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New Canine Handlers: Where to Begin?

No one should choose search and rescue without realizing that they face months of hard training.  This training will include but is not limited to first aid, wilderness survival training, map and compass training, possible Ham radio operator and event scent mechanics.  A half-trained handler and dog is not doing the community any help and is detrimental to the search.  Handlers need to have a keen sense of the outdoors, the ability to work long hours with minimum help, have physical and mental competence to do the job, and have a positive mental attitude.

Chances are if you are a new handler and visiting this site for the first time then you have many questions. What type dog should I use for search and rescue? Should I start with a puppy or an adult dog? How do I train my canine?

All these questions we will try and answer. Let's start with the basics. What are the type of search and rescue dogs? There are primarily 2 types of search and rescue dogs ... air-scenting and tracking or trailing dogs. There are many classifications under these 2 types such as scent discriminating verses non-scent discriminating. Air-scenting dogs use airborne human scent to home in on subjects, whereas trailing dogs rely on scent of the specific subject to locate a victim or clues.

Selecting a search and rescue dog: This task can be very troublesome for a new handler. How do I know I am selecting a reliable dog to use for search and rescue work. There are some guidelines you can use. While no screening method is 100% accurate, you can prevent a lot of frustration by following a few basic guidelines. Most search and rescue dogs are driven to succeed by either a prey, food or praise drive. For search and rescue, I typically look for a high prey drive then work on supporting training with food and praise. Screening should be carried out at puppy selection between the ages of 8 - 12 weeks. Prey drive is easily tested for by tying a toy or small towel onto the end of a string and dragging it across the ground in quick jerky movements.

Questions when choosing a dog: What breed dog should I use? This is a tricky question because many handlers have many different opinions on what can and cannot be used. I tend to think of what tool is right for the job when choosing a breed. Is the breed the right size or have the right coat for the climate in my area. For example, on size, you want a dog small enough to be agile but large enough to have stamina and endurance. For coat, I tend to choose a dog that has a double coat because of both the climate and terrain in Kentucky. I want the dog to be able to function in both hot and cold weather conditions.

ARDA (American Rescue Dog Association) recommends choosing a puppy with the following traits. When choosing a dog breed suitable for search and rescue work, it is recommended to choose from a breed that possesses such traits as:
•Excellent scenting capability
•Strong drives (prey, pack, play, etc.)
•Physical endurance/stamina
•High degree of intelligence
•High degree of trainability

Handler Training: Besides training a dog, the handler must also learn many subjects before ultimately deploying on real searches. Individual teams have different requirements for handlers, such as Crime Scene Preservation, First Aid, CPR, Canine First Aid, Lost Person Behavior, Map Reading, Compass Use, Basic Search and Rescue, Radio Communication, courses in the Incident Command System and Managing the Lost Person Incident.

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