How Search-and-rescue Dogs Work

By: Julia Layton  | 

Handler Training

A handler rewards his dog for a good find.
A handler rewards his dog for a good find.

On average, a SAR handler spends about 1,000 hours becoming field-ready. She learns how to properly train a dog to find and alert and trains herself in land navigation, weather patterns, radio communications, map and compass skills, wilderness survival and advanced first aid including CPR.

Hannah Harris and her German Shepherd, Grace, trained for SAR in Maryland. They spent about 48 hours a month training. Harris notes the level of multitasking required for a handler to clear their sector:


It's vitally important that you search your own sector thoroughly and that you know where you are at all times in case your dog alerts ... but doesn't do a find. An area can be identified for further searching if several teams alert toward one spot, even without finding anything. Knowing exactly where you are sounds simple but our team trained somewhere different every week, so that we didn't get a chance to know the area very well and had to rely on our topo maps. I have a good sense of direction that helps me do wildlife research but it was hard for me to let that go and trust my compass. Your map and compass are more reliable than your gut, particularly when it comes to night navigation. At night, searching conditions are better for the dogs because of the way the air moves, but it's very difficult to keep your footing, watch your dog with a flashlight, AND keep track of where you are on the map and in what direction you're moving. Most real searches have a dog team and a walk along to help with the navigation, but your walk along may or may not be that reliable and you have to be able to do it all by yourself to qualify as operational.