It is not looking for lost pets. We used to get that question a lot. "Our dog ran away, Can you help us find her?" No, we can't. We also aren't an animal shelter. But the words "search" and "rescue" conjure up specific things in peoples minds. Neither are accurate.
Search and rescue is looking for lost people, dead or alive. Like the old west without the bounty. K9 search and rescue is looking for people with a dog. Emphasis on "looking." If you want to actually find someone, alive or dead, then you shouldn't get into SAR. Most handlers go their entire career without finding anything. The odds are just not good that you will be the one given an area to search that has the one missing person in it. Odds are better the longer you are in SAR. But in reality a lot of people are never found. A lot of bodies are not recovered.
Part of that reason is that you, the handler, aren't in charge of the search. You go where you are told by law enforcement. If their information says search this farm but not that one, then you only search the farm they asked you to. You are still bound by all the rules of society, like the Constitution. SAR dogs do not provide probable cause. So you go where LE says they thing you should look. End of story.
A SAR dog will train for two years before certification. Did you read that? 2. Years. So if you bring your 8 week old puppy to training and can manage to teach an indication by 4 months, then you could have them certified and ready to search by 2.5 years. But its unlikely. Its more likely your dog will be at least 3. And if its your first dog, well...you always ruin your first dog. So just think what you would do with 2 years. That's half a Bachelors degree. Or two Superbowls. Training a dog takes time. Even more time when you need help. You can't hide for the dog AND be the handler. You need someone to help hide, or hide the cadaver sources. The type of people that are going to touch stinky decomp are also SAR handlers. They have their own dogs to train. Now you have a couple people training a couple dogs and then you become a team. I laugh. That's part of the reason it takes so long. Groups of people take a long time to do things. Two years is the average.
I've heard lots of people say, "my dog loves to smell things. It followed our trail into the park all the way back home. He would be great at search and rescue." Well, actually with that little information your dog would suck at it. First, because you are not searching for your own scent. And following a scent in the direction it came from is pointless. You need to know where they are, and not where they started. Besides, SAR dogs want to be out, not at home. Thinking that you wandering dog would be good at SAR shows how naive you are. And how shocked you will be when you get out in the woods.
Most people quit SAR, its just there. Its a fact. They picked a pet they thought was hyper, but in reality can't work more than an hour. They can't give up two or three days a week to train because the spouse doesn't want to take care of the kids that long. They don't want to poop in the woods behind a tree (true story.) They are smokers and are unwilling to quit. There are tons more reasons people end up leaving. SAR is a hug time commitment. Its dirty and uncomfortable. You aren't a super hero, in fact its unlikely you will ever find a missing person. What you will do is spend a lot of time training a dog to finding someone and then a lot of time doing paperwork about what you did in the woods.
I still dream of making the big find. You know, locating a missing child, gathering them up in your arms, and running them back to their distraught parents waiting with TV cameras. I'm sad to say its never gonna happen. In my cadaver dog's career she only ever made one find, and that was locating bones from a body that they already found. Forensics requested dogs to assist in locating the bones that animals had scattered. We had a good chance of finding something, and we did. Two somethings in fact, part of a foot we thought. It was a tragic murder. But when Juno indicated bone I had a huge smile. We don't deal in reality, we deal in the game of finding things. That was the one time my dog won. It was awesome. And it never happened again. If you want to "win" you train. If you want to search, well, pack a lunch because this is going to take a while.
I also trained a live find dog. She is awesome. A tireless poodle that found 3 people in the rain over 160 acres. She did not certify because she would not sit for 15 minutes. What does that have to do with searching, you ask? Nothing really. But the team I was on felt that one test was the measure of a search dog, and without it she could not certify. No way around it. So I left that team. There is a lot of ego in SAR. A lot of antiquated rules. So while SAR is working your dog, its also a lot of working with people. Way too much, actually. You have to politic on any team. Be nice to the people that grade your tests, even if they are wrong. I've even agreed to a few things that I was totally against because I had a test coming up and didn't want it to influence the outcome. And it would. So if you aren't ready to kiss ass and keep your mouth shut, SAR may not be for you.
Are you still interested in SAR? Cool. Go meet some teams. Read their standards and find out what they are really going to ask you to do. Then ask LE if they actually call that team for a search. Some teams are not popular, they have a bad reputation. I was on a team with a good reputation, but I should have asked more people. My team was considered elitist, and while LE liked them a lot of people in the dog community did not. But it would be even worse to train for two years for a game you never get to play. Way worse.
SAR is a lot of field work. You need to know how to navigate in the woods. Some people just can't. No matter how long you teach them or how you explain a compass, they just can't grasp the concept of looking at a flat piece of paper and translating that into the mountain in front of them. I brought a friend into SAR that got a dog just for the work and then left because she could not understand which way was North. What do you do with your beloved pet then? Keep it, rehome it, find another purpose?
SAR is awesome. SAR sucks. Both of things happen at the same time. Just like life. You take the good with the bad and if the good outweighs the bad then it makes sense to you. If it doesn't then you leave. You move out of state and create a new life. Maybe you try again, maybe you decide you've had enough disfunction and take up knitting. Oh, wait. I'm projecting.
But seriously. K9 search and rescue is a lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of pain. Its also the most rewarding thing I've done. At the drop of a hat I can be in the woods with my dog, my partner, helping bring home someone's grandfather that walked out of the house the night before and never returned. People in this kind of work, and its normally unpaid BTW, do it because they love to work their dogs. But you can get that same satisfaction from one of a dozen AKC or UKC events and without all the mosquitoes and sunblock.