I have a dog. He likes to sniff. Would he be a good SAR dog?
SAR dogs have several basic characteristics - a love of people, the ability to play for hours on end, stamina and endurance. Some folks say that a SAR dog should also be a natural retriever. The dog must be physically sound and capable of hours upon hours of work. Given that you will likely spend 2-3 years training the dog before attaining Mission Ready status, it is highly preferable to start with a puppy or a young dog. Physical characteristics include a medium size (50-80lbs) and, for SAR in Ontario and most of Canada, a double coat. Some common SAR dog breeds include the German Shepherd, the Golden Retriever, the Labrador Retriever, the Border Collie, and the Belgian Sheepdog.
What does it take to train a SAR dog?
An excellent question! The handler is, by far, the more critical component to a search dog team. You can start with the best dog possible but, if the handler does not have the commitment to work 10 hours or more a week, the ability to objectively identify strengths and weaknesses in himself and his dog, and the know-how to design exercises and training plans that address those weaknesses, the team will simply not measure up. Handlers need to be good dog trainers, as well as outdoorsmen.
I don't have a dog, but I would like to help out. What can I do?
If you want to help but don't want to go on searches, OVSARDA needs people to handle search statistics accumulation, public relations, finance and fundraising, equipment maintenance, to name a few.
We are also always on the look-out for volunteer victims. We need to train our dogs to find anybody, not just people they know. Volunteer victims may be used in either a training or an evaluation scenario. The victim would normally be walked into position, and would simply stay put for as little as 5 minutes, or as much as 6 hours while the dog works the problem. Sleeping bags and foam mattresses, a thermos, bug spray and a bug jacket, and a good book are often all that is needed. Transportation can often be provided. Just call us to volunteer, at 613-667-9948.
Why shouldn't I be a SAR dog handler?
Training a dog for SAR takes a complete and total commitment. For starters, you will need to invest 10 or more hours a week. Only a portion of this is spent working your dog. You will also have to hide for other people while your dog waits in the car. Don't forget, you'll also need to leave your family and go out for winter survival exercises, or weekend search exercises. On average, 10 times a year, you will be called at 1 a.m. to deploy to a search. Or at 9 a.m. and will have to leave work to do it. You may need to take a day of vacation in order to go. And more often than not, you'll arrive just as the missing person is located in the local pub.
You will buy, and use, more insect repellent in the first year than you thought you'd go through in a lifetime - then you'll buy a bug shirt. That's in addition to the $1000-1500 you'll need to spend to get the basic SAR kit. That's in addition to the gas it will take you to drive to the assorted training areas several days every week. You will be out in the woods, hiding and training, during snow storms, rain storms, intense heat, freezing cold and darkness. You and your dog will get sprayed by skunks, and maybe quilled by porcupines.
You will get tense and uptight with every evaluation. You will be frustrated and disappointed when your dog fails. You will begin to understand why only 1 dog team in 100 make the grade.
If you honestly read all of the above and were excited by the challenge, you may be the kind of person we are looking for. You may be one of the weird ones who looks outside at a blizzard and says, I wonder how my dog will react in these conditions?, and goes out and trains. You may be one of the crazy ones who will climb a tree or crawl into a rickety old building, because you've been asked to hide there. You may be one of the masochistic ones who, when your dog jumps up, breaks your glasses and bloodies your nose when he indicates, manages to spurt out with honestly and with feeling, "Good Boy!!!!!!"
I want to join as a handler. How do I go about it?
Handler candidates are first required to follow a Basic SAR Dog course. The course costs approximately $100, and is held on Saturdays. There are two courses per year, Spring (Apr-Jun) and Fall (Sept-Nov). During the course, handler candidates are encouraged to attend OVSARDA training on Sundays, WITHOUT THEIR DOG, and to get a feel for what it means to be on the team. If still interested in joining the team, handler candidates must submit an application at the end of the Basic SAR Dog course.
This application is then reviewed by the entire OVSARDA team. Candidates are assessed by many criteria but the most important are commitment and potential. Commitment might be demonstrated by frequent attendance at Sunday work-outs, by an individual pursuing certification in First Aid, CPR, or wilderness navigation, by the purchase of books and the number of good (but annoying!) questions they ask. Potential relates to the age of the dog, whether he has the basic characteristics of a search dog, temperament, and the fitness of the team.
Only selected teams will be invited to join OVSARDA as probationary members. Now, the pressure really begins. The handler will be given a checklist of goals he must attain within 3 months. They all relate to the human half of the team, and include following a senior handler on a 30 minute air scent problem, then setting up a similar problem for another handler; reading a SAR dog training book; starting a log; signing up for a first aid course; assembling the required 24 hour pack. More training checklists will follow. Once the probationary period has been successfully completed, the dog and handler become full (though not yet Mission Ready) members of the team.
Membership is a privilege, not an entitlement. The word volunteer does not necessarily equate with the word democracy. If at any time, the conduct of a dog and/or handler reflects badly on OVSARDA, they can be removed from the team.