As we have mentioned before, after the wonderful experience in Folgaria with the Italian Federation of Search and Rescue Dogs, we decided to give you more detailed information on the world of search and rescue dogs and Dog Units. Today we’ll talk about two fundamental figures for the training of these heroic dogs: handlers and walk-ons.
Handler and walk-on are two key roles during the training of search and rescue dogs, and it’s sad to see that the government neither acknowledges nor protects these professions, in spite of the numerous courses held by different specialised organisations, continuously releasing new trained volunteers.
But what exactly do they do?
The HANDLER is much like a film director, the person in charge of caring for, initiating and using the dog in search and rescue operations. The handler is not necessarily the dog’s owner, but to make sure that they work perfectly well together, there must be a strong connection and absolute trust on both sides, which can only be achieved by continuously working together.
The handler is therefore responsible for guiding the animal during the operations, using voice commands and gestures, in an attempt to exploit the dog’s potentialities as best he/she can, always aware of the dog’s limitations and of what stimulates the dog. Handlers must also be able to help the person being searched for. Being able to do this at a professional level requires many hours of training, constant exercising and long concrete experience in the field, on surface level as well as among rubble.
In order to be acknowledged as dog handler, you must first obtain an Operative Licence, but you must also be someone who is emotionally stable, very patient, have a strong sense of responsibility, in addition to strong motivation and, of course, plenty of love for dogs. A handler who is very familiar with the character, the preparation and the reactions of his/her own dog is the only person who can work with him successfully and safely in a real search and rescue operation! The pair Search and Rescue Dog plus Handler is a Dog Unit that operates in perfect synergy in emergency situations.
WALK-ONS work behind the scenes, and their role is both active and physical, as they effectively help the instructor train the dog unit, through play and progressive contact. In addition, during many of the training phases these people will play the role of missing person. They must be skilled with dogs and understand dog psychology, and must be very familiar with the handler they are working with as well. Their role is fundamental, as they provide help and let the dogs know how nice and advantageous it is to search for and find a missing person, by teaching them the barking signalling method.
To become a walk-on, volunteers must have plenty of experience and sensitivity, adaptability skills because they must work in different weather conditions, sometimes very adverse (for instance, during training they can hide in a hole, under rubble or near brambles); a good walk-on should not let him/herself be discouraged by tiredness, unpleasant weather or discomfort. Due to their importance in the training of these dogs, they require very specific training.
Handlers and walk-ons are volunteers and therefore worthy of admiration. Their work is formidable. If you’re interested or want information on training and courses, contact FEDICS, the Italian Federation of Search and Rescue Dogs.