How to Become a Search and Rescue Dog Handler

by Amber Kelsey
Search and rescue dogs help humans in trouble.

Search and rescue dogs help humans in trouble.

search dog image by Jim Parkin from Fotolia.com

Search and rescue dogs are vital members of search and rescue units. In situations such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks and missing hikers, these dogs work with their handlers to locate victims, both alive and dead. Becoming a search and rescue dog handler requires dedication, time, rigorous training and the right skills and personality traits. This volunteer activity is extremely grueling physically, emotionally and mentally, but it is also incredibly rewarding every time you and your dog save a person's life.

Preparation

Step 1

Consider whether you have the traits necessary to become a successful SAR dog handler. You should love working with dogs and enjoy being outdoors in all types of weather. You must be able to stay calm during crises and to handle finding people who are dead or terribly injured.

Step 2

Research the requirements of the SAR unit you are considering, and decide whether you can meet them. You must pass a physical and a background check. Most SAR units require that members be at least 18 years old, because many search and rescue missions involve putting yourself at risk.

Step 3

Choose an easily trained dog. Although search and rescue dogs can be any breed, SAR units most frequently use Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, border collies, Belgian Malinois and German shepherds. Dogs of these breeds generally possess the intelligence, size and agility required to do well on SAR missions.

Step 4

Develop the necessary skills. Become proficient in navigation, map reading, radio protocol, compass use and wilderness survival. Learn first aid for both canines and humans. Practice analytical skills so you can form successful search strategies.

Step 5

Bond with your puppy as much as possible. Successful SAR dog-and-handler teams are very close, completely trusting and loving one another. Spend time with your puppy so you can get to know his body language, vocalizations and facial expressions.

Step 6

Socialize your puppy. Take her with you whenever possible to expose her to new dogs, people, situations, surroundings and distractions. SAR dogs must get along with strangers and be able to remain focused in new settings.

Training

Step 1

Start training your dog for search and rescue missions. Some puppies may be ready to train at 3 months old, but many dogs need up to a year to develop a sufficient play drive. SAR is a game of "hide and seek" for your dog, so begin by hiding from your puppy and playing with him when he finds you.

Step 2

Enroll your dog in formal obedience training classes. SAR dogs must be extremely obedient for safety reasons and to maintain order during missions. Start taking your puppy to obedience classes when she is 4 to 6 months old.

Step 3

Wait until your puppy is 1 year old before starting agility training. Earlier training can put too much physical stress on his growing body.

Step 4

Take SAR training classes. Course availability and requirements vary according to location, but try to complete at least an introductory class that teaches you search and rescue basics. Continue training your dog at home by playing "hide and seek" several times a week.

Step 5

Obtain any necessary SAR certification. The certification requirements vary widely according to location and organization. Your dog must pass a screening test that proves her SAR skills.

Step 6

Join a local search and rescue unit. Your vet, sheriff's department or fire department should be able to give you the names of local SAR organizations.

Step 7

Complete your probationary period. Most SAR organizations require that you work with a certified SAR handler for a set amount of time, ranging from one month to one year, depending on your location and your state's regulations.

Step 8

Gain specialty training and certification.You and your dog can train and obtain certification in various specialty areas, including water SAR, urban SAR, locating cadavers, avalanche SAR and disaster SAR.

Items You Will Need

  • Obedience classes
  • Agility classes
  • SAR training classes
  • Certification

Tips

  • You and your dog must be in good physical condition. You need to be fit enough to walk long distances over rough terrain while carrying a heavy pack.
  • Dogs of any breed can perform well as SAR dogs if they enjoy tracking, stay alert and focused, have an even temperament, and possess a strong play drive.
  • Always use positive reinforcement while training your dog.

Warnings

  • SAR volunteers typically have to invest their own money to pay for training classes, certification and survival equipment.
  • Don't rush your dog's SAR training. Make sure that each newly learned behavior is deeply ingrained before moving on to the next step.

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