What is CARDA?

The California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) is a volunteer search and rescue (SAR) dog unit, on call 24 hours a day to assist law enforcement, emergency response, and other official agencies.

How can I join CARDA?

You must be at least 18 years old to join CARDA. If you are younger than 18, you might consider joining California Explorer Search and Rescue (Cal-ESAR). We require that you train with us as a pre-apprentice on a regular basis for approximately six months. CARDA personnel will be evaluating your physical status, interest, and commitment, your dog’s temperament and progress in training. During this time you will have an opportunity to work with CARDA handlers and get to know them. They will be helping in the initial training of you and your dog as a search team. After this initial pre-apprentice period you may apply for apprentice membership. To become an apprentice, you must be sponsored by two active certified handlers, who will accept the responsibility of helping you become a CalOES and CARDA certified team. As a pre-apprentice, you will be covered by workers’ compensation insurance only during official CARDA training.

What kind of dog can I train for SAR?        

We have found that many breeds of dogs are capable of doing SAR work, although most are from the working, herding, sporting, or hound groups. Dogs at the extreme ends of the size range, i.e., very small or large, are probably not well suited for this work. The dog does not have to be a purebred. One advantage of a pedigreed dog, however, is being able to look at the parent’s temperament and working ability.

If you don’t already have a dog, a good idea is to come out to official CARDA trainings to observe different breeds before you make up your mind. Talk to different people about the pros and cons of their breed in doing search work. Certain breeds may have inherent traits and talents that make them either easier or more difficult to train for SAR work than other breeds. If you are set on a specific breed, you will almost always be better off buying from a working line and not a show or pet line. Ask CARDA members for their recommendations for breeders. Investigate genetic diseases of the breed and make sure you get your dog from a line that has had minimal or no health problems, from parents tested free of the common genetic diseases in that breed. A reputable breeder should be able to answer any questions you have about health problems, temperament, and working ability.

Do I have to start with a puppy?

You do not have to start with a puppy. However, one of the advantages of training a puppy is that it will most likely have a more extended working career.  Most search dogs are in training by age 2-years. It is not recommended to start SAR training with a dog that is older than 3-years.

How long will the training take?

You should count on approximately two years to train your dog and gain the skills you both need to become Mission Ready.

What skills will I need to learn?

You must have current CPR for the Professional Rescuer and an approved first aid course (Emergency Medical Response, Wilderness First Aid, etc.).  You have to become proficient in the use of map and compass, GPS, and radio communications. You must learn wilderness survival skills and search and rescue theory. You must also acquire man-tracking, ropes, low angle rescue, patient/litter transport, and helicopter safety skills.

What must I train my dog to do?

The training your dog receives will be somewhat dependent on whether it specializes as an area search dog or a trailing dog, but all dogs must be well socialized and obedience trained. They also need agility training so they can safely negotiate obstacles in the wilderness and disaster rubble. The dog must be able to swim.

How do I get this training?

We can help you train your dog and will provide some of the skills training that you will need, but some of the training (including first aid and CPR) you must get on your own.  The Sierra Club has an excellent basic mountaineering course. Many backpacking stores and community colleges offer classes in map, compass, and backpacking.

Is this time consuming?

Yes. Expect to train 2-3 times a week (including some nights) with your local CARDA group for 2-3 years before taking a certification test. When you and your dog are certified you will still be training on a regular basis and can expect phone calls in the middle of the night to call you out on searches.

What is involved in certification?

A Trailing Dog team must pass a series of preliminary skill evaluations followed by the Trailing Dog Team certification Test which is a 1 to 1 1/2 miles long trail, 18 – 24 hours old. To become a certified Area Search Dog Team, you and your dog must first pass preliminary skills including a 40-acre test (finding one well-hidden person in two hours). The certification Area Search Dog Team Test is 100-120 acres; the dog must find the 1-3 well-hidden people in four hours. Both trailing and area dog search teams must recertify every two years. The teams may also become certified in Avalanche, Cadaver, Water Search, and Disaster. Look for link to CalOES canine search and rescue standards on our OES page.

Is this expensive?

Yes. We are all volunteers. We buy our uniforms and equipment and pay for our gas. Travel to and from training and searches can run over 10,000 miles a year. If you do not have backpacking equipment, you will need to purchase it before you are mission ready. The range is from $2000 to $4000 in the first two years. When mission ready we are expected to respond to a search equipped to be self-sufficient in the field for three days.

Can you find a home for my dog?

CARDA is not able to accept donations of dogs nor to coordinate their adoption. We are a 100% volunteer organization fully occupied with training and deploying search dog teams. Unfortunately, we do not have the resources to help re-home dogs.

Final Points to consider before you decide to train

  • A serious long-term commitment is mandatory.
  • If you are interested in advanced dog training but are not ready to make a long-term commitment to training yourself and your dog 2-3 times a week over a period of years, or you are more interested in dog training accomplishments than searching for missing people, then we suggest you investigate dog sports such as agility, flyball, obedience, field trials, hunt tests, protection sports, nose-work, or tracking. 
  • Your search area may be steep, brushy, muddy, covered with poison oak or snow, etc.
  • Are you afraid to go out in the woods at night with just your dog and maybe one other searcher?
  • Are you averse to snakes, ticks, spiders – or more significant “residents” of the woods?
  • A positive attitude, confidence in your abilities, self-reliance, and being able to evaluate if you are capable of doing “the search” – are musts.
  • You might drive several hours to a search, and when you get there learn that the subject has already been found, so you drive home without being deployed.
  • You must be ready to deal with finding deceased subjects.
  • Searches are a team effort, with many trained individuals (sometimes hundreds) with different skill sets and roles coming together for a common purpose — to find the missing person. Canine teams are only one resource of many at the disposal of search management.
  • At any given search, there is a very low likelihood that you and your dog will find the missing person.
  • If you cannot find satisfaction in being part of a broader team effort, in making your best effort at searching and in the success of the overall mission rather than your own personal accomplishments or those of your dog, then search and rescue is not for you.
  • You may not know when you will return home.
  • Honesty, and accepting constructive criticism, are necessary.
  • You must be able to accept when your sponsor and/or Training Group Leader tell you that either your dog, or you, are not suitable for this volunteer work.
  • A search is a life-critical situation: egos and personal prejudices have no place in this.
  • There are always potentials for serious risks to you and your dog.