Lesson Learned in Search and Rescue


During my time as a search and rescue volunteer and K9 handler I learned a lot about leadership, teamwork, training and trust.  These four foundational areas of an organization’s culture are oh-so-important in any group, but they are critical when the mission is saving lives and every minute counts.

Over the next four posts, I’ll be writing about how the lessons I learned in search and rescue translate into business; how these foundation pieces build successful organizations; and how ignoring cracks in your foundation can lead to catastrophic results.


To call the volunteers and sheriff’s deputies I served with in search and rescue teammates would be correct, but it isn’t enough of a description.  They were not just work acquaintances, these folks became family.  These are people you share a trust strong enough to put your lives in each other’s hands.  You can’t demand this kind of trust – it has to be earned.  Such trust creates a bond that grows tighter with every shared experience, every 2:00 am call-out, and every minute of countless hours spent together on missions and in training.  These connections last a lifetime.

As a K9 handler one of the most important bonds of trust I had to form was with my partner, Chips.  She was my husband’s and my incredibly smart and beautiful Chocolate Labrador who came to live us when she was just 6 weeks old.  She had so much drive and energy we decided to train her for search and rescue.  There is no doubt in my mind that Chips was far smarter than I will ever be.

I learned early in our training the meaning of the words echoed by dog handlers everywhere, “Trust your dog.”  One example where this became evident to me was during a training where we running lost person scenarios – a high-stakes game of hide and seek, if you will.  Walking down the ravine between two hills (or small mountains for those of you not from the Idaho-Montana-Wyoming region) I spotted the person hiding, our “victim”, across the valley.  I watched Chips closely, thinking smugly to myself that this would be a great training opportunity for me to watch her movements and reactions as I led her toward the find.  I could see she hadn’t caught a whiff of the person and I thought she was heading in the wrong direction. I wasn’t trusting her or her abilities. I called her off and tried to redirect her. It didn’t work.  I lost sight of the person and could no longer determine their location.  I redeployed Chips and sent her off to pick up the scent.  She went straight back to where I called her off, cut down the trail a few hundred feet and then went directly up to make the find.  Here is my big lesson – trust your dog, Wendy.  Trust your dog.  She knew what she was doing and my trying to micromanage her work was detrimental to the successful completion of the task.

In business, it’s the same.  You have to build trust with your teammates.  This doesn’t happen overnight and requires effort.  Remember, trust isn’t given – it’s earned.  Spend time getting to know their skills and abilities, provide training or guidance where needed, and then trust them.  Let them do their job.  Micromanaging doesn’t help anyone, let alone your end goal – your find.  In fact, micromanaging destroys trust, kills morale, and can put a fissure so deep in your organizational foundation it can take years to fix.

Think of it this way – if you are an accountant you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) take the scissors out of your hairdresser’s hand and proceed to show them how to cut hair; you wouldn’t draft plans and send them to your engineer or architect; and you wouldn’t ride along with a police officer and show them how to apprehend a dangerous criminal.  If you find yourself trying to micromanage stop it.  Stop trying to micromanage.  Take the time, build trust, and let your teammates do what they do best.  You will all be happier for it.

Wendy Dutenhoeffer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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