What Should You Know About Search and Rescue Dog Training?


When it comes to putting your dog to good use, there are