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What K9 handlers REALLY do...

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

Dogs on a rubble pile, post-disaster. People in orange vests and helmets, searching for survivors. Or a child, found in the woods by a furry SAR team member after days of team operations. The photos are social media gold. The emotions run high, and there is an adrenalin kick like no other.

That happens. But not often. Those moments are a tiny percentage of what a dog handler experiences.

What do we do, really?

We charm, persuade, and cajole organizations for permission to train at various locations, and map our training tasks beforehand so we are efficient. We figure out ways to give our dogs new “problems” so we are ready no matter what comes along, so finding places where scent acts in a novel way is important.

We drive. Our training areas can be as much as 2.5 hours away.

We train. Our dog handlers train twice a week, 4-7 hours each time. Plus the general SAR training sessions for the whole team once a month or more. The majority of that time, we are hiding for other handlers, not working our own dogs.

3 handlers taking a break in the woods

We wait. Any “real” search involves a lot of waiting. It is unavoidable as various organizations coordinate, process incoming info, and re-access probabilities of where the subject may be.

We climb through multiflora, poison ivy, up and down steep slopes, and slog through mud. We walk through woods, not on trails, for miles at a time.

We work in temps from 10 to 90 degrees, at any time of day or night.

We are part of the team. We do whatever we can to get base set up, communications established, or whatever is needed. We are ready to help with carrying a subject out on a litter, or assist with a rope rescue. We go where needed, and must have knowledge and ability to do what ground search and rescue does, on top of what dog teams do. We must be good at navigation, so we don’t become a second search subject.

Pitching in where needed

We keep our dogs safe. We watch their hydration, avoid specific dog hazards, and are ready to provide emergency care. We are ready and able to carry our dog out if they are injured.

We keep our egos in check, because there are no heroes in SAR. It is not about us, it is always about the lost person.

We try to find a way to afford all this, since most dog handlers do everything out of pocket. That includes a vehicle big enough and capable of going off road, gas, crates, dog hoists and harnesses, GPS collars, veterinary care, our own uniforms and a few thousand dollars of SAR equipment (GPS, packs, boots for all seasons, specialty clothing, and more).

dog safety gate in back of SUV

Is it all worth it? You betcha.

The sense of being part of the greater whole is tremendous. The shared dedication between team members is a thing rarely seen, and to be treasured. The willingness to share knowledge and help each other is unparalleled. Being around well-trained dogs who have a strong sense of purpose is a beautiful thing. Being a true partner with your K9 is a bond that cannot be described adequately. Mind meld? That is close.

And then there is the “Find” - when you and your dog find someone. There is no question in that moment…it IS all worth it. Honestly, even if it is just practice, your and your dog are proud. I’m not anthropomorphizing here. Your dog knows they did this magic thing.

dog sitting on litter, being carried

Instant gratification is not a thing for K9 handlers. I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Oh, I swear when I’ve got myself caught in some thorny brush, and I complain about the heat, but the only thing I’m really sad about is that I didn’t find my SAR team sooner.

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