Mountainpathfinder>> Georgia SAR>> Georgia SAR: Volunteering to be a SAR Dog "Subject"

The public has little appreciation for just how important even a few hours of a volunteer's time can be in preparing a dog for real-life search missions. A mission-qualified dog has probably spent hundreds of hours in practice searches before it does its first actual search mission. Volunteers satisfy two critical training needs:

  • By letting the dogs find them in training, volunteers free up the other dog handlers to focus on training. The handlers don't have to lose time in swapping between handling their dogs and hiding for others' dogs. This permits all the handlers to get in more training time. More training time = better dogs + dogs that reach their training goals faster; and
  • It teaches the dogs to look forward to finding strangers. The dog learns to expect fun and games from anyone that it finds. On a real mission a search dog must have no reluctance whatsoever in approaching a lost person. A steady stream of "strangers" during training can overcome any reluctance that the dog might have.

So, your local SAR dog organization asked you to be a "subject" for some search training? Yay! But you have no idea what this entails (no pun intended!)? No problem! If you're doing this, then chances are that:

  • You want to do a good job, and
  • You want to make a good impression. You probably volunteered in the first place because you were interested in joining the organization.

Here are some pointers to be the best "subject" while showing that you have real interest in sticking with this.


Yes, being a "subject" boils down to hiding from the dogs. Nevertheless, think of this like a job interview or try-out. Don't forget the winning essentials. Know the "5 W's" for the training session:

  • Where - get the address as well as a good set of directions. Many organizations train in out- of-the-way places that are poorly marked or that most locals are unfamiliar with;
  • When - be on time. Know what time the training starts and when it's expected to end. Try to attend on a day when you can stay for the whole session;
  • Why - try to get some idea of what's going on - puppy "runaways," certification test, extended search evolutions for experienced dogs, certification tests, etc.;
  • What - learn what you can about the training plan for that day;
  • Who - know specifically who it is that you're to meet with at the site; and
  • How - learn as much as you can about what they want you to do. Be prepared in case the training plan changes, though. Check for any special arrangements, such as meeting at a particular time to pass through a locked gate. Ask if you need a high-clearance vehicle to get to the training area. Get a contact phone number to call in case you are unable to find the training site. Make certain that your contact person has your cell phone number to call in case the team has to leave on a real search. Nothing is more of a drag that driving 50 miles to the training site only to find that the team members went to a search instead.

First impressions last forever. With that in mind:

  • Be on time. The organization's training officer may be counting on you to be there at a certain time. Your tardiness may throw off the schedule. Access to some sites is limited by a locked gate which is only opened for a brief period. Don't make the "gatekeeper" wait on you;
  • Dress for success. Wear clothing that's appropriate for the weather and the terrain. Don't wear anything that isn't suitable for an extended walk through heavy brush or around steep hills unless you were told otherwise by the organization. Don't wear anything that you are unwilling for a dog to slobber, drool, or step on with muddy feet. It will happen. It always does;
  • Be prepared. You don't have to be Rambo. Just show up with the right tools to stay outdoors all day with some degree of "functional comfort." "Functional comfort" is that level of personal preparedness at which you carry just enough supplies to stay focused on the job - no more and no less. If you take too little, you become distracted by what you don't have enough of - water, food, sunscreen, etc. Take too much and you're more focused on the strain of carrying all the unnecessary "snivel gear;"
  • Don't bring your dog unless you were specifically invited to do so by the organization. Training evolutions are sometimes tightly scheduled. They may not have built in the time to evaluate your dog. Bringing your dog with the idea of wheedling some training time is a profoundly bad idea;
  • Don't volunteer unless you're ready to enthusiastically play with the dogs. The goal in every evolution is to give the dog an opportunity to have a great play session as a reward for finding the subject. You have to be ready to put 100 percent of yourself into showing the dog that you're the greatest person in the world to find
  • Don't blow off a training day invitation. Don't promise to attend unless you intend to go. Don't decide at the last minute that you aren't going because it's too rainy or too cold or too early in the morning or simply too inconvenient. Remember that the organization's members have been training in that weather for years. They will peg you in a minute as someone that doesn't have the inner drive to be a search dog handler if you can't muster up the backbone for this now. A good SAR dog organization sees every potential member as an investment of its members' time in training you. The members won't offer to make that investment unless they see a good chance to realize a "return" on the investment, in terms of you and your dog becoming a mission-ready crew.

And keep in mind that you should be comfortable with sitting alone in the woods for an hour or more - sometimes several hours. Part of the training evolution's goal may be to train the dog to find a subject who has been stationary for a long time. A stationary subject creates a large "scent pool" that some dogs are challenged by.

