SAR teams are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Dogs often accompany their handler to work and on vacation in case a call comes in from law-enforcement authorities. Typically, a police unit alerts a SAR organization to a case, and the SAR organization then alerts its team members. The case might be a missing child, a group of hikers who never arrived at their camp site, a bombed building, an earthquake, an escaped convict or a new tip in a crime that places a victim's body in a particular lake.
Once alerted to a call-out, the dog/handler team loads up its equipment, which may include severe-weather gear, ropes and harnesses, radios, compasses, maps, food, water and other items that come in handy on a search. If the call-out is for an avalanche search, transportation might involve a helicopter. If it's a wilderness search, the team usually drives to the base location and then hikes or rappels to the area of the search. If the search is for a drowning victim, the handler and dog arrive by boat at the area of interest.
Once at the scene, the dog's obedience is fully tested. Distractions are everywhere -- people and dogs searching, hysterical family members, reporters, flood lights, bullhorns. The SAR unit leader is in charge, reporting to the head law-enforcement authority or search authority at the scene. At a large search, a SAR group may set up a base camp complete with radio communications, rest areas and search advisors. The SAR leader gives each dog/handler team a location to clear. If the dog shows interest in a particular spot but does not do a full alert, the handler notes the location. If the dog gives a full-blown alert, everyone mobilizes. In a water search, divers hit the water; in an avalanche search, every available hand digs in the snow; in a wilderness search, people might work to pry rocks out of the way of a cave opening to find what may be the missing hiker. While this is going on or immediately afterward, the dog and his handler are off to the side playing tug-of-war (or whatever the dog's reward of choice is) so the dog knows he won the game.
Even if the missing person turns out to be dead, and the family is present, the handler will discreetly play with the dog. As long as search-and-rescue remains a game, the dog will happily do his job until his handler decides it's time for retirement.
Typically, a dog retires when he can no longer handle the physical rigors of the work. Charles Melvin, Team Leader for the K-9 Search and Rescue Team, reports that his team's dogs usually retire when they're eight to 10 years old. In "The Art of Heroism," Anthony Fernandez, who serves with his dog Aspen in the Metropolitan Dade County Fire Rescue Department, explains that "SAR is a young dog's game. It can be stressful." Urban disaster work in particular is hard on both the dog and the handler. Some SAR dogs retired early after the World Trade Center attack due to extreme stress and health problems from searching at Ground Zero. A dog might retire from disaster work and go into a more laid-back specialty such as wilderness search, or he might retire from the job completely.
When a SAR dog retires, he usually lives out his retirement with his handler. If the handler can't take care of him any longer, there are organizations that will find new adoptive homes for retired search dogs. In either case, the dog enjoys a life of fun, games and leisure, a much-deserved reward for a career of fun, games and public service.
For more information on search and rescue, including information that can help you and your dog get started in this line of work, check out the links on the next page.