The Search Dog Handler

In the months after 9/11, many well-meaning people decided that they wanted to become search dog handlers. This was a natural reaction to a horrific event. Watching video every night of these heroic dogs going about the grim task of searching for bodies in the cataclysmic rubble of the World Trade Center couldn't help but be a moving experience for anyone who wanted some way to help.

However, a lot of people have misconceptions about what SAR is like in the real world. Again, this is easy to do, since television and film is rarely good at realistically portraying the work. Below is the gritty reality of the working K9-SAR handler. It's not intended to put anybody off or "weed anybody out." It's here purely as information so anybody considering the work can decide if it's their cup of tea, before they invest time, money and effort. The work is hard, demanding, often dangerous (for the dog, the handler, and the spotter), and it's almost always under very unpleasant conditions. Yet, it's also extremely rewarding in its own way.

Psychological and Physical Challenges

When a search team is called out, someone is having the worst day of their life. A child or elder parent is missing, or a brother has drowned, or a sister has left a suicide note and walked into the woods. An uncle with a heart condition has gone hunting and not returned. A murder has taken place.

Meanwhile a family is pinning their hope on you and your dog and your teammates to bring their loved one back to them. They're going to hang on your every word, and they're going to try to wring every bit of meaning from your body language. They're going to ask time and again what your dog is doing now and what it means. And you have to politely, respectfully, and tactfully NOT TELL THEM. It's not your job. You don't necessarily know all the nuances of the situation. You report to your Base Operations Manager, who then reports to the Incident Commander. At the same time, you've got to be upbeat and supportive of your dog as he goes about his work. You've got to be aware of your own surroundings and safety, as well as that of your dog.

You've got to be willing and able to go where your dog goes, whether that's into a heavy thicket of briars, up a steep hill or down a deep ravine, or into a collapsed building. You've got to be willing to knowingly send your dog into a possibly dangerous situation, and maybe follow him.

You've got to be willing and able to work for 12 or 16 hours at a stretch, day or night, possibly for several days in a row. You've got to be willing and able to work in the rain, snow, summer heat, mud and flood.

You've got to be able to deal with encountering a human body on land or in the water, possibly in a state of decay or dismemberment. You've got to be able to find your subject and report back while preserving the integrity of the crime scene. You may have to testify in court.

Of course, all of these scenarios are not likely to happen all at the same time. But any one or two of them almost always happen.

Time and Money

Gloria and Connie taking a compass reading with the Navy Medical Corpsmen
Gloria and Connie taking a compass reading with the Navy Medical Corpsmen.

BSARD member Connie Reyes put it succinctly when she said "When you start training for canine search and rescue, all of your hobbies go away."

The truth is, you can still hang on to a hobby, but it isn't easy. There is an enormous commitment of time in training and working a search and rescue dog. In the early stages of training their dog, most handlers will spend an hour or so a day (per dog) working simple problems, observing their dog's body language and carriage, and forming a reliable alert. This is in addition to regular obedience training.

Once the team has passed beyond the basic training stages, they will still work two or three hours each week setting up more difficult problems or fine-tuning their skills. If they are part of a larger team, they will probably spend one or more days each month training with the entire group. (Buckeye Search and Rescue Dogs usually trains as a complete unit two days a month, for three to five hours each session).

There is also the time you'll spend reading and researching.

The good news is that this time is all enjoyable and interesting. You learn some amazing things, and you really get to bond with your dog.

In addition to the time commitment, in most cases you'll have to absorb at least some, if not all, of the cost associated with outfitting yourself and your dog. These may include:


Yes, there are many challenges and commitments, but there are rewards, too. Obviously there's a lot of reward when you can reunite a missing person with their family. Even in the sad cases you're helping to bring closure to their lives. And there's always the vicarious joy you can experience when watching your dog as they perform out of sheer love of the work.

If this all sounds like something you think you could enjoy, then by all means consider being a dog handler. If it seems like a bit more than you're willing or able to take on, that's perfectly OK too. As we said, this is "warts and all," and it certainly isn't for everybody. There are still many ways you can help us or the community that may be more up your alley:

See Also