Mountainpathfinder>> Georgia SAR>> Frequently Asked Questions about...Search and Rescue Dogs in Georgia

Q: "I have a dog. How do I get involved in search and rescue dogs in Georgia?"

A: Ouch. This is not the best way to approach this. If you're genuinely interested in SAR, then most trainers will recommend that you get involved with a team before you buy the dog.

Next, take the time to read two illuminating pieces on working with SAR dogs. The first is a piece written by Allen Padgett, of Search and Rescue Dogs of Georgia (SARDOG). Allen and his wife, Karen, are probably the two most experienced search dog handlers in Georgia. His "What Does it Take?" piece is an eye-opener. The other is an article by Georgia SAR dog handler Trace Sargent. She also has some important points to consider.

You already have a dog, though, so what I've just written is "water under the bridge". Regardless, your primary interest must be in finding lost people. If that's not what motivates you, then you probably don't have the strong desire that is necessary to persevere through the training. If you quit for lack of motivation, you'll have wasted other dog handlers' valuable time and effort.

Still want to stick with it? Start following the guidance that is outlined here for anyone interested in SAR. Get the training and certifications needed for all searchers. Take your dog to an obedience class. It's a good test of your desire, your dog's ability, and your talents as a novice dog trainer. Obedience is also part of the foundation of your dog's search training. Earn your dog's American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certificate. The state of Georgia requires a dog to have the AKC CGC certificate before the dog is certified by the state as a SAR dog. Most reputable SAR dog teams won't let your dog stick with the program for too long until you've earned the CGC.

Q: "What certifications must my dog and I have to be a search and rescue dog team in Georgia?"

A: There is no licensing requirement for a search dog team that operates as an arm of a government agency. Section 38-3-36 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (OCGA) requires that all non-government search and rescue dog teams (interpreted to mean a dog and its handler) must be licensed by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA). The general requirements are:

  • Earning the AKC Canine Good Citizen certificate
  • A completed information sheet about you and your dog
  • An affidavit about the abilities of your dog
  • A completed form that authorizes GEMA to complete a criminal background check
  • A set of completed fingerprint cards
  • Certificates of completion of the free online FEMA NIMS Incident Command System classes
  • Certificate of completion of the GEMA Rescue Specialist course
  • First Aid and CPR certificates.

Telephone GEMA official Grant Moore at 478.993.4621 for more information and the application packet.

Q: "What books do you recommend to a prospective search and rescue dog handler?"

A: The ones most often recommended are -

Q: "Can I buy a dog that's already trained for SAR?"

A: Yes. It is strongly discouraged by SAR organizations, though. The training process is as important for the handler as the dog. The handler needs the experience of having trained and searched with the dog as the dog went through the learning process. A novice handler who purchases a pre-trained dog will still need a lot of train-up time to become proficient at dog work in general as well as in reading his or her dog. The handler/owner usually doesn't have the strong relationship with a pre-trained dog that he or she would have with a dog that he or she trained from scratch. Usually only an organization, such as a police or fire agency, with a paid, full-time dog handler will purchase a pre-trained dog.

Q: "Can someone train my dog for SAR for me?"

A: Again, yes, but it is also strongly discouraged for the reasons cited above. Raising and training your own dog is considered the most effective means for preparing the dog and handler.

Q: "What breed of dog is best for SAR?"

A: The breed is usually less important than the characteristics of the individual dog. What most handlers seek is a dog from a medium-sized breed that is recognized for sociability, a stable personality, and a strong drive to play or hunt. Identify a breed that suits you by watching a SAR dog organization's other dogs and by attending SAR dog seminars and workshops. Pick a breed that you are capable of carrying for an extended distance. Remember that you are responsible for carrying the dog out of the woods if the dog becomes injured or ill.

Q: "I've contacted different SAR dog teams in Georgia about volunteering. No one responds (or "No one is accepting volunteers"). What gives?"

A: This happens. It's nothing personal. Many SAR dog organizations are unable to accept new members. New dogs take up a disproportionate amount of training time. The organization's top priority must always be to keep the qualified dogs mission-ready at all times. That means that there isn't the time in the organization's weekly training day to coach new members. SAR dog handlers also have very little free time after they do their daily dog training and handle their personal affairs. At the same time, team presidents or other contact points are inundated daily with inquiries about getting involved in SAR dogs. These contact points want to help; however, replying to all of these is a losing endeavor. A couple of SAR dog handlers have told me that, on average, they will get maybe one or two seriously interested volunteers out of 100 or more inquiries. And out of dozens of those interested volunteers, the organization might "grow" only one or two mission-ready dog/handler crews. That's a lot of time invested in answering emails for very, very little return.

Q: "How long does it take to train a SAR dog? How much time does it take?"

A: A dog and handler usually take 18 months to two years to become mission-ready. Dogs usually aren't started if they're more than two years old. A dog older than two years won't have enough working life left to make the time investment worthwhile.

