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What exactly does a search and rescue dog handler do? There are many answers to this question. During a search, the dog handler must perform all the tasks necessary to ensure that the search for the subject is carried out efficiently and thoroughly. But the handler has many responsibilities away from the search as well. The information below is designed to give you an overview of exactly what's involved.
Responsibilities in the field
During an actual search operation, the dog team will be assigned one or more tasks to complete. Tasks are areas of land to which a team is assigned to search and clear. During the completion of a task, the dog handler must be able to perform many jobs. These tasks may potentially include the following:
Responsibilities away from the field
Outside of actual search situations, the handler still has a number of responsibilities to meet in order to remain effective when a search does occur. These include:
The primary of these responsibilities, of course, is to train your dog! Indeed as a dog handler, you are responsible for directing two programs of learning, your own and your dogs’. Training a dog to the level of performance required of search and rescue dogs is not trivial, and you can expect to spend a great deal of time learning how to train effectively in preparation for your certification testing.
Time, Money, Travel
Before you begin working with your dog to become a search and rescue team, you should carefully assess your ability to meet the significant commitment necessary to be successful in this training program. Team FASAR K-9 Inc. dog handlers are volunteers of a nonprofit organization. Dog handlers receive no compensation for the time they spend at searches or training. In additions, dog handlers must provide their own equipment, transportation and dog. Your dog will live with you in your home and you will be solely responsible for his care.
Team FASAR K-9 Inc. members spend an average of $2,000 per year on search related expenses. In addition, you can expect to spend between $1,000 and $1,500 in initial expenses (covering such items as equipment, etc.). Team FASAR K-9 Inc. members also log an average of 12,000 miles on their vehicles in a year. Finally members have spent as many as 250 man hours a year attending Team FASAR K-9 Inc. trainings and seminars (including travel time). This does not include the time spent training at home, which represents a much larger time commitment.
Team FASAR K-9 Inc. members invest themselves in each other as well. More experienced members of the group spend a significant amount of time and effort training newer members how to be effective dog handlers. For this reason, we appreciate the serious beginner. Making an honest assessment of your ability to meet the type of commitments outlined above will enable you to decide now if you are able to complete this program of training.
The Nature of Search and Rescue
Search and Rescue is an enjoyable, incredibly rewarding endeavor. Indeed, this is the real reason that volunteers stay involved. However it's important to note for the newcomer that search and rescue also involves a lot of hard work and stressful situations. An operational dog handler is expected to respond to a search in any weather, at any time of the day or night. A person's life may be at stake in search and rescue situations, you must not shy away from uncomfortable conditions. You must be fit enough to handle rough terrain and adverse conditions. Remember you may be carrying a pack for a long period of time. You should be aware of and ready to face any fears that you may have concerning the wilderness. You should be prepared to act without panicking in a crisis situation. You must be ready to accept a degree of risk to yourself and your dog when entering into a search and rescue situation. Finally, it's important to acknowledge that not all subjects are found in good health or even alive. The potential for finding a badly injured or deceased subject is and unfortunate reality. The emotional stress involved is quit severe, you should be ready to accept this.
The Professional Ethic
Team FASAR K-9 Inc. handlers, despite their status as volunteers; conduct themselves as professionals at all times. Our paramount interest is the well-being of the searchers, the dogs and the subject. As such, our training standards are high and rigid in order that we can efficiently and effectively search for the lost, alive or presumed deceased. This level of competence is very much within your reach. Methodical, persistent training is your best chance for success. This makes for hard work, but you will find the work tremendously rewarding.
Generally, a trailing dog begins working at the search subject's last known location -- called the point last seen (PLS) or last known point (LKP). From there, the trailing dog follows the ground scent left behind by that person, traveling more or less along that person's route of travel until either she finds him or loses the trail for some reason. Trailing dogs must be trained to scent discriminate. When given a scent article that only the subject has touched, the dog can follow that person's trail -- even if it crosses trail scent left by other people. Trailing dogs work on leash.
