MESARD’s primary mission is to provide trained dog and handler teams to assist in wilderness search and rescue in the state of Maine. MESARD and MASAR (Maine Association for Search and Rescue) have stringent requirements for certification as ground searchers and SAR dog teams to ensure that their contribution to the search and rescue effort is credible and safe. The Maine Warden Service requires that dog teams searching at SAR scenes be certified through MASAR or the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
To become a certified dog handler, the handler must first be certified as a ground searcher by MASAR. In 2002, this certification consisted of the following requirements:
- Successful completion of a BASAR (Basic Search and Rescue) or equivalent course. This is a course on the basics of search and rescue which includes map and compass, land navigation, survival, search strategies and techniques, rescue techniques, etc. MASAR certified units offer it on an irregular basis, sometimes over a two-day weekend;
- Current certification in a basic first aid or higher course;
- Current certification in CPR;
- Completion of a MASAR approved fitness test. These tests are designed to measure the body’s ability to process oxygen at a given rate. The test usually given by MESARD is to walk 2 miles with a 25-pound pack within 30 minutes;
- Completion of a FEMA ICS100 course, can be done easily on-line or taken as a class.
- Documentation of the completion of the above must be submitted to the MASAR Standards Committee;
- Basic Ground Searchers must re-certify every three years. Re-certification means documenting on-going training with a MASAR certified Unit, current first aid and CPR and completion of a fitness test in the last 6 months.
Other handler training required by MESARD and MASAR includes canine first aid, wilderness navigation and learning how to train and utilize a SAR dog in a wilderness environment. Searching with a SAR dog in the wilderness is a strenuous activity for the handler and dog. In remote areas, the handler and dog are often on their own and cannot always rely on a quick evacuation if they become tired or injured. Physical fitness of the handler and dog are an important issue. The longest of the four required certification tests is a search of 160 acres. It has a time limit of 8 hours. Applicants to MESARD should ask themselves if they and their dogs could walk in wooded terrain for 8 hours, as this is often required at real searches.
Training a SAR dog takes a considerable commitment in time, equipment and travel. Handlers are expected to attend obedience or other classes outside of regular training if that is what is needed to attain the Canine Good Citizenship or other obedience degree required for certification. Handlers will also need to attend monthly training sessions, work on their own with their dog at least every other day for a minimum of a half hour and attend informal training sessions with other handlers that are held in addition to the formal sessions. MESARD handlers will not be “spoon fed” their training by the group. They must work hard on their own to accomplish the training objectives.
It takes about 350 hours of dog training to get initial certification in a Wilderness SAR discipline. After that, the team must do maintenance training of a minimum of 16 hours a month. Doing 350 hours of training in the team’s first year means training approximately 7 hours a week, and that does not include travel time to train with others, since about 300 of those hours need to be with other people who hide or lay tracks for the dog team. This is a substantial commitment of time, so carefully consider how much time is needed to work a dog in search and rescue.
Training and working a dog in SAR requires great patience and understanding. Dealing with fellow searchers and despondent family members in stressful circumstances requires even more patience and understanding. SAR dog handlers have to be team players. They have to be willing to work with others and take direction from search managers even if they don’t agree. Keeping MESARD running as a Unit requires considerable work in fundraising, record keeping, etc. People who apply to MESARD who are not team players, who do not listen and take advice well, or who will not make a significant contribution to the over all group and assist with group business, fund raising, etc., will not be elected to membership. These are the most common reasons people are rejected as members.
Search call outs often come after dark and in the middle of the night. MESARD likes to search at night when there is less interference with other searchers. While no member is required to go to or stay at searches, the expectation is that handlers will be able to leave their jobs and families to respond to search call outs.
Most searches occur after dark and in poor weather because these are the conditions people become disoriented in. Often the most urgent of searches are caused by the worst weather conditions. Dogs work better than humans under conditions of low visibility. The handler must purchase the clothing and equipment needed to operate in these conditions.
Searches occur all over Maine, in suburban and remote areas. Long travel times by vehicle and on foot seem to be the norm for wilderness searches. More often than not, SAR personnel respond only to arrive just as the victim is located, so they only turn back and go home. While it may be disappointing to the SAR personnel not to be utilized, it is a reflection of the level of efficiency SAR operations have reached in Maine.
SAR dog handlers have to be emotionally resilient. No team is perfect. Sometimes teams fail certification tests, and occasionally they miss victims on real searches. This can be very disturbing to handlers who have prepared long and hard in training. Search and rescue means that it is likely you will find or see dead, severely injured, mentally or emotionally disturbed persons. You will be expected to assist with the finding and recovery of these persons, and you may be alone and without other assistance for some time. In the past MESARD members have experienced post-traumatic stress over some of the incidents they have encountered. SAR is serious business.
MESARD has a tradition to uphold. It has become recognized by the Maine Warden Service, other official agencies and by other SAR groups as an excellent and professional resource. This is because of the quality of its members, many of who joined back when SAR with dogs was struggling to survive in Maine. They have worked thousands of hours at the best and worst of searches in Maine. They know what it takes to be a good SAR dog handler in Maine. These members will insure that those who follow them in the group meet standards that insure MESARD remains a credible and professional group.