How I Became a Search and Rescue Dog Trainer
It’s a beautiful bluebird day, truly ideal hiking weather. Instead of following the trail toward the popular summit, I veer left and start crashing through the underbrush.
It’s not a route that most people would be interested in, but it is very similar to the rambling a lost person might do if they were seeking a way out of the woods. I tuck in between the rocks, carefully pulling up my hood so that my colorful hat doesn’t give me away prematurely. I’m dirty, bleeding, and don’t have much to entertain me (aside from the incredible amount of mud caked on the bottom of my boots – Montana clay takes no prisoners!) but I am giddy with anticipation.
Half an hour goes by before I hear it: a bell jingling in the distance. Closer, then farther – then it stops for 1, 2, 3 seconds before it begins again violently, crashing toward me with determination and speed.
Telly, the Yellow Lab, appears and gives me an enormous toothy grin before doing a 180 and disappearing back into the brush. A minute later he returns with his handler Leslie, who tosses him a tennis ball – the only reward he needs for a job well done. Telly is a Search and Rescue dog, training to help find lost people when they need it most.
Growing up brought new priorities, and my undergrad degree led me to a career in technology. Being able to work remotely has given me incredible flexibility, which has allowed me to spend significant time traveling and exploring the American West. At the back of my mind I have always had a little voice asking “what if?”
The answer to that question came almost immediately after choosing to settle down in Bozeman, MT. The first thing my husband did as a new Bozemanite was join Gallatin County Search and Rescue.
One of the first big searches he was involved with was led by a local organization called Western Montana Search Dogs. When he got back he had hardly put down his backpack before exclaiming that he had the answer to my “what if?” voice – becoming a K9 SAR handler.
It didn’t take long to convince me. Handling a SAR dog was everything I wanted in working with animals, without requiring a drastic career change. I started volunteering with the team as a subject, then a flanker, and then–before I knew it–I was flying out to Connecticut to pick up a puppy candidate of my own.
We will begin taking our first certification exams in spring, 2019, and hope to be mission-ready by spring, 2020. Eventually we plan to pursue certification in trailing, human remains detection, large area search, and water/shore search so that we can be helpful for GCSAR on a wide variety of missions.
How do you become a K9 Handler?
The first step is self-evaluation. SAR K9 handlers are search and rescue volunteers first and foremost, so we are required to have all of the relevant skills and training that every other volunteer has.
For most teams this includes strong skills in backcountry travel, navigation, wilderness medicine (Wilderness First Responder preferred) and technical rope rigging. Above all else, SAR volunteers must be physically fit enough to move quickly and carefully in all sorts of terrain.
The second step is finding a K9 team in your area. Every team approaches training, dog selection, and new member involvement differently based on the type and volume of calls that they get.
Once you have found a local team, reach out and ask to volunteer as a training subject. This will give you an opportunity to meet the team and see their dogs in action. If your initial meetings go well, ask your team about their new member process. Most teams like new handlers to volunteer without a dog for several months to learn the basics before choosing a puppy specifically for search and rescue training.
Once you choose your puppy, the real fun begins!
Are there other ways to be involved with SAR dogs if you can’t be a handler?
Absolutely! K9 Teams are constantly on the lookout for new subjects to train with. As a training subject you can expect to lay trails and hide in large areas, so that the dogs can find you. Once found, you get to play with the dogs to reward them for a job well done!
If you want to get more of the “handler experience” you can ask to train as a flanker. Working with a SAR K9 is all about reading body language – the dog can’t tell us what he’s thinking, so we have to watch carefully for clues that tell us when he’s picked up odor, when he’s closing in on the subject, or when he’s lost the scent completely. These clues are subtle so it takes a lot of concentration to make sure none are missed! Flankers assist handlers on missions by being their eyes and ears to the outside world. They watch for safety hazards, navigate and record observations using GPS, and communicate with Incident Command via radio. Well trained flankers are a vital piece of the puzzle when building a successful and effective dog team.
Alyssa Hitchcock is an outdoor enthusiast excited about all forms of human powered recreation. She has thru hiked the John Muir Trail, spent two years traveling the American West in a DIY School Bus conversion and recently settled down in Bozeman, Montana where she volunteers with Gallatin County Search and Rescue, and Western Montana Search Dogs.