Trailing dogs are a powerful SAR resource. If a ground trail is relatively fresh, if searchers have a good PLS or LKP, and if they can find an uncontaminated scent article, a good trailing dog can be the fastest, most direct way of getting to the subject. But hand in hand with those strengths come corresponding weaknesses. While moisture and warmth are generally good (they help bacterial production of odor molecules), rain and the passage of time can destroy a ground trail as can ill-considered search efforts at the LKP. A common mistake is to set up a command post on the LKP, thus destroying any chance of finding ground trails. Often a scent article isn't available -- or just as bad, has been contaminated with other people's scent. In these cases, an uncritical reliance on the dog can lead to disappointment -- and in an unfair assessment of the dog's abilities. To minimize such contamination, scent articles should be handled as little as possible before being given to the dog.
A word of warning about scent discrimination: it is an extremely powerful technique, but only if done properly. Research studies have revealed that scent-discriminating dogs can be "skunked" if presented with a task that is sufficiently different from the problems they've trained on. As with any other facet of SAR dog work, we're making use of dogs' innate abilities -- but we can't be sure we have the ability to direct and take advantage of those abilities unless we've trained under realistic conditions. Scent discrimination work should not be undertaken lightly, and must be done well if it's done at all.
A brief mention of tracking dogs which are technically different from trailing dogs. Competition tracking dogs follow a person's tracks, step by step. These dogs probably follow the smell of crushed vegetation and other disturbance rather than the subject's body smell. SAR trailing dogs probably both track and trail when they're working -- a dog needs the body scent to discriminate between individuals, for instance, but may follow crushed vegetation as well.
Area Search or Air Scent Dogs
The area search or air scenting dog searches for airborne human scent, as opposed to scent on the ground such as the track left by the subjects passing. Because of the manner in which scent can stay airborne while it is carried by the wind over long distances, the air scenting dog provides an efficient tool for searching large areas. Air scenting dogs are typically not scent discriminating, meaning they search for any human scent in the area. This means that the effectiveness of an air scenting dog can be greatly reduced in populous area, but also makes them ideal for searching wilderness areas. Air scenting dogs can work in any variety of conditions, at any time of day or night, and at any length of time after the subject has been missing.
How do Area Search dogs work?
The handler and dog are assigned an area (or sector) to search. Typically the area is cleared by walking in a grid pattern, (that is cutting back and forth across the width of the sector). Air scenting dogs work off leash, ranging out from the handler in a manner that leaves them free to explore scents of interest to them. Each dog develops a comfortable ranging distance from their handler which they will not exceed. The result is the dog searches an area local to the handler. This is one of the great values of an air scenting dog as it allows the handler to walk a wide grid. The distance between each pass across the sector is defined by the ranging distance of the dog. The fact that the air scenting dog stays within a certain distance of the handler also means that the handler is responsible for placing the dogs in areas of the highest probability for detecting scent. Being able to do this effectively involves a good understanding of how airborne scent travels. When an air scenting dog detects scent, they can follow it to its source by staying in the area containing scent and moving upwind. Working in this manner allows air scenting dogs find the subject from a great distance.
What happens when an Area Search dog makes a find?
One of the difficulties with an Area Search dog who works off leash is that the handler may be unaware that the dog has made a find, especially if the subject is somehow hidden from view. Therefore, upon making a find, the air scenting dog initiates a trained pattern (or chain) of behaviors that ensures that the handler gets to the subject. In brief, a dog returns to its handler, performs an indication (a behavior that lets the handler know that the dog has made a find), and returns to the subject, this time with the handler following closely. This behavior chain, known as the find-refind behavior chain, will be the subject of much of the dogs training.
The human remains detector dog or cadaver dog is a specialist and has never been trained to look for live humans. They specialize in crime scenes, old cases, small scent sources and residual scent. These dogs are trained to detect the smell of human decomposition gasses in addition to skin rafts. Cadaver dogs can find something as small as a human tooth or a single drop of blood. These dogs have been trained to exclude fresh human scent along with all other animal scents.
Cadaver dogs are first trained to recognize a wide spectrum of odors associated with human remains. Cadaver dogs for use in a disaster situation focus on more recent decomposition odors, while cadaver dogs that work with law enforcement are also trained to recognize older decomposition odors and smaller odor sources. Only actual human remains are used to train the dogs, no pseudo scent is used in our training process. All K-9s Inc. are first taught to give a trained final, passive response (normally a sit, a down or sit and bark) or indication upon detection of the odor. They are taught to only give this response when they locate the strongest source of the odor. A large amount of time is spent on making sure that the indication is solid before the K-9 Inc. is ever taught to actually search for the odor in a scenario-based problem. Cadaver dogs that are trained in water recovery are taught to give this final indication while working from a boat on a body of water.
