We ask a great deal of the dogs working search-and-rescue.
SAR dogs must be independent thinkers even as they are collaborative partners, should exhibit high drive for the job, while at the same time possess the physical and psychological stamina the work may demand. They should be communicative, confident and polite. Focused on task and still situationally aware. Stubborn when they have to be. Obedient when they don’t want to be. It’s a right mix of sometimes conflicting energies, and we come to young dogs with a handful of aptitude tests and a whole lot of hope.
Some likable dogs don’t make it through the training. Some unexpected dogs shine. And we continue to learn that many of these dogs possess capabilities we’re only beginning to understand — gifts of nose and soul and smarts. SAR dog candidates represent a variety of breeds and mixed breeds, and while there are SAR theorists who believe in a “best” breed for the job, other handlers and trainers offer proof that drive and talent may spring from surprising sources.
I worked ground SAR for three years before I trained a dog of my own, running as an assistant beside dog-and-handler units from my own team and, on large-scale searches, with other teams from across the country. I am grateful for that apprenticeship and the years of opportunity to witness experienced partners in action, often in horrible conditions. I remember those handlers getting out there, getting in the thick of things, following a dog in trust. Though I don’t know all their backstories (and would like to), somewhere in their history these handlers connected with a pup, a youth, or a last-chance dog scheduled for euthanasia and said, “This one,” and they gave up something of themselves to commit to canine partners.
And those dogs, I think of them often, too. Since I’ve made a career of following search canines, in memory I see a lot of dog butts running, a whole population of waving tails. The Border Collies, Belgian Malinois, German Shepherds, Weimaraners, Labrador Retrievers, Roughcoat Collies, Coonhounds, Belgian Tervurens, Golden Retrievers, Flatcoat Retrievers, Bloodhounds, Huskies, Standard Poodles, Boxers, Beagles and Pit Bull Terriers, and the solid, striped or spotty mixed breeds. Many of the dog teams that taught me would have retired by now, and some of the dogs from those years must certainly have died. But it doesn’t take much to remember their collective power and their tremendous grace — at a word, all those dogs that lept into disaster as though their own lives depended on it, rather than the lives of human others.