When we talk about dogs with a job, few are more important – or more visible – than search and rescue (SAR) dogs. It is also one area where a strict certification program exists and is doggedly followed.
SAR organizations have different requirements for SAR dog teams, but the basic framework is a set of “incident management” standards, a system called NIMS, established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Beyond that, each team must keep meticulous records of training and working together, followed by successful completion of a pass/fail certification test for their specific specialty. “They’ll put dead animals in your area. If your dog is looking for human remains and finds the dead animals, they fail,” says Astro owner Dave Milan.
Many of the trainers at Astro Kennels are also members of Foothills Search and Rescue, where both Dave and Cheri Milan are officers. “Astro is a big part of Foothills,” says Cheri, president of the organization. “If the phone rings and a kid is missing, we are all leaving,” she adds.
Boone, a Belgian Malinois, is an example of the highly specialized nature of SAR dog training. Jessica Tidwell, also an Astro trainer and a Foothills member, explains that Boone is trained to find the combination of “concentrated live human scent and gunpowder.” That combination gets Boone and Tidwell called in by police on weapons searches at crime scenes.
“It all comes down to figuring out why dogs do what they do and how to harness what they’ve got,” says Tidwell.
Thousands of hours may go into finding, training and certifying the right dog. What kind of dog will do best in SAR work? “The dog’s drive and desire to work, hunt, and get a reward should be so high that it should be really easy,” says Dave.
Search-and-rescue “is not a club,” Dave points out. “It’s a challenge for the dog and the handler.” Because the work often puts dogs and handlers into inhospitable or unhealthy environments, Dave believes, “it shortens the lifespan” of both.
It usually takes about three months to get a dog ready to test. He notes a 3-month-old German Shepherd puppy crated in a corner of the training area. He’s been imprinting the pup with the scent of human remains. If the dog’s drive is high enough, he says, they can be ready in less than a month.
Is this an activity your companion dog could be trained to do? Maybe, but less likely than other forms of purposeful training. Says Astro’s Wannemacher: “Typically, you can’t live with a SAR dog. A compulsive disorder is exactly what I’m looking for.”