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Old 12-10-2012, 04:58 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Where to begin...? (long, sorry, but I would love the help)

Over the past year, I have been seriously thinking about becoming a SAR volunteer. More specifically, a SAR dog handler. I finally finished my geology degree in August and now that I have applied to every place imaginable that is involved with my line of work, whether they have an opening or not, I have plenty of time to begin researching what is required/expected of SAR volunteers. I know what youíre thinking, geologistÖ SAR dog handlerÖ not exactly a combination that one usually thinks about. Iíve had the same reaction from most of the few people that I have told. In fact, I think my mother believes this to be a ďphaseĒ and doesnít think that I will actually follow through once I can afford the classes, but then she and I are polar opposites in a lot of ways and she doesnít always understand my ways of thinking. Only a couple of my closest friends actually said they see me doing this. All of the other people seem to have failed to understand the deep seated need/urge/drive within me to help people this way. While Iím not, nor have I ever been, a first responder, I come from a family of police officers and I am an AF veteran. I guess itís something I get from my dadís side of the family.

So I guess my main question is, at what point should I begin searching for a puppy to train and what traits should I look for when choosing one? I am currently using my extra down time to get back into shape, strengthen my weak knee, and increase my stamina. Having a child that loves to run helps a lot, even if I canít go as fast or as far as I want to. I am also certified in basic first aid and I completed geology field school this summer, so I am very proficient at using topo maps and a gps in the field and moving through rough terrain while carrying water and other basic supplies.

And if anyone is wondering why a science geek like me is interested in something like this and why Iím choosing a German Shepherd, keep reading. I know its long, but maybe someone will understand where I am coming from.

My first memories of a major disaster are from the OKC bombing. We felt the shockwave from the blast at my school. 50 miles away. I was in the 5th grade. Then, I saw first hand the destruction left behind from the May 3, 1999 tornado, as well as many many others. As a junior in high school I watched the attack on the Twin Towers. Each time, I saw the rescue efforts on tv, and hated not being able to help. I joined the AF at 19, but an undiagnosed knee injury ended that after 2 years. I have finally reached a point in my life where I will be able to do something, with the proper training.

In my research I found the website of lady who is a SAR dog handler in SD. On her front page was a story about a recent struggle she endured after losing her son in the line of duty last year. After this tragedy, she was contemplating giving up being a SAR volunteer. Her story is what led me to choose a German Shepherd as my SAR companion over the other breed I had been thinking about. Two days after laying her son to rest, she got a late night call out to find 3 runaways lost in the badlands. She didnít want to go, but she went anyway. She went in with 2 flankers, each one staying with one of the sisters as they were found. The brother had instigated the runaway, and they knew he would be harder to find. Her SAR dog indicated an area that was too dangerous to search in darkness. The next morning, she was informed that they found the boy in that exact area. He had been armed with a knife and believed voices had told him to bring his sisters out there that night, and that he was supposed to stab each of them a certain number of times. Thankfully, none were harmed because of her efforts and she took this as a sign to continue her work. I found this a very inspiring story, but I couldnít help but wonderÖ what if she had found him that night? She was alone with her dog, the only form of protection she would have had if he had attacked her. She was under the impression he was just a teenage boy, not someone that would be armed and dangerous.

I know that SAR dogs are trained to be non-aggressive and well socialized but protecting their family when provoked by an attack is defensive, not offensive. Iím only 5ft tall but I can hold my own pretty well. I grew up with 3 brothers who are all bigger than me, so I wasnít really into being a girly-girl growing up. However, I know there are plenty of people out there that are stronger than I am. Even though I have been shooting since I was 8, I highly doubt that SAR volunteers are allowed to carry into the field. I will be checking into it though.

Any extra advice that any of you can give will be greatly appreciated. Uneducated people tend to cause more problems and I refuse to rush into anything this important without educating myself first.
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Old 12-10-2012, 05:22 PM   #2 (permalink)
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I think you already have a lot of skills that any SAR team could benefit from , and I even see the geology degree as helpful . Most SAR teams need to get familiar with you as a team member, ground pounder, go-fer guy , test your reliability and if your interest will stay the course .
The dog comes later .
I can recommend dogs that have a background drenched in SAR , detection work --

