Search Dog Training – How to Get Started

search dog training
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Dogs have some features that make them great helpers in search and rescue. They possess a profound sense of smell and can find stuff based on their scent. Search dog training is used to further sharpen these abilities.

They can also run for long distances and faster too. These features and more make them a great partner when it is time to search for something or to go for a rescue.

Whether it is a mission to find a missing person or to discover victims of a natural disaster; search and rescue (SAR) dogs are invaluable and life-saving partners. They assist first responders and law enforcement agents to get their job done quicker and more efficiently.

What Is SAR?

This is a mission that involves the location and provision of aid to people and animals in distress or danger. It could be in rough terrain, crime scenes, human settlements, water bodies, forests, or deserts.

The sense of smell of dogs, their night vision, endurance, sensitive hearing, and ability to adapt to different terrains makes them quite important in finding lost, injured or dead people.

It is believed that 1 SAR dog can be more effective in a search and rescue mission than 20 human searchers.

These SAR dogs can be trained in the various aspects of search and rescue. Some of these training are:

  • Urban search and rescue
  • Tracking and trailing
  • Wilderness search and rescue
  • Cadaver dog training or human remains detection

Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Dog Training

USAR dogs are trained to find living human beings or animals in extreme environments. They are trained to comfortably search for people and animals in collapsed buildings, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other disasters.

These USAR dogs are made to pass through rigorous training to make them more agile, to withstand and adapt to harsh environments, to function optimally even around fallen roofs, rubbles and ruins, and to be controlled from a distance.

USAR dog handlers are also trained in these courses to enable them to work comfortably with the USAR dogs.

  • Different search and method strategies
  • K- 9 first aid
  • Disaster and critical incidents management
  • K-9 Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)
  • Record keeping
  • Scent theory (basic and advanced)
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Tracking and Trailing Dog Training

The tracking and trailing dogs are the most utilized of all the SAR dogs. They have the capabilities of detecting human odor over a long distance and on different terrains.

They are used in finding missing persons, both dead and alive, especially children and people living with Alzheimer’s syndrome.

These dogs are trained to search and find people, animals, drugs, and objects on terrains like concrete, grass, sand and woody areas. They are also trained to differentiate scents and identify suspects.

The handler of these tracking and trailing dogs is also trained on courses such as

  • Scent theory (basic and advanced)
  • Types of rescue equipment and their proper use
  • Record keeping
  • Writing of reports
  • Proper handling of dog and equipment
  • K-9 first aid
  • K-9 CPR
  • Psychology of the SAR dog

Wilderness Search and Rescue Dog Training

The wilderness SAR dogs are trained to find people, animals or objects in areas or terrains that is hard for human searchers to work on.

Wilderness dogs undergo the following training:

  • Agility training
  • Off lead obedience training
  • Bark and hold training
  • Air-scenting

The wilderness dog handlers undergo these training:

  • Scent theory (basic and advanced)
  • Search patterns and methodology
  • K-9 variable
  • Proper dog handling techniques
  • Record keeping
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Cadaver Dog Training

These dogs are also known as Human Remains Detectors (HRD). They are trained to find different forms of human remains such as bones, blood, hair, skin, or hair. They are trained with the odor of human flesh at various stages of its decomposition.

There are two types of cadaver training, water, and land cadaver detection training. The HDR dogs are trained on both. The dogs are also trained on active (scratch) alert and passive (sit) alert.

The dog handler of the cadaver dogs undergoes the following training:

  • Human decomposition (basic and advanced)
  • Cadaver dog psychology
  • Proper handling of cadaver dogs
  • K-9 first aid
  • K-9 CPR

How to Get Your Dog Started with The Search and Rescue Training

When someone is reported missing, it is hard for human rescuers to know where to start especially if the person is lost in a forest or a wilderness.

But dogs can pick up scents left by this person for up 48 hours prior to the search. This is why dogs make a great partner in rescue missions.

Because a SAR dog needs to possess specific skills, some breeds of dogs like the Labrador, German Shepherds, and Golden Retrievers are considered to be the best for this training.

A SAR dog must be agile, eager to learn, easy to train and smart. It is also best to start the search training as a puppy, around the 12th week.

