Search and rescue is a challenging and exciting activity; it is doubly rewarding to work with a talented dog and develop the intense bond that characterizes a successful dog and handler team. However, few people are prepared to make the commitment of time, energy, and money that is necessary for success. Search and rescue work is not a sport or a hobby — it is a lifestyle. Ask yourself —
Am I cut out for search work?
• Am I willing to spend one or two years training twice a week before my dog and I are ready to participate in a search together?
• Am I willing to continue group training once a week indefinitely, generally losing my weekends?
• Am I physically and mentally prepared to spend long hours out in Pennsylvania’s worst weather, often at night, searching through difficult terrain, (noxious swamps and foul strip-mines) perhaps carrying a patient out several miles on a stretcher? Do I have a high level of tolerance for physical discomfort?
• Do I enjoy the outdoors and choose to spend my leisure time in the woods, on foot?
• Is my job flexible enough to allow me to leave for a search occasionally? Will I get up at 3 a.m. for a search? Will I drive three to four hours to a search?
• Can I afford several thousand dollars for search equipment, gas, outside training courses and symposia, etc.?
• Am I mentally prepared to discover a deceased victim? Am I prepared to reward my dog happily when she leads me to a deceased person?
• Am I willing to undergo medical training and other specialized training for search work? Am I willing to learn skills that are unrelated to dog handling, but necessary for a professional rescuer?
• Will I accept the judgment of a senior handler concerning my own abilities and my dog’s, and take direction concerning training methods? Am I willing to travel out of state in order to be certified?
• If I do not already have a dog, am I (and my family) willing to welcome one into our home as a family member, and commit to her care for her lifetime — whether or not she succeeds as a search dog?
• Can I gracefully take orders from incident commanders and senior handlers? Can I hold my ground calmly when my judgment dictates that I must make myself heard?
• Do I work well in a collegial atmosphere, and enjoy learning with people from different backgrounds and with different levels and kinds of expertise?
• Do I cope well with frustration?
• Am I prepared to take responsibility for my own progress, and show initiative in developing my own skills through study and practice?
• Am I willing to acquire a new puppy specifically for search work and train for several years?
• Am I the kind of dog trainer who is willing to give up control, and trust my dog when she tells me something that I think is incorrect, or does something that appears nonsensical?
• Is my dog my best buddy, or one of many in my household or kennel?
• Am I interested in search and rescue work even if I must do it without a canine partner?
People from many backgrounds and occupations engage in canine search work. If you are a “dog person,” you may have much to learn about survival and navigation in the outdoors, and you will be bowled over by the cost of proper equipment and clothing. You may have to unlearn many habits and attitudes that are fostered by the “sport” of dogs. If you are an outdoorsperson or public safety professional, you must be willing to invest a great deal of time in learning about dog behavior, and developing a rapport with your animal. A search dog is not just another “search tool” — she is your partner, and will only work with you, never “for” you.
Is my dog cut out for search work?
• Is she of an appropriate breed (or mix) and age?
• Does she have a rock solid temperament — outgoing, confident, calm and non-aggressive? (What about children? Other animals?)
• Does she show intelligence in solving problems? Does she tend to use her nose to locate things?
• Is she in excellent health and a good athlete?
• Is she closely bonded to me — does she prefer my company to any other activity? Is she completely reliable off leash?
• Is she a well-mannered, obedient dog?
• Am I willing to expose her to a certain level of shared risk?
• • •
Sometimes an older dog takes to searching, but the training is much more difficult and time-consuming, and the working life of the dog is much shorter. Often the handler must spend considerable time correcting behaviors that, while not always undesirable in themselves, are not compatible with the requirements of searching.
Handlers usually obtain the best results when they select a pup with searching in mind, and train her from the time she is seven or eight weeks old. Many breeds and mixes can be appropriate for SAR, but not all have the physical or psychological makeup the work requires. The individual dog must have the determination and drive to search coupled with a completely stable and gentle temperament with both people and animals. This can be a rare combination, and you must be realistic about your own dog. All dogs must pass our subject safety test before they can search, and all dogs must be evaluated by one of us before they can join us for training. We have no place on our team for dogfighters and biters!
Some of the most successful dog handlers begin training in search and rescue before they have a dog, or choose not to work their present dog, and train for months before selecting a puppy.