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Profile of a Search and Rescue Dog Handler | What's the news about State Certified Dogs? | Dog Skill Differences

Profile of a Search and Rescue Dog Handler

     Every year we have numerous people approach us about joining our organization. What does it take to be a dog handler? Our handlers come from all walks in life, but there are several qualities which make them stand out.

     The first qualification is someone who demonstrates a learning attitude. They must seek after knowledge and be a self starter. Initially, training a dog requires around 20 hours a week. We look for people who are willing to seek others for help; not the ones who sit back and want us to do the work. Handlers must train their own dog so when the stakes are high, they can read their dog and be able to tell the sheriff what is happening.

     The second qualification is someone who is in search and rescue for the right reasons. Who wants an ambulance chaser on their team? In canine search work, handlers are often in the background, quietly doing their job. (Well, sometimes the dogs aren’t so quiet!) A potential handler must be motivated to help the victim, not appear in front of the camera! You’ll even find that our handlers are camera shy, so keep that microphone away.

     The last qualification we look for is a combination of service and perseverance. Long days and nights searching, lack of sleep, being on 24 hour call out, pressures from finding the victim all combine to bring out the best in a person or the worst. If a handler is not motivated by service and driven by perseverance, they cannot maintain the rigorous work most searches require.

     The certified handlers at ASD all meet the above requirements. We work together as a team to provide to the search and rescue the best possible resource.

What’s the news about State Certified Dogs?

     Have you been bombarded with information about "only" using dogs who are state certified? Last year we were approached and informed we needed to certify our dogs with the state. The reason--liability and insurance.

     ASD is a nationally recognized search and rescue organization. (If they weren’t, why would the United States Air Force call us out to look for the downed plane in Columbia, South American?) We test our dog teams yearly and require top performance. Our testing procedures are difficult and have weeded out several dog teams who were not able to pass. (Below you will find a listing of what our teams are required to pass off for a level 2 test.) We also keep records of our training and our searches. These records have been tested in a court of law when our handlers had to testify about searches they participated in.

     Now the liability issue. When we are requested by a sheriff or police department, we become part of the requesting county for the time period we are used by that county. However, we have taken this issue a step further just to appease those nail--biting city and county managers. We are in the process of setting up a commercial liability insurance plan. Unfortunately, the handlers will have to pay for this out of their pocket, but it should insure the counties who use our resources that we are covered in case of an accident.

     Please don’t let an issue like this--which is only an issue to those pushing their programs--stop you from using a viable resource.

     Level 2 Dogs will demonstrate: readable alerts, article detection (evidence), endurance, working away from the handler, refinds, scent discrimination, detection of a track direction, lack of aggression, transportation abilities, team work with other dogs, obedience skills.

     Level 2 Handlers will demonstrate: a strong reward system, ability to work in any condition, ability to read the dog’s alerts, planning a good strategy for searching, the proper gear for searching, adequate physical condition, map and compass skills.

     Dog teams are tested in wilderness, water, collapsed structure, and avalanche.  For more specific details, see the Training section of this site.

Dog Skill Differences

"I want a tracker!"

"No, I want an evidence dog."

"You’d better call out the avalanche dogs."

"Wilderness dogs would be best."

"What about an air scenting dog?"

"You can’t go out there, you’ll disturb the scent for the dogs."

"It’s okay, I called the cadaver dogs."

     What is this crazy canine world coming to? Dogs have an incredible ability to search out human scent. The victim puts off thousands of dead skin cells a minute. At American Search Dogs we believe dogs properly trained, can incorporate all of their skills to successfully complete any of the above scenarios.

     We start our training with simple run-away problems which utilizes the dog’s ability to air scent. While dogs are air scenting, they are also learning the properties of tracking. Now of course, special instruction is used to teach dogs the fine art of tracking, but the initial work begins early in their training. When the dog masters the air scent concept, he is introduced to scent discrimination. This is our most important tool. We will never ask you to hold up your search until we arrive because our dogs are trained and tested in scent discrimination.

     Scent discrimination can be explained this way. If you were cooking a pan of cookies, you as a human, would smell the wonderful aroma of cookies. The dogs however, would smell the shortening, the eggs, the chocolate chips, the baking soda, etc. They have the uncanny ability to break up the scent and decipher it into individual compounds. Each human has his/her own unique scent. The dogs are able to identify the victim’s "special scent" and locate that person in a group of people.

     Evidence, or sometimes called article searching, has become increasingly important in search work. We have had several calls to look for pieces of evidence. This specialized training is conducted throughout the training sessions and requires intricacy by the dogs.

     So what’s about avalanche and a water searching? In both search scenarios, the victim is underneath a surface. The victim’s scent will still rise to the surface at an exit point. The difficulty in these searches comes from determining the location of the victim in reference to the area where the scent has surfaced. This will depend largely on the snow pack or water depth, and the surface winds and temperatures. When the dog is in the scent cone, he will alert and when he leaves the scent cone he will indicate he is out of the scent area. A knowledgeable handler will recognize these alerts and be able to give the commander a search area.

     Wilderness searching incorporates all the search skills. Often pieces of evidence are left along the trail side--if a dog is not trained on evidence he may miss the article. If a track is found, the dog can follow the track; however, a strong track can become weak with hot temperatures and trail use. Our dogs are trackers, yet when an air scent is more powerful, they use their unique ability to find the quickest path to the victim.

     Lastly, a word about cadaver searching. There are some dogs trained specifically for cadaver search work. Our philosophy is based on training scenarios and real search experiences, where our dogs have worked the cadaver scent and been highly successful. They demonstrate an ability to differentiate between human remains and animal remains. In fact, one search in particular led the handler to discover human bones which had been buried for fifteen years. The animal remains in the area were ignored, and the human remains were uncovered. We agree that human remains undergo a chemical change of decomposition, but as long as there is marrow in the bones the dogs will be able to work the search. There should be no need for specialty cadaver dogs if the dogs you are using are true search dogs. We also feel, the level of experience is important on these searches because experienced dogs can work a cadaver search without even a scent article.

     At American Search Dogs we have tried to be current on practices in canine search and rescue. Partly due to human’s lack of understanding, we are not able to fully comprehend the dog’s extraordinary potential and conduct our training to take advantage of this gift. We are highly concerned when someone says their dog is a specialist in air scenting; or a specialist in water but not wilderness; or a specialist in wilderness but not cadaver. Training procedures prove again and again, that dogs possess the ability and the intelligence to be specialists in all areas of search work.