there are several threads about people wanting to become SAR , as recent as two weeks ago?
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Old 12-10-2012, 05:41 PM   #3 (permalink)
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That makes sense. I'm currently living with my mother but I'll be moving once I find a job and not having a dog is about to kill me. We lost my childhood dog recently and its very hard not having our big baby to love on. I don't have the peace of mind that I had with her around, so I will be getting a dog as soon as I can. Do you think it would be a good idea if I got a puppy that presents the traits needed for a SAR dog and started his obedience training and socialization now, then begin his SAR training at a later time? I really want to get my dog as soon as possible, but I will wait if it would better benefit the dog.
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Old 12-10-2012, 11:07 PM   #4 (permalink)
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I think the best advice I have for you is find a team first and get comforable with each other. Get involved with them and train without a dog. You will learn a lot. Some teams may have an immediate opening for a future dog handler and some a wait of a year or more, and there you are on your own not getting the best help to get on a good start if you already have the pup and not the pup is taking time you need to invest in all the non dog related training, not to mention helping with existing dogs on the team who have first priority for training time. The folks on the team are going to be the best folks to help you pick out the pup or young adult, too!

I will say the last thing any one screening SAR inquiries wants to hear is "my dog needs a job" and "I have this really great dog".....And most teams really don't want you to start with a dog that is too old because it is you they are interested in.

Then as time allows and not before get the puppy or young adult dog for training. Starting a career and getting settled, you have a lot on your plate first.

Depending on the team, they may want you to prove you will stick with it before they let you bring in a dog. Nothing about you but about the typical volunteer whose vision may not match the reality of what they were expecting. Disaster work / Wilderness work? Wilderness teams are much more common and deployments shorter in duration and more frequently (typically a day or two vs several weeks for disaster work). Some disaster dog handlers have had a dog live out its whole life without a deployment [though the wild weather and all recently seems to be making sure everyone gets some action]

The disaster screening test used by FEMA is for a young adult candidate. www.disasterdog.org gives an idea though..that is the test our wilderness team uses for incoming candidates that are fully grown. For a puppy the PAWS working dog evaluation is better than nothing but ANY puppy is a gamble.

When I got mine, the breeder knew that if was not suitable for SAR that I would find him another home. She understood because she is a working dog handler herself . Phew. He is awesome....but we still have a hip, elbow and back x-rays to get through in July and you know no problems knock on wood but that is two years invested....you have to think (with a puppy) what is the back up plan if it does not work out? We have all spent time on pups/dogs that we wound up washing out of the program because the stakes are that high.

Based on the statement "having a child that likes to run" - I assume you have a young-un, the kind without fur. The other question if you have a small child is the amount of time and things missed. I waited until mine were older and still got resentment because I missed some band events, etc. It is a real stress on the family. OTOH, sometimes I wish I had started this when I was younger than I was when I did. It is a lot of time. With a little one you would have to have solid back up plans because they will expect you to go when called.

OTOH if you want to go ahead and get a pup because you want one. Then do. Realize you are looking at a higher drive working dog and one with good hunt drive. You can still raise it and do some basic drive building and obedience training and if it winds up working out, yay. And if not, get another dog.

So I am not trying to be discouraging just painting a real picture and saying "try it first" - if you want to get a GSD, that is fine. FWIW-we don't let folks "carry" on a search; if it is a dicey situation, we want the police flanking for us and nobody does something if they don't feel comforatble with it. We also don't send out people alone.
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Old 12-11-2012, 12:12 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Thank you so much. I was checking out the local team's website earlier and I think I may wait until I've relocated to a place away from the swamps, like Colorado, and until my daughter is older. I am a single mom of a 5 year old. I have family and good friends who would help me out with her when on a call out, but I'm not very fond of big reptiles I can't see in the water. Coyotes and bobcats I can handle, but not gators, and in checking out their site I saw that they do a lot of water work. Even though I swim like a fish, I haven't swam in fresh water since I left OK.

You are completely right, I do have a lot on my plate, but then I always have a lot on my plate. That's how I finished my degree early. But moving and getting my daughter and I settled in is my first priority and I wouldn't want to start with a group and then move. I would have to start all over with a new team.

I think I will continue to research it out, take an introduction class, keep on top of my land nav skills, and when I know I'm living somewhere I plan to stay, I'll move forward. In the mean time I'll go ahead and get my GSD and if he doesn't turn out to be good for SAR work, then I will still have a great companion and then I'll get to add another baby to my household. I'm very grateful for your advice. Good luck with the joint x-rays. I know how important they are. My main priority in finding a GSD is finding a reputable breeder that stays on top of the hip problems in GSDs. I still have plenty of time look around. I won't be doing anything until after I have a job and find a house with a fenced yard. I know the job is coming soon, I just don't know where it will be.

