What it Takes to Train a Search-and-rescue Dog

What it Takes to Train a Search-and-rescue Dog

By Dr. Tracy Dewhirst for Exceptional Canine

What it Takes to Train a Search-and-rescue Dog

Whether rescuers are trying to unearth earthquake victims buried in rubble or to find a missing person, their canine team plays an essential role. The dog's natural ability to smell from long distances and to distinguish odors in a fraction of a second makes the canine a tool that cannot be outperformed.

Ben Alexander started training his German Shepherd for search and rescue after watching a news report about a search-and-rescue dog that discovered a missing child. Twelve years later, Alexander now trains and breeds search-and-rescue dogs and is the chair of the subcommittee for Certification Criteria for the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) K9 division and the founder and director of his local team in Bryan, Texas.

Alexander has seen firsthand the payoff of his efforts. Pete, his older dog, has been successful in 10 searches, and his newest team member, Caile, just logged her first find.

Training Begins With Play
The basis of search-and-rescue training begins with play for most puppies -- so it's not surprising that when the dogs go to work, they really enjoy it. Puppies start with hide-and-seek around the house and then progress to the outdoors. Toys are their reward.

In Alexander's experience, dogs that have a natural drive for a toy are typically better search dogs than those that are motivated solely by food. He's also found that Border Collies are perfect for this job.

Ben socializes puppies from birth: Obstacles and toys are placed in the pen when the pups are just 3 weeks old. This teaches terrain diversity. And by five weeks, the puppies start training. The most successful puppy, he says, is highly social and innately uses its sense of smell -- not vision -- to search.

See Ben's puppies in their obstacle course pen here:

Preparing for Different Situations
For avalanche and earthquake training, a toy is buried with a person or small cadaver part. The dog searches for human scent and is rewarded with the toy. Training in water is a little more complicated. A diver takes the human scent and toy underwater. Most dogs will enter the water and circle above the human, while others remain in the boat and bark, whine, paw or even bite on the boat to signal the handler.

To test a dog's concentration, many diversions are placed on the scene or in the water. These anomalies may catch the dog's attention, but the dog should ignore them and continue working.

What Search and Rescue Takes
It typically takes two years to train a search-and-rescue dog and to complete the handler certification. NASAR requires recertification every two years, but Ben recommends the industry standard of annual retesting.

Most states do not have search-and-rescue standards, so it's important to work with a group that observes and certifies to national standards. NASAR, North America Police and Work Dog Association (NAPWDA), and the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA) are a few examples.

Search and rescue is a time-consuming lifestyle for most handlers, but the rewards are invaluable. Passion and dedication are not limited to the canine searchers. The handlers help their communities often without any compensation for time, training or supplies.

To learn more about how you and your dog can become certified for search and rescue, visit NASAR.org.

Photo: Getty Images

Dr. Tracy Dewhirst, a graduate from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, practices small-animal and equine medicine in Knoxville, Tenn. She is a long-time columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Dewhirst also sits on the East Tennessee Peer Review Board. Dr. Dewhirst blogs frequently for Exceptional Canine.