Human telomeres are maintained by the shelterin protein complex in which TRF1 and TRF2 bind directly to duplex telomeric DNA. How these proteins find telomeric sequences among a genome of billions of base pairs and how they find protein partners to form the shelterin complex remains uncertain. Using single-molecule fluorescence imaging of quantum dot-labeled TRF1 and TRF2, we study how these proteins locate TTAGGG repeats on DNA tightropes. By virtue of its basic domain TRF2 performs an extensive 1D search on nontelomeric DNA, whereas TRF1's 1D search is limited. Unlike the stable and static associations observed for other proteins at specific binding sites, TRF proteins possess reduced binding stability marked by transient binding (∼ 9-17 s) and slow 1D diffusion on specific telomeric regions. These slow diffusion constants yield activation energy barriers to sliding ∼ 2.8-3.6 κ(B)T greater than those for nontelomeric DNA. We propose that the TRF proteins use 1D sliding to find protein partners and assemble the shelterin complex, which in turn stabilizes the interaction with specific telomeric DNA. This 'tag-team proofreading' represents a more general mechanism to ensure a specific set of proteins interact with each other on long repetitive specific DNA sequences without requiring external energy sources.