We’ve all seen stories on the evening news of dogs finding people lost in the wilderness or buried under collapsed buildings. It’s easy to marvel when the skills of search and rescue (SAR) dogs and their handlers are displayed in a three-minute television report, and easy to momentarily appreciate the work they do.
But what we don’t see on the news are the many hours of intense, lifelong training that go into preparing a SAR dog for his missions and maintaining his skills.
SAR dogs typically come from the larger working and sporting breeds, according to the American Rescue Dog Association, and include German shepherds, Golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and Border Collies. Dobermans and Rottweilers are also sometimes used for this work. The intelligence, agility and high degree of trainability of these breeds make them ideal for intense training and close work with humans.
While most SAR dogs begin their careers as puppies, says the National Association for Search & Rescue, an older dog can also be trained for duty if he has a strong bond with his owner. Training requires lifelong commitment; dogs and handlers work together weekly for up to two years before their first mission as a team, and training must continue throughout the working life of a SAR dog.
For the majority of SAR dogs who begin training as puppies, once obedience and social skills have been mastered the real work begins. Dogs are trained in various specialties, says the United States Search and Rescue Task Force. Dogs who master air-scent searches can find lost humans by picking up on human scent lingering in the air. Trailing dogs follow human scents on the ground or nearby bushes, while tracking dogs trace the path taken by a missing person without using air scents. Other specialties including training to find humans trapped in collapsed buildings, under water or buried in avalanches. Another type of training is limited to cadaver searches.
Each type of training requires several phases, says Ohio Valley Search and Rescue. In tracking, for example, exercises build upon each other until the team of dog and handler is able to work trails one to two miles long and where evidence of a person passing by might be up to 24 hours old. In air-scenting, phased training leads to the team being able to search for long periods with only short breaks, in all kinds of weather and covering all types of terrain.
As in service dog training, SAR instruction initially relies on treats and exuberant praise as the dog makes correct finds. As the dog’s skills improve, treats are gradually withdrawn but the praise never stops.
Handler training never stops either, says the Canadian Search Dog Association. These specialists are expected to keep up their guide skills as well as learn to read their dogs better as time goes on. Handlers often take ongoing courses in rescue techniques, tracking, wilderness survival and disaster search.
American Rescue Dog Association, http://www.ardainc.org/
Canadian Search Dog Association, http://www.canadiansearchdogs.com/index.htm
National Association for Search & Rescue, http://www.nasar.org/nasar/sar_dog_fact_sheet.php
North Alabama Search Dog Association, http://www.nasdak9.org/
Ohio Valley Search and Rescue, http://www.vsar.org/SARdog.html
Search Dog Foundation, http://www.searchdogfoundation.org/98/html/index.html
Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States, http://www.sardogsus.org/
United States Search and Rescue Task Force, http://www.ussartf.org/dogs_search_rescue.htm