Two years of training paid off this weekend when I certified my dog Condor as a Human Remains Detection dog. Condor and I are members of a volunteer search unit called Midwest Search Dogs. Events such as 9-11 and the Oklahoma City bombing made people much more aware of search dogs than they were in the past, but search and recovery is nothing new. In World War I, the Germans trained some dogs to go out and indicate whether a person lying in a battlefield was alive or dead so medical personnel would not have to risk their lives evacuating a dead soldier.
Most search units are volunteer organizations. The dog handler has to bear all of the expense of owning the dog, training it and all the travel expense of going to any area he or she is called out to search. Training a search dog is not for the faint of heart. On average it generally takes two years to get a dog to the point where he or she is ready to certify. Most units train twice a week, plus if your unit gets called out, you may have to leave work on a moment’s notice. Lots of people like the idea of being in a search unit, but few people join units once they find out how much work is involved.
Some people do join with thoughts of glory. But the reality of many search units is that you will spend your days searching, but never finding. I have been on two official searches as what is called a “ground pounder.” My job was to walk an area and help the dog handlers and to be another pair of eyes looking for a lost person. On one search it was in the mid-80s and humid and I hiked in rough terrain for hours, getting eaten up by bugs, covered in ticks and finding nothing but a snake and two turtles. In the other search the weather was in the 20s, the terrain was again rough and I fell down a hill, sliding on my butt the entire way down.
Searching and not finding is still extremely important as you help eliminate areas, but the only glory at the end of the day is your own satisfaction of knowing you did a good job.
On the plus side, you meet some extraordinary people and you form a bond with your dog that is like no other. If you are working a dog that is searching for something, you have to know that dog. You have to know what it means if he turns his head, slows down, speeds up, changes the way he breaths, moves his tail, etc.
Most units in the Midwest have dogs that track or trail, air scent or find human remains. Tracking dogs follow a scent until they find the person the scent belongs to or until they lose the scent. Air scenting dogs are sent out into an area and asked to locate any human scent other than the scent of the people who are walking with the dog. Human remains dogs are asked to go out in an area and see if they can locate a body. Certain geographical areas such as mountains require specialized search dogs such as those than can do wilderness or avalanches. Some dogs and handlers specialize in working rubble, such as what would be left behind in a disaster. Areas with lots of water require a dog that can find a body under water.
While many dogs on search units are purebred dogs bred for their abilities to search, there are a significant number of rescued dogs. And one common theme you will find in the rescued dogs is that they were almost always dogs that were on euthanasia lists, or dogs that had been returned to a shelter numerous times. That’s because the dogs that excel at SAR want to be busy and have a job, meaning they are not the kind of dog that just wants to sit at home and lay on the couch with you. One of the dogs I met this weekend was from a shelter. Her handler was her fifth owner and the shelter had said that if it didn’t work out this time, she would be euthanized. When I met her she was a very happy dog and she certified as a tracking dog this weekend. One of my teammates has one of the most amazing dogs I’ve ever seen and it had been traded around several times before she got the dog because the dog was considered a “bad” dog. I met several people this past week who had both German shepherds and Belgian Malinois that were from rescues.
If you are looking for a dog to do some serious work with such as competitive obedience, agility, SAR, etc. look for the dogs in the shelter that volunteers are having problems with. Or ask the shelter staff if there are any dogs that love to play so much that no one wants to take them out because all the dog wants to do is play tug or fetch. Those are the dogs you would want if you want to be competitive or serious about what you are doing. You want to find a dog that is smart and has something he loves so much that he will work for it. For Condor that is a tennis ball. He will search as long as it takes in order to win the reward of me throwing his tennis ball for him. For other dogs it is a flying disc or a tasty morsel of food.
If you decide you want to explore search and rescue, do a Google search for units in your area. Look for a unit that requires its members to certify through a nationally accredited organization and a unit that believes in positive training methods. The people in the unit will be people you will be spending a huge amount of time with, so it is also important to find a group in which you fit in personality wise. There are a number of Yahoo groups that discuss SAR.