Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group

Ground Searchers Guide To Working With A Dog Handler

In the course of a SAR incident, you may be called upon to accompany a SAR dog and her handler as they search an area for airborne scent or the lost person's scent trail. This beats the hell out of walking sweeps through a swamp! You may be called upon to perform a number of functions so that the handler is free to observe his dog, interpret her behavior, and follow up on alerts. These include:

  • Navigation -- either keeping track of your position on a hasty or trail search, or actually maintaining an accurate grid in a large area
  • Radio Operations and general communication
  • Marking -- of alerts and olfactory clues, on the map and at the site -- often including time and wind direction
  • Clue Awareness -- keeping aware of visual and audio clues as in any search 

 Your ability to perform these functions smoothly will spell the difference between being an asset to the team, increasing its probability of detection, and hindering the performance of the dog or handler.

Rules for Working with SAR Dogs

  1. Ask the handler what he expects of you before leaving for your task.
  2. The handler is in charge of tactics during the search. He knows how to position and work his dog to her best advantage; you do not.
  3. Do not get between the handler and dog. This obscures the handler's view of his dog's alerts. Some SAR dogs get very miffed when you do this. The best traveling position is a couple of yards behind the handler.
  4. Do not talk to the dog while she is working, and keep general chatter to a minimum.
  5. Watch the dog when the handler cannot; if he is fiddling with his radio and you see the dog alert strongly, let him know. If the dog makes a dash for the highway, call her!
  6. Keep the search party well bunched; some SAR dogs become disturbed when "their" people start straggling or spreading out, and will waste time trying to herd you together instead of searching. These dogs don't want to risk losing another one!
  7. Be prepared to hold the handler's place. He may ask you to remain stationary on the grid or trail while following up a dog alert. This will ensure thorough coverage of the area, and is not an insult. Mark this spot and the dog & handler's direction of travel on your map, flag the position, and be ready to follow in if they signal a find.
  8. Learn to be wind-aware. A change in air-movements may necessitate a change in tactics. Be ready to document these changes and their times on your map. (The handler may prefer to do this.)
  9. Be safety-conscious. A highway, hunter, or homeowner that may pose an inconvenience to human searchers could spell death to a dog. Make the handler aware of these hazards.
  10. Act like a searcher. Use your training to notice and evaluate visual and auditory clues. Employ attraction if feasible -- many SAR dogs aren't fazed by you whistling or calling to the subject. If you would investigate something on a regular ground search, do it, even if the dog has ignored it.

In case of a find --

As always, be prepared to radio your location and the condition of the person to base, and to guide a rescue party in if necessary. If the handler signals a find when he is foraying off your trail or grid, be sure to mark the trail/grid position well with flagging tape before following him in.


If the handler must be the one to care for the patient, secure the crime scene, or manage other tasks because he is the most qualified person to do so, you may be asked to reward or help to reward the dog. This may involve playing ball, dog-wrestling, cuddling, or whatever turns that particular dog on. Keep this reward up until either the dog or the handler tells you to stop.


• You may be asked to take a dog back to base on a leash. Ask specific questions about feeding, watering, resting, etc. You are responsible for the dog until the handler returns to claim her or you turn her over to a designated person. If you microwave her in a parked car or bloat her with cheez doodles, her handler will cut your liver out with a spoon.