Are you interested in the possibility of being a SAR K9 handler? Want to know more about it? The best way to find out is to come out to a few of our trainings and learn first hand. We always welcome those that want to learn more. There are no training fees. We are all volunteers, there are no payments aside from yearly, general membership dues.
One of the first things you’ll find out is that there are several different types of SAR dogs and handlers. From live-find wilderness air-scent dogs, to Human Remains Detection, (HRD), to tracking dogs, to water recovery dogs, to avalanche dogs to disaster dogs. They are all different and they all require different training and different skill sets.
What area you and your dog decide to pursue will depend on your interest and the natural capabilities of your dog. Not all dogs are naturals in all areas. And not all dogs will train up the same way. Every dog and handler team will face their own unique challenges. Not all those that start out will be successful in certifying their K9. In fact, the failure rate for new handlers with dogs not specifically screened for SAR work is quite high. This can be very discouraging after having invested maybe hundreds of hours in training a dog.
Experienced handlers starting with a puppy, tested and selected specifically for, a specific type of SAR work might be able to have their dog certified between 12-18 months of age depending on the specific discipline chosen. And even some of these will fail to certify. For new handlers working with a dog not selected for SAR work, it will take significantly longer.
For new handlers you should expect to have to put in at least 200 hrs of training with the team and another 200-300 hrs of training outside of team training. It is not unusual for new handlers with their first dog to take 2-4 yrs to get a dog certified. The majority, (60-70%), never make it and eventually leave. In some cases, those that find out they love the work and challenge, may decide to get a K9 selected specifically for SAR work which increases their likelihood of success.
Needless to say, it is a serious time commitment to your dog and to our team to pursue SAR K9 work. It is also a serious commitment of the team to the new handler.
In addition to the training of the dog, there is the training of the handler. For most certifications, the handler will need training in navigation skills, map reading, advanced first aid, pet first aid, scent theory, blood borne pathogen training, and crime scene preservation. Many of these classes and courses will be in addition to the regular team trainings.
To get a better idea of the requirements, you can review some of the following certification requirements:
The standard below is used by the FEMA teams for certifying disaster dogs. While most local volunteer SAR teams do not require this certification, (it is only available to FEMA teams or State Urban Search & Rescue Teams), it is a comprehensive certification. Most of the various disaster dog certifications require a subset of these requirements or have requirements similar in nature to these.
The National Search and Rescue Organization, (NASAR), has several good online resources at their website. Here’s a few direct links. The NASAR standards are our teams preferred standard and will be what we guide our members towards.
In addition to the training and certification, a handler must be in good physical shape, especially for wilderness SAR work and tracking work. A handler may be required to trudge through rough terrain for hours. When tracking, some tracks can be many miles long. Handlers will be expected to pass a yearly physical competency requirement that is relevant to their chosen area.
After reading through some of the linked documents you may feel some what discouraged. That’s not a bad thing. You are making a serious time commitment to your K9 partner, to whatever SAR team you choose to join, and mostly, to yourself. We want you to consider this commitment seriously. When you undertake this, you are not just taking on a hobby. You are taking on a lifestyle.
Even once you successfully certify, the training does not end. Certifying is just the beginning. Your K9 partner needs regular training every week to stay sharp and to be ready to respond. There are always new experiences and conditions to expose both your partner and yourself to that are not necessarily covered by the certifying process. Most certifications also require a two year re-certifying test and all the training courses required to certify originally, must be kept current.
The number of times you’ll actually get to deploy with your K9 partner in the field will be extremely few compared to the number of trainings you do. You need to be doing this for the love of working with a K9 partner first and foremost and knowing that you have prepared yourself to your highest capability to perform a task that only a handful of people and K9’s are trained for.