What to bring

You will be more effective and will have a more enjoyable experience if you bring some things with you. The "Ten Essentials" are important to your personal outdoor safety unless you're only doing "puppy runaways" in someone's back yard. They're simple and inexpensive. They include:

  • A pocketknife or multi-purpose tool - nothing big; nothing fancy. A $10 Swiss Army Knife is more than sufficient;
  • A first aid kit - this isn't combat surgery. Put together something with some band-aids, some aspirin or ibuprofen, an alcohol wipe, a small pack of antacids, and some moleskin;
  • A spare set of clothes - some spare socks and a synthetic pull-over and pants;
  • A light source - an inexpensive LED flashlight with spare batteries will do. A LED headlight is even better;
  • Rain gear - something to keep the rain off. Most of the time a large contractor's garbage bag will shelter you from an unexpected shower;
  • Water - take at least a quart- or liter bottle of water if you're just out for the morning. Take two if it's an all-day affair;
  • Map and compass - have a good baseplate compass (less than $12) if you know how to use it. A good organization will give you some type of a map unless you're doing very simple evolutions;
  • Matches and a fire-starter - some waterproof matches and some balls of cotton packed into an empty plastic "mini M & M" candy bottle;
  • Sun protection - includes a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses as necessary;
  • Snacks/food - at least take some high-energy snack foods. Think about packing a lunch. Most teams don't take a lunch break in which they leave the training site.

To the "Ten Essentials" consider adding:

  • A pad and pencil - Make notes. I'll explain why later;
  • Insect repellent - You're sitting on the ground for up to an hour or more. This makes you a gourmet feast for insects, ticks, and other arthropods; Ticks are on the prowl almost year round in Georgia;
  • A foam pad - a 2x2 chunk of closed-cell foam pad can make you much more comfortable, particular if you're going to sit on cold or wet ground. Sitting on stone can become uncomfortable on even a warm day. A small collapsible chair is great;
  • A two-way radio - bring a Family Radio Service (FRS) or General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) radio if you have one. Many organizations use these either in addition to, or as backups for, amateur "ham" radios. At least bring a cell phone. This way, the training director can reach you in case you aren't found at your designated area, or if he or she wants to give you new instructions;
  • Leather gloves - a $10 pair of leather gloves are worthwhile if the organization is hiding you in a "rubble pile" to simulate disaster search work;
  • Entertainment - again, you may be out there for a long time. You might think of taking a book, a magazine, or perhaps a puzzle book. An MP3 player might not even be out of order.

Going to the Woods

Part of being an effective "subject" for the dogs to find is making sure that you fully understand what is expected of you. Ask questions. Write down the answers. Clarify anything that is unclear to you. Some questions include:

  • What is the assignment - Are you doing a "puppy runaway" (running only a few yards away), hiding as part of a search, or laying a track?
  • Where are you to go - Have them to tell you how far away they want you to go, and how you are to hide. For larger exercises, ask for a map that specifies where you are to be;
  • What reward or toy are you to take for the dog - each handler usually has some sort of toy or other reward to present to the dog when it successfully finishes the evolution. Make sure that you have that with you before you leave for your hiding spot;
  • When are you to reward the dog - Are you to give the reward when the dog initially finds you, or are you to wait until the dog appropriately "alerts" the handler and then does a "refind?"
  • Are you to be in any way "responsive" - to talk or interact- with the dog before it makes the refind, or are you remain "neutral" - ignoring or being passive - to the dog until the handler signals you?
  • If you are laying a track, does the handler want you to leave any sort of "sign" to confirm for the handler that the dog is on track? If so, what? Some handlers are satisfied with an occasional broken limb or scuffed-up soil in a bare spot in the trail. Some public areas can't take that much abuse, so handlers may ask you to hang flagging tape - either knotted to a limb or tied to a clothespin clipped to vegetation - or perhaps some toilet paper. Find out how much space that you should leave between sign, or whether sign should be left only at turns in your trail;
  • If you are laying a track, does the tracking dog handler want you to draw a map of the route that you walked; and
  • If you aren't found (and the goal IS to find you!), when should you walk out?

Stick with the instructions that you're given. The worst mistake that you can make is to "add" to the training by throwing in some trick or twist just to "see if the dog can figure this out." Forget all the tricks that you saw the inmates use to throw off the tracking dogs in the B-grade prison escape movie. Training evolutions are often designed with particular goals in mind for a dog. The goal is never to make the dog fail. Try something cute and you may never be invited back by that organization.