Dog handlers will often work for an hour or more daily for at least three days a week in individual dog training. Most dog handlers will also spend three to five hours on Saturday in team dog training. This doesn't include the weekends that the dog and handler will spend in out-of-town dog training seminars or workshops, or the time that the handler will spend in his or her own skill training.

The training tempo doesn't slacken once your dog is deemed "mission qualified." The dog and handler will train hard to stay proficient and to identify and resolve training problems. The best handlers are constantly analyzing their dogs' performance to reach new and higher training goals.

Q: "Why can't I train a SAR dog by myself?"

A: You're typically training the dog to find a person. That means that there must be another person - one to "handle" the dog and one to be found by the dog. To begin, someone else will hold your dog as part of "runaway" exercises in which your dog finds you. After that, you will observe your dog while the dog seeks someone else. You'll need one or more volunteers to "hide" so your dog can practice finding them under different circumstances. Even if you intend to train your dog solely to find human remains, your dog won't be fully trained unless it has routinely done "blind searches" in which neither you nor the dog knew where the human remains materials were hidden.

Q: "The SAR dog teams that I've contacted in Georgia are insisting that I volunteer as a "subject" to be found in search training before they will help me train my dog. Why?"

A: Several reasons -

  • You need someone to hide from your dog, whether your dog is a novice or already mission-ready. It's tough for a team to find plenty of new volunteers that aren't already training their own dogs;
  • Organizations have many people who express an interest in training a SAR dog. There's no better way than actually participating in the training for the prospective member to get a feel for what it's about; and
  • The organization wants to be certain that you're committed before it invests the enormous amount of time needed in training you.

Q: "What do I look for in a reputable Georgia SAR dog group?"

A: A lot can be said about this. Seek organizations that -

  • Are more than three years old. Most weak teams fall apart within three years of the time that they're organized
  • Regularly host training workshops or seminars by outside trainers, or send members to participate in outside training workshops or seminars by outside trainers. Beware of an organization that worships its own "SAR god"
  • Require members to seek dog/handler certifications by outside organizations. Outside certifications help guarantee that dogs and handlers are consistently meeting the SAR community's standards through objective evaluations
  • Have a written set of policies that include rules barring "self-deployment" (going to an incident without a formal request by the responsible agency)
  • Work to establish relationships with local responsible agencies before there's an incident. These relationships can be as simple as regular contact with agency supervisors, or as formal as written memoranda of understanding (MOUs) that spell out how and when the organization will be used.

Q: "Why do I need FUNSAR if I'm going to be a SAR dog handler?"

A: To be effective the dog handler must have a comprehensive set of field searcher skills and knowledge outside of canine work. You cannot acquire this just through dog training. FUNSAR or an equivalent is the the most systematic way to get them. The dedicated dog handler is a searcher first and a dog handler second. A SAR dog is a tool for a good searcher, and not a crutch for a weak one.

Q: "Can a SAR dog help me find my lost dog or cat?"

A: No. I've never heard of any Georgia SAR dog handler who also used his or her dog to find pets. Check the Internet.

Q: "I have a really smart dog but I can't keep it anymore. Would someone be interested in taking it for SAR in Georgia?"

A: Not in Georgia. SAR dog training is tough. Few dogs have what it takes for SAR. Even some of the promising dogs can't cut it. Few dogs make it if they weren't bred and raised for SAR or some other work or sport. Very few dog organizations will recommend that a team member take on a new adult dog or even an older puppy for training. There are too many opportunities for the dog to have developed bad habits that the handler will have to solve. There is one California organization that may be interested. The Search Dog Foundation (SDF) takes adult dogs. They are usually limited to California dogs, though.

Thanks to Allen Padgett and Susan Andes, of Search and Rescue Dogs of Georgia (SARDOG), and Pam Nyberg, Paula Chambers and Stuart Samples, of Alpha Team K9 Search and Rescue (ATSAR), for their contributions to this FAQ.

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Buzzards and Butterflies - Human Remains Detection Dogs
The Handbook for Managing Land Search Operations
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Lost Person Behavior: A search and rescue guide on where to look - for land, air and water
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SAR Links
Alabama Association of Rescue Squads
Alpha Team K9 Search and Rescue
Central Alabama Search Dog Association
Central Georgia K-9 Search and Rescue
dbS Productions
Dogs South K9 Search & Rescue
Emergency Response International (ERI)
Georgia Department of Natural Resources Search and Rescue Team
Georgia Piedmont Region K9 Search and Rescue
Georgia Trackers Alliance
National Association for Search and Rescue
National Cave Rescue Commission
National Search Dog Alliance
North Carolina Search And Rescue Advisory Council
Search and Rescue Dogs of Georgia (SARDOG)
South Carolina Search and Rescue Dog Association
South Georgia Search Dogs
Tennessee Association of Rescue Squads
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Updated Sunday, March 15, 2009, 09:06 PM
Copyright 2000-2010 Jim Greenway