Materials needed to start the search and rescue dog training are:

  • An assistant. It is easier to train a dog for search and rescue if two people are involved.
  • Treats. You are going to need lots of it. If your dog makes a search and finds an item, you need to give it a lot of treats.
  • A toy. This is the object to be found by the dog. It is used as a replacement for a missing person. The dog will have to look for the toy without knowing how and where it was hidden.
  • A lead and a harness. The lead used in search and rescue training should be long, around 20-30 feet.
  • Outdoor training gear for you and your dog.
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Search Dog Training Procedures

A SAR dog should be able to focus at a task without wavering. This dog should be able to be vigilant and remain dedicated to the search no matter the weather or whatever is going on in its surroundings.

It should be able to focus on the task at hand no matter the weather condition or how difficult and challenging the terrain might be.

This concentration is not necessarily because the dog is taking work seriously. Most times, it is a game and the dog is bent on playing the game to the very end.

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These are the several training that a dog should undergo before it becomes a search and rescue dog. They are

Air Scent Detection Training

This training requires a puppy to be thought how to bark on command at an incredibly young age. The dog is also taught to obey commands while off the lead.

You will need an assistant to help you with this training, someone the dog is comfortable with. This assistant should hold the dog while you get the dog’s attention and then hide, holding its favorite toy.

Your assistant should then say the command and release the dog. When it finds you, give it lots of praise and treat.

When the dog begins to search and find you easily, train your dog to give a signal when it finds you. Gradually increase the difficulty of the training by hiding farther away and hiding without letting the dog see the direction you went.

Also, increase the time interval between when you hide to when the dog is released to search and find you.

Avalanche Search Training

This is done to train a dog on how to find people, animals, or objects under the snow. The assistant holds the dog, while the dog handler walks a few steps away and digs a hole in the snow.

With the dog is still watching and probably making efforts to follow its handler, the handler should dive into the hole dug in the snow.

The assistant can then say the command word and release the dog. When the dog finds the handler, reward it with plenty of treats.

Gradually increase the time interval between the dog handler’s hiding time and when the assistant releases it.

When the dog can easily find the handler, the assistant should bury the handler with some layers of snow so that the dog has to dig when it discovers the spot.

The whole idea is to let the dog know that searching and finding a hidden or missing objects might require digging sometimes.

When the dog gets familiar with the procedures, introduce distractions to the training. Common distractions used in this training are other dogs, people, search for equipment. With time, introduce chaos and noise from these dogs and people.

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Tracking and Trailing Dog Training

This training is done with a harness and a lead of about 20 feet long. The dog handler puts the harness on the dog and introduces a human scent to the dog.

The handler makes a trail by making scent pads (usually by wiping the feet on the grass) at intervals and dropping treats before hiding the object in a location that can be easily found out.

The command is then given, and the dog is released to follow the scent and treats to the hidden object. When the object is found, the dog is rewarded lavishly.

Gradually, the quantity of treats used in the trail is reduced and the terrains are diversified. The handler can start to hide without the dog seeing. More objects can be introduced, and the length of the trail can also be gradually increased.

With time, two or more people are used, and the trail is broken off at some point. Distractions can also be added to make sure that the dog focuses on the task at hand no matter what is going on around it.

Introduce trails that are up a day old and increase it over time, adding detours and interfering scents.

Search and Rescue Dog Basic Skill Requirements

There are three test levels to be passed before a dog can enroll for SAR training. These tests are:

Basic Obedience Test

This level tests the temperament of the dog and its ability to obey commands. The dog will pass this skill set if it is able to:

  • Stay around strangers and other dogs comfortably
  • Obey commands while on a leash
  • Obey basic commands like ‘sit’, ’stay’, ‘çome’, ‘heel’.
  • Take a walk through a crowd without being distracted

This test is carried out by introducing visual and sound distractions to the dog while on a leash. The dog passes the test if it does not bark, panic, or run away.

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Canine Professionalism Test

In this level, the dog is expected to obey both basic and complicated commands and remain controllable when separated from its handler.

The dog must obey these commands while being handled by an unfamiliar person and in the presence of other dogs. Once it obeys the commands and shows no sign of panic or aggression, it has passed the canine professionalism test.

Mental and Physical Ability Test

This test requires the dog to

  • Find its way through a tunnel.
  • Climb an inclined A-frame.
  • Sit in a cart while being pulled at a certain speed without trying to jump out.
  • Be lifted 10 feet off the ground with its handler using a tractor bucket without attempting to jump out.
  • Take a boat ride without trying to jump out.
  • Approach and get lifted by a helicopter into the air.
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