Some radio advice

  • Make note of the frequency name or number on your assigned radio. Ask someone to show you how to adjust the radio's volume. You might also ask someone to either "lock" in the correct frequency or show you how to adjust it in case the radio is accidentally switched to an incorrect frequency;
  • Don't lose your radio while you're out there. They're expensive. Don't end your first training day by writing a check for a radio that you lost. Many FRS and GMRS radios have a lanyard loop so you can "dummy cord" them to your pack or belt;
  • Keep the radio's volume low enough that only you can hear it. A radio that's too loud can easily cue a dog to your whereabouts before the dog has a chance to use its nose to find you;
  • Don't twiddle with the knobs or settings. Many radios are easily switched off-channel. It's also easy to turn the radio's volume down so low that you can't hear someone calling you;
  • Stay off the radio. Bad radio etiquette can be a major faux pas. It can also be a violation of Federal Communications Commission regulations. If you must use the radio, then keep messages brief and concise. Remember that you can be heard for miles by other radios. Don't use jargon or code. Don't tell jokes. Don't use CB radio slang;
  • Listen for how senior team members speak on the radio. Emulate good habits;
  • Avoid "clipping," or accidentally cutting off the beginning or the end of your transmission. One way to prevent it is the "one-two" method. "One-two" works like this: after you press the radio's transmit key, silently count "one-two" before you begin speaking. After you finish speaking, silently count "one-two" before releasing the transmit key.

When the dog finds you

By now you should already know when the handler wants you to reward the dog. What's just as important is how you reward the dog. Never forget that, for the play-oriented dogs, the reason for all of this is the big, exciting, joyful play session when the dog finds you. Make that find as satisfying as you can. To do that:

  • Stay focused. Some dogs will surprise you by racing up from behind you or from around some obstacle. Listen for the dog as well as the handler;
  • Get mentally prepared to "bust out" when it's reward time. Whether you call it "psyching yourself out" or "putting on a game face," get ready to put all your energy into playing with the dog. Pretend that you're waiting for the dog to press your "launch button" by making the initial find or the refind;
  • Be prepared to present that reward - the toy, the stick, whatever - as soon as the handler wants you to do so. Have it close at hand. Don't fumble for it. If you're worried about getting your fingers chomped, then hold the reward by its edge. If you're really paranoid about it, then grip it between a thumb and your balled-up fingers to avoid sticking them in the dog's mouth;
  • Talk to the dog. Use a happy, high-pitched voice. Guys - some of you really have to work on this. Some men are terribly reluctant to use a goofy voice and act "girly," yet it's that behavior that makes a find even more exciting for the dog;
  • Listen for the handler's instructions. Some handlers may want you to play tug-of-war with the dog. Others may ask you to toss the reward for a game of fetch. The handler will give you the best cues for what the dog enjoys the most;
  • When tossing a ball, pitch it low and long. Avoid the "flyball." A dog can get hurt by leaping to catch the ball but landing on sharp, low-lying tree limbs;
  • Some dogs are the unquestioned champions of tug-of-war. They can leave you feeling as if they're pulling your shoulder out. If the dog enjoys tug-of-war, be ready to keep your footing. Brace yourself so that the dog doesn't snatch your arm;
  • Be ready for some dogs to get right in your face when they find you. Some dogs will get very close-up very fast. Others may stomp you silly in their exuberance at finding you. This can be startling and even intimidating when the dog in question is a 70 lb Malinois or a 90 lb German Shepherd. Being bitten isn't a worry. Being stomped by an over-exuberant dog is a reasonable concern, though!

Final thoughts

SAR dog organizations love their volunteers. SAR dog training revolves around making searching a total, over-the-top joy for the dog. And a steady source of "strangers" is a necessity for preparing dogs for real-world searches.

Some simple things can make you a more effective "subject," and will increase your chances at being accepted by a SAR organization. Most really professional organizations will cover all of these issues with you well before putting you out in the woods. If they don't, though, at least you've prepared yourself. And, you may have a good basis for deciding whether it's an organization that you want to be part of.

Thanks to Debbie Goebels, Search and Rescue Dogs of Georgia (SARDOG) members Allen Padgett, Karen Padgett, Susan Andes, and Dianne Stone, and Alpha Team K9 Search and Rescue members Cheryl McCullough and Paul Ruszcyzk for their contributions to this page.

Bookmark and Share
Mountainpathfinder on Facebook
Recommended Reading
Building a Basic Foundation for Search and Rescue Dog Training
Buzzards and Butterflies - Human Remains Detection Dogs
The Handbook for Managing Land Search Operations
High Angle Rescue Techniques Text and Pocket Guide Package
Lost Person Behavior: A search and rescue guide on where to look - for land, air and water
Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills
On Rope: North American Vertical Rope Techniques for Caving ... Rappellers
Search and Rescue Canine - Training Log and Journal
Search and Rescue Dogs: Training the K-9 Hero, Second Edition
Scent and the Scenting Dog, by William Syrotuck
Training the Disaster Search Dog
Urban Search: Managing Missing Person Searches in the Urban Environment
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
Graphics By
Updated Thursday, May 7, 2009, 6:00 AM
Copyright 2000-2010 Jim Greenway