How To Become a Search and Rescue Dog Handler

Search and rescue (SAR) is usually a volunteer activity where trained SAR dogs and their handlers work at disaster sites, in order to locate and rescue trapped survivors or dead bodies within the wreckage or debris. SAR volunteer teams also help local law enforcement and emergency support agencies in locating missing children, people lost while hiking or camping in the wilderness, etc. You will find SAR teams at sites of natural calamities such as earthquakes, mudslides, volcanoes or avalanches, collapsed buildings or homes, properties or locations reduced to rubble by explosions – accidental or deliberate, train accidents, plane crashes or any other places where people or animals have been trapped. This article provides information on how you can become a search and rescue dog handler.

SAR dogs
Because of their keen sense of smell, trained dogs are usually used in search and rescue missions, whether the task involves ‘nosing’ out survivors or dead bodies. These dogs are accompanied by a trained dog handler who is responsible for controlling the dog while a systematic search of an assigned area is carried out.

You can volunteer your own dog for search-and-rescue training or you can be assigned a dog to handle upon joining a volunteer SAR outfit. Large breeds such as Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Labradors and Dobermans are commonly used in SAR training; primarily because they are extremely agile, trainable, have high levels of energy and endurance and are able to live and work well with people and other dogs.

Training & qualifications

The training involved in becoming a SAR dog handler has more to do with the dog being trained, rather than the handler! The handler’s training is more geared towards building a rapport with the dog and to this end, most SAR dogs live with their handlers during and after the training period. Skills and training which the dog handler must have include:

  1. You must be in prime physical condition, adapted to working outdoors in all kinds of terrain and weather, hostile or otherwise;
  2. Undergo rigorous emergency response training including CPR, first-aid, navigation and communication, survival training, tracking through the wilderness using maps, compass and other navigational aids;
  3. Complete certification programs conducted by the National Association for Search & Rescue (NASAR) (explained in detail further below).
  4. The average time taken to train a SAR dog is 1-2 years and the training continues as long as the dog-handler team is operational.

NASAR offers several certification programs, clubbed under three main packages – SARTECH I, II & III – which are meant for both dogs and their handlers. The certifications cover the following:

  • Land or Water Cadaver/Human Remains Detection
  • Trailing & Area Search
  • First Responder Disaster
  • First Responder Disaster Cadaver/Human Remains Detection.


To locate local volunteer units in your area, you can get in touch with law enforcement or Emergency Services in your state. Remember, search and rescue is a volunteer’s job and this is not a job you should opt for looking to making a livelihood. Also be prepared for the expenses which you will need to take care of for your SAR dog; this money will come entirely out of your pocket!


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