In addition to this training Human Remains Detection Dogs need to be very obedient as they do the majority of their work off leash. A good recall is imperative as the majority of our work is wilderness based and it is plausible that you and/or your canine will cross paths with wild boar, bear, alligator, snakes and other dangerous animals. Directional control is also a great tool to teach your dog. This would allow you to direct your dog to search an area you may not be able to access using a voice, hand or voice and hand command.
Working K-9 Inc.Handler Academy class "Introduction to Search & Rescue": http://www.k9handleracademy.com/K9ISAR.html
What kind of dog should I have? There is no particular breed of dog which is better for search and rescue work. A candidate dog will love to play games, be active and alert, have an even temperament, will grow to be large enough to be able to negotiate obstacles and rough terrain, but not so large as to have difficulty working for long periods of time and will be structurally sound (no joint problems, etc.). Many handlers do a great deal of research before selecting a dog. Others own a dog when they become involved in search and rescue. Don't get caught up in the idea that you will have to pay a lot of money for a sound working dog, many search and rescue handlers have worked dogs which they found or rescued. Canines that are aggressive either toward humans or other animals are not good candidates. Here is a fantastic article on selecting the right working dog published in the July 2011 AKC Gazette: "Measures of Greatness".
How do I get in touch with you? Click here: contact us
When can I start bringing my dog to Team FASAR K-9 Inc. training? If you decide to come out and watch a training session you must be dressed in proper attire for the environments in which we train:
If you choose to bring your canine you must provide:
Participants who arrive without the above items for themselves or their canines will be asked to leave. This is for the safety of all parties involved.
How old does a dog need to be to start training? It varies. If your puppy has sufficient play drive, you can begin with imprinting or very short run offs quite early (as young as three or four months). With some dogs, you'll need to spend time developing drive. This amount of time is different for every dog - some handlers spend as long as a year simply building drive in their dogs before search training. Formal obedience training can begin between four and six months. Realize with a young puppy, your training sessions must be very short because the attention span will not accommodate a longer session. Agility training should wait until your puppy's musculoskeletal structure has developed. Your puppy should be a year old before you put a lot of physical stress on the body.
Should I take my dog to obedience class? Yes, search and rescue dogs must be very obedient. Obedience is a part of the test you must pass in order to certify as a search and rescue K-9 Inc. team. While some experienced trainers teach obedience without the benefit of a formal class, many handlers do take their dogs to an obedience class. Obedience class has the added benefit of providing a vehicle for socializing your dog. A good recall is imperative as the majority of our work is wilderness based and it is plausible that you and/or your canine will cross paths with wild boar, bear, alligator, snakes and other dangerous animals.
How long will it take me to train my dog? While this depends largely on how much time you put in, most dogs take a minimum of one and half to two years to train. Taking longer is certainly no disgrace. The important thing is to proceed slowly enough so that each behavior you teach your dog becomes thoroughly ingrained. Moving too fast will lead to unreliable performance.
What does a dog have to do in order to certify? You and your dog must pass a battery of tests in order to certify as a search and rescue K-9 Inc. team. Your Team Leader will be better able to discuss these details with after you select the area of search and rescue you’d like to specialize in.
When can I start going on searches? You will be considered operational when you have successfully fulfilled your requirements. The requirements differ depending upon your specialty. These requirements will be discussed with you in detail with your Team Leader when you determine what your specialty will be. The range of available positions on a search and rescue team varies from support staff, incident command staff, flanker and K-9 Inc. handler to name a few. You may NEVER self-deploy.
How will I know if our team has a search? Searches are requested by law enforcement through our Team Leader. Once it is determined how many and what type of resources are required you will be contacted either via email or phone by our Team Leader.
Can I be a member of the team if I don’t work a dog? Absolutely! We have a need for non-dog handlers to fill positions as flankers, communications experts and incident command support. We always have a need for volunteers to come and play “victim” for our live find dogs as well.