|Becoming a Handler|
Want to Be a SAR Dog Handler?
by Vikki Fenton-Anderberg, Chris Dover, and Kerry O'Connell
The decision to become a SAR dog handler is a difficult one. That's a fact. Are you in the middle of such a decision? If you are, there isn't any single article able to stand alone to help you decide. The only answer is a combination of research and experience.
Hopefully you found this article during the beginning stages of your decision-making process. If so, you might fall into one of two general categories. Maybe you're a dog person who would like to take your training to the next level. Or maybe you're experienced in SAR and would like to be the one to add an important resource to your unit. Either side you come from, as a dog-lover or a SAR person, doesn't matter. In the end you must be both.
A Dog Person Who Knows Little of SAR
It can be a logical progression for a trainer of working dogs to want to train a dog for SAR. Whether you come from an obedience background, a herding background, or a police background, it can be easy to adjust to training differences.
As a handler, you work hard to make your dog understand exactly what you want from him. But a handler's lack of basic understanding of SAR can make a team unusable. If you know very little of what SAR is about:
On average, a person educated in survival and backcountry skills has the highest success rate in becoming a SAR dog handler. This is because less time is used educating the handler and that leaves more time dedicated to dog handling. But if that person knows little about dogs, there are some things to consider.Intangible Rewards
The lure of being a SAR dog handler is real, and the rewards far outweigh the headaches. Being on the front line of 10-15 missions a year can be exciting. For someone who really wants to help their fellow man, the endeavor allows for numerous opportunities to do so. Probably the biggest reward is the close working relationship a handler has with his dog.
All ASD handlers share amazement at how we communicate with our canine partners. A hand signal from us, and our dogs change their direction. Momentary eye contact from our dogs and we become acutely aware of their body posture. We can tell when our dogs are frustrated because there is no scent, or excited because a lost person is near. This communication fosters a bond between handlers and dogs that creates a strong working relationship.
But one SAR dog team does not create a successful mission. As SAR dog handlers we are expected to do a small job as part of a much larger unit. We understand the big picture and do our best to fill in any missing pieces of the puzzle. Our dogs reward us every day. But that reward is minimal compared to the feeling of working with persons in a SAR unit who fight for a common goal. Sharing the elation of finding a survivor, or the sorrow of finding one deceased, bind members of a SAR unit together like a family.
Is everyone cut out for SAR? No. Are you cut out for SAR? Only you can answer that. If you make the decision to join a SAR unit, and then decide to accept the goal of training a dog, we will be the first to pat you on the back. Good dog teams are necessary. But, on the other hand, if you are in question of your ability or unsure of your commitment, maybe it is best for you to do more research or even step aside. We don't make a habit of holding the hands of those who have not gone to the effort to get proper training.