respect and love these beautiful creatures!
Perhaps you think that your dog has what it takes to fulfill this vital role?
They always manage to find your shoes no matter where you hide them and their tenacity when it comes to finding and retrieving objects that you have thrown knows no bounds.
Anyone can train their dog in the skills of search and rescue, and if they take to the training well, you can register them as a SAR dog, and you and your dog will get called up to help when needed.
Read on to find out everything that you need to know about what kinds of dogs make good SAR dogs, how to train them, and how to register both your dog and yourself to participate in search and rescue operations.
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Word Of Warning
Before continuing, a word of warning. The vast majority of SAR dogs and their handlers are volunteers and receive no financial remuneration or support.
You will need to take on the cost of training and registering your dog yourself, and if you are called up, you are unlikely to receive any kind of compensation for the time spent.
Know what you are getting yourself into before embarking on this endeavor. Helping save lives is reward enough for most SAR dogs and their owners.
What Exactly Do SAR Dogs Do?
First and foremost, what exactly do SAR dogs do?
Well, the clue is in the name, search and rescue. They are generally trained to complete three different tasks:
- Air scenting – finding people in general, so perhaps victims (human or sometimes other animals) of an incident.
- Following ground disturbances – this means following footprints and other traces left behind by an individual, but not necessarily knowing the specific individual being tracked beyond their remnant scent.
- Tracking a specific person – this is when they track a specific person, and are given their specific scent, from something like a piece of clothing, to track them down.
When SAR dogs find their objects, they are trained either to return to their handler and lead them to the object or stay with their object and alert their handler to their locations through signals such as barking.
SAR dogs can be called up in a variety of situations: if a child goes missing from school or an inmate escapes from prison, if a group of hikers go missing, or if an avalanche buries an area under snow and rescues aren’t sure how many people they are looking for.
Dogs’ superior sense of smell means that they have a better chance of finding people than human rescuers, who often do not know where to start looking when all they have to work with is the missing person’s last known location.
Will Your Dog Make A Good SAR Dog?
While any dog can, in theory, be trained to become a SAR dog, some are more suited to the pursuit than others.
Generally, SAR dogs will be medium to larger breeds, because in addition to picking up on a scent, they often need to be able to follow it through difficult terrain, so they need strong legs and bodies.
Dogs that like to play are generally suited to SAR work. They need a tenacious desire to find their objects and solve puzzles in order to track their prey across difficult terrain and in the face of many potential distractions.
They cannot be distracted by small animals or other searchers while on task. Dogs that like to play fetch for hours and will find their ball no matter where it lands make good SAR dogs.
SAR dogs also need to be well trained in general, as they will need to follow their handler’s commands by word alone in potentially stressful circumstances.
They should also be friendly and well behaved among people, as they will we working with strangers on a regular basis.
In general, the best breeds for SAR dogs are Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies, and German Shepherds, but medium to large dogs of any breed can make good SAR dogs.
Generally speaking, SAR dogs should be trained from puppies in order to instill the necessary skills in them early.
How To Train A SAR Dog
While SAR dog training facilities exist, it is normal for SAR dogs to live with their handler and either visit the school for training or be trained independently by their handler.
It generally takes around 600 hours of training for a SAR dog to become field ready.
Training a dog to complete search and rescue tasks follows the same principles as training a dog to do anything: show them the required behavior and reward them when they complete it.
While it might seem to us that SAR dogs are completing their work out of a sense of charity, they aren’t; they are playing the game of find in order to get the reward that they have learnt comes at the end of the game.
Training a SAR dog means teaching them to complete the kinds of tasks that they will need to complete in the field.
For example, a trainer might give the dog a scent of a certain person, and then have that person run and hide.
They will then hold the dog for progressively longer periods of time, then letting them go to find the person, and rewarding them when the task is completed successfully.
Eventually, distractions are also added to the situation, such as other people and dogs.
Depending on where they are based, SAR dogs should be shown how to do this in specific terrains.
For example, in snowy areas, the person that they are seeking out will hide in a hole dug into the snow and will eventually be covered in a small layer of snow, forcing the dog to dig them out before receiving their reward.
Registering Your SAR Dog
As well as being trained, in order to be called up to help in search and rescue situations, SAR dogs and their handlers (i.e., you) need to be registered.
Once registered, your contact details can be given to local search and rescue teams that will then call on you and your dog as needed.
There are a number of nationally recognized organizations that provide SAR dog training and testing and will provide your dog with a SAR certificate if they are deemed suitable to participate in search and rescue operations.
- FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Certification
- National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR)
- Search and Rescue Dog of the United States (SARDUS)
- National Search Dog Alliance (NSDA)
Certifying yourself as a SAR dog handler is more complex, and regulations differ from area to area.
The first step is to speak to your local search and rescue unit and see what their requirements are.
In addition to a specific SAR handler certification (obtained from the same list above), likely requirements include:
- Crime Scene Preservation
- First Aid
- Canine First Aid
- Lost Person Behavior
- Orienteering Skills
- Incident Command System.
Obtaining these certifications often requires paying for training, testing, and registration.
As already flagged up, the vast majority of SAR dogs and their handlers are volunteers, and there is very limited financial support available to support this type of activity.
Get Your Dog SAR Ready
If you have a passion for helping others and you think that your dog has the temperament and innate skills to work in search or rescue, then training them up to undertake the work can be a highly rewarding experience.
Requirements and resources differ locally, so your first step should be to make contact with your local search and rescue team and get them to point you in the first direction in terms of training and certification.
May of the career change guide dogs from the guide dog school have moved on to become Search and Rescue Dogs. The initial training a guide dog puppy receives gives a solid foundation required for a SAR dog.
In fact, we had Stetson and Derby tested for Search and Rescue. Neither of them
So, how about you guys?
Are you interested in training your dog for Search and Rescue?
Or maybe you and your dog are already a Search and Rescue team.
Tell us about your experiences in the comment section below.
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