Again, thanks so much for the advice and I wish you luck on your boy's training.
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Old 12-11-2012, 07:46 AM   #6 (permalink)
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In terms of getting the right GSD for SAR work, once you are on a team and have done some training, certified a dog, have references......the doors swing wide open for getting a great dog. Breeders may decline you for "i want to get a dog for SAR" to someone who has no experience in SAR because the vast majority of folks like the idea but not the reality.

In the meanwhile, PM me if interested and I can share my thoughts on some breeders and I would be clear with them....not on a team......hoping to join one and figure out some dog training experience you can do for now..the kind of dog you get for SAR would need at least an hour or two a day of interaction and excercise. Schutzhund training may or may not exclude a dog from consideration down the line - depends on the team.

You may want to look into AKC Tracking, Nosework, Obedience (look at NAPWDA.com and NASAR.org for obedience requirements) and Agility with the new dog. Give you some good foundation stuff..sport tracking is not the same as trailing but it is still good foundation. The other thing is investing a lot of time on offlead woods walking and getting the pup NOT to chase game or critters from day one. Also best to make sure it is dog neutral. As far as the dog protecting you...meh...that is not the goal who knows but you want a dog who is going to have high enough thresholds that it is pretty hard to put onto defense....as a lady out in the woods carry a gun if you feel you need it (actually I am considering but mainly because of wildlife..I am pretty cautious) but the dog is going to have to be capable of not going into defense around people you normally may have no comfort with personally (dementia folks can act very strange).

Yes, they ARE done differently (Tracking and Nosework) than in real life but it is good foundation training. For the nosework, look for someone teaching Ramsey methods. FWIW nosework would probably eliminate the dog from being a future cadaver dog because of training on a different set of odors.

EDIT- we work in swamps sometimes and I absolutely HATE it. Nothing like going from being on firm ground to up to your armpits in blackwater and having to work alongside of folks with automatic weapons in case there is a pig or gator. And gators are fast. I prefer to work from a boat and not do shoreline in swamp areas (we do a good bit of water too). I know there is at least one good team in Colorado. We also have snakes, coyotes, and bobcats and bears and maybe more .
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Old 12-11-2012, 12:20 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Its weird, I have no issues with snakes or other big game/predators. I came across a young rattlesnake during my field work this summer, I named him Jose, took a picture and moved on. I grew up on 240 acres, but if we were going into the woods, we were required to carry one of the guns with us because of the coyotes and bobcats, but they still never bothered me. Gators freak me out. A couple of years ago, I spent a whole summer getting water from a pond with a bucket and a rope off of a bridge because the pond had an 8ft mama in it. I was doing research and it took 3 gallons of water per test, and I had about 30 tests to do. The only other way to get water was from the spot where she was going in and out of the water and they had already caught her boyfriend a couple of weeks before.

Obedience training is a definite thing. I know that NASAR requires Canine Good Citizen or its equivalent. All of my dogs will be taking lessons and he will definitely be dog neutral. My daughter is getting a miniature schnauzer and my mother will be getting her own GSD in Jan or Feb. So he will be around both large and small dogs from the start. Plus all my family and friendís dogs when we go to visit. I think agility is something else I could start him on. An agility course can be set up in a large back yard, and spending a couple of hours or more a day in training is no problem for me. Iíll enjoy having an extra running buddy (when heís big enough to run that much without potentially causing him injury). Iíll definitely see if I can find someone to train him in tracking/nosework.
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Old 12-11-2012, 12:25 PM   #8 (permalink)
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I have no experience with SAR, Nancy is your best source for that, but I read a fabulous book written by a woman who has been doing SAR for years. You might want to read it to get an idea of what it's like - the book is called Scent of the Missing:
Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog: Susannah Charleson: Amazon.com: Books Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog: Susannah Charleson: Amazon.com: Books
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Old 12-11-2012, 12:33 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Thanks. I have added it to my list of books to buy. Hoping for some B&N gift cards for Christmas.
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Old 12-11-2012, 02:49 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Hats off to those of you who have to deal with wildlife. I live in cougar area, but while they are a problem with sheep and calves, I've never heard of one attacking a dog, even less a human. Ngenechen also blessed us with no venomous critters of any kind.
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