King County Search Dogs is a member of the King County Search and Rescue Association and was incorporated as a non-profit Washington corporation in 1996. Our unit provides canine search services primarily to King County, but also to other law enforcement agencies in Washington and surrounding states.  We’ve even travelled as far as British Columbia and Alaska.  All of our services are provided at no cost to the requesting jurisdiction and we’re dispatched through King County Sheriff’s Special Operations, averaging between sixty and seventy searches every year.  Of those about a third are back-country or rural – looking for hikers, mountain bikers, and mushroom pickers.  Another third of our searches are urban searches where we often look for elderly people with Alzheimer’s or autistic children who have run away.  The rest of our searches involve rendering assistance to law enforcement to help solve crimes by looking either for bodies or evidence at a crime scene.   We don’t look for bad guys – law enforcement has their own K-9’s for that.  While not every handler goes out on every search, each handler must attend at least 25% of the callouts for which he or she is eligible in order to remain in good standing with the unit.  In reality we all train so hard that we’re anxious to use our dogs to help out as often as we can.  We never know if a search will require us to hike for miles into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, be lowered from a helicopter with our dogs to a remote location behind Red Mountain, search an avalanche debris field on Chair Peak, or look for somebody’s grandmother who has wandered away from home in Renton, so it’s important we be prepared for any eventuality.

Training

KCSD usually has about 25 members at any given time, some of whom are K-9 handlers and some of whom are support personnel.  All of whom are volunteers, though, who provide their own dogs and are available 24 hours a day. We pay nearly all related expenses for feeding, veterinary care, travel, and purchase of equipment, and that can often amount to several thousand dollars a year.  A new search dog handler who joins our unit can expect to train between eight and fifteen hours a week, and will train with their dog for between eighteen and twenty-four months before they deploy on a search as a team.  During that time they work on their own training, work with other teams to learn from them, and the handler will deploy on searches to support certified teams.  Watching other dog teams work and taking an active role in their training is an important part of the learning process for a new handler.  Once a team has certified, though, they don’t get to rest much.  Our dogs need constant training to perform to the high standards demanded of them, and each member takes an active role helping other handlers train their dogs, too.

Short Rest

Each team certifies in a primary discipline first, either air scent search (to locate any human in a specific area) or tracking/trailing (following the path of a specific individual).  An airscent team can cover a large area in a fraction of the time that it would take a large group of ground searchers to search, maximizing resources on a search.  Our trailing dogs routinely work trails that are over 24 hours old, and practice in urban areas where hundreds of people have walked over the track they must follow. Once a team certifies in a primary discipline they can begin to work on a secondary one, such as cadaver search, water search, or avalanche search.  Many dogs in our unit are proficient in multiple disciplines, reflecting thousands of hours of training with their handlers.  All teams must recertify in their primary and secondary disciplines periodically to ensure they’re performing up to expectations.

Done

People often ask what makes a good search dog.  While there are probably as many answers to that question as there are search dog handlers, a few traits are crucial.  A dog must be able to physically work for many hours in all conditions.  Dogs that area too small can’t physically negotiate rough terrain, and dogs that are too large often have a tough time in hot conditions and tend to tire more easily and have a shorter working life.  A dog must also have something we call “drive” – they have to be so strongly motivated by something that they will work for hours to get it.  If you’ve ever met a dog that will play ball until they drop, and search for hours if they lose the ball, that’s the kind of dog we look for.

Coming Down

KCSD usually opens up its membership every two or three years, brings in a small group of new handlers, then trains them to certification before opening up our membership again.  There are lots of other ways people can help, though.  We sometimes need people to come out and hide for our dogs at training, and as a self-funded non-profit we often look for fundraising opportunities and donations for equipment and training.  You can find more information at www.kcsearchdogs.org.

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