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Search and Rescue Dogs

Canine search and rescue (SAR) began years ago, with fairly informal teams looking for lost campers and hikers in wilderness settings. Training for a SAR dog begins when the pup is born. An obedience trainer, recognizing a dog's agility and focus as a pup, may recommend him for search and rescue training.

A SAR dog is a working dog, and it needs many of the applicable traits. In fact, most good SAR dogs are generally smart dogs, and do equally well in other working disciplines. A SAR dog should be amiable, comfortable working around people, and have a pleasant personality. A SAR dog should not be inclined to bite, or be vicious or aggressive towards people, dogs or other animals. Many breeds and mixes can be appropriate for SAR, but not have all of the physical or psychological makeup the work requires. No compromise can be accepted as the SAR dog must be of impeccable temperament and stability even before training commences.

In addition, a SAR dog will have to be independent; often they have to work without constant direction from their handler. SAR dogs must have a long attention span and be able to concentrate and stay on task without needing constant reminders and correction. A field-ready SAR dog can focus on the task at hand, despite the conditions and difficulty of the task.

The general approach to training a dog for search and rescue is no different from training a dog to complete any other task. In fact, excellent obedience control is required for disaster SAR situations to help prevent the dog from hurting itself. SAR dogs require and undergo serious obedience training: the SAR dog is a master of many talents, an independent thinker and a team player. Training and certifying a SAR team takes a big commitment of time. The people that choose to train SAR must be as dedicated as the dogs are. The handler also needs to be trained, to prevent confusion and damage. Individuals interested in pursuing SAR work should be physically fit and have an ongoing fitness program; the job can be physically taxing at times. Almost every state has SAR groups or K9 handlers that will help civilians train SAR dogs.

The relationship between dog and handler is a critical factor to a successful SAR team. Teamwork is vital between a handler and a SAR dog. The dogs are taught the necessary skills as a "game" of increasing difficulty, in partnership with their handler. SAR dogs generally live and train with their handler, and it takes about 600 hours of training for a dog to be field ready. Training is given in a variety of skills necessary to conduct safe and effective searches.

The central jobs of a SAR dog are to find human scent and effectively alert his handler to the location of the scent. Once in search mode, SAR dogs will actively and enthusiastically seek out the source of human scent. The SAR dog's task is to find the "victim" and to perform a bark alert in order to bring the handler in.

Trackers can work in most weather conditions, but heavy or long-lasting rains are the only natural enemies of the SAR. However, it is rare for an SAR operation to break during good weather conditions.

While rewarding work, it should be noted that most search and rescue personnel, ground pounders in SAR terms, are volunteers and not paid for their work. In times of disaster, SAR dogs are looked upon as sources of hope, courage, and comfort. It takes a special kind of animal to be a SAR dog, one who is obedient, agile, and above all, eager to please.

About the Author
Francesca Black has worked in the emergency services field for more than 10 years. More information available at Prepare for Emergency

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