There are two important parts of keeping a Search & Rescue team running: fund raising and training. To maintain our national status and membership of ALSAR (national governing body), we are committed to a rolling programme of training.
A dog team typically consists of at least three parts – the search dog, the dog’s handler (owner), and a support person who will perform navigation, communication, first aid and other functions as needed.
All parts of a Search & Rescue dog team require specialist training before they can become operational and go out to assist on live searches. The majority of the training is practical, realistic and, where possible, fun. This training focuses on two key areas: the handler/support and the dog itself. Typically it will take six months before the handler/support achieves qualification standards and around two years before the dog is ready to be nationally assessed.
In order to be fully operational members, our human volunteers have to undergo training in Search Techniques, Riverbank Searching, Navigation & Radio Communication, Missing Person Behaviour and Human & Canine First Aid. All of this provides us with the skills and confidence required to run a full and flexible search team.
Our first aid training is at the level of a first responder. This can be for each other (if there is an accident whilst out) or for the person we are looking for. If our missing person needs medical help, we are trained to provide life-saving emergency first aid, as well as monitoring and managing the patient until an ambulance arrives for us to hand over to. It is so essential that we have re-qualify every year.
We are regularly called out at night and in rural areas such as woodlands, open fields and farmland. This means that we need to be qualified in Navigation to maintain our safety and to ensure the search is efficient, thinking about how the area is laid out. The hazards and navigation challenges are also different when the temperatures drop in the winter when compared to the milder and lighter summer months. Our training takes place in both day and night, and in all weathers, to ensure it is as similar to a real search as possible.
Operational members will undergo over 50 hours of this formal training in addition to the regular (weekly and monthly) training nights learning to work and read their dog.
The majority of our dogs are trained as air scenting dogs as most of our work is in rural and unpopulated areas, often away from roads and areas with vehicle access. Air scenting often involves searching within woodland or across large areas (e.g. fields). Dogs are trained to detect any human scent and a successful search takes three stages, each of which have to be specifically trained for:
Following Stage Five, dogs and their handlers are ready for day and night time mock assessments. These prepare the dog and handler for their national national assessment where up to 3 missing people could be hidden over a 2km route, up to 25m either side of the trail. This route must be completed in 1 hour with all people found.
Training a dog is hard work and involves weekly training over two years. If the dog and handler are successful in completing all five stages (above), their mock assessments and pass their national assessment, they graduate from a Level 1 training dog and qualify as a Level 2 (now operational) dog.
The handler may choose to do additional training to reach Level 3 which is the ability to search an area of 50 acres within 90 minutes. This is also nationally assessed and is a much more difficult task.