By: Joanne Ewen, JD, EMT, DOT-I
K9 Handler

Have you seen movies or TV shows that highlight a dog tracking a person? The attention is on the dog, but in reality the K9 works closely with its handler. So, what does it take to become a K9 handler for a search and rescue dog?

Besides training the dog and having it certified by an appropriate agency through a rigorous evaluation process, a K9 handler should be certified in search and rescue by the National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR – There is a comprehensive list of knowledge and skills required to be a search and rescue technician. SAR Technician III is the first level and is an introduction to search and rescue training. SAR Technician II is the fundamentals of search and rescue which includes much more knowledge and skill in the field. SAR Technician I is an advanced level for people who may function as Crew Leader. Each level requires a written and practical exam, much like EMS training.

Those of us on the Northstar SAR team are required to be SAR Technician II. The newbies like me just completed a course over two weekends that ended with the written exam – and we all passed! We practiced the required skills which included land navigation by compass, tracking footsteps, evidence detection on a route and in an area, and rope tying plus creating a harness from webbing. The practical skills test will be held as soon as the snow is gone.

Anyone who claims to be on a search and rescue team should have NASAR certification. If they don’t – and there are plenty of teams out there who have no training at all – then they are not adequately trained and will be lucky to find their way out of the woods.

One of the most important rules in search and rescue is to be prepared for anything during a search, such as an overnight or bad weather or getting hurt. We are responsible for our own safety first, even over that of the victim. That should sound familiar to EMS personnel! Another requirement we have is to gather the supplies for a 24-hour period and pack them into a backpack which we will then carry during the practical skills test. Our instructor’s pack was 70 pounds! Guess what the heaviest item is – water. We need at least 2 x 1 quart containers for a short search, and overnights need a couple gallons – more if it’s extreme weather. Of course, K9 handlers also need to carry water for their dog, which increases the load.

Northstar SAR holds high standards for members of the team, and that means we have a lot of learning and practice and review to do, not just for the exam but for real searches. I can hardly wait until I’m certified and going out to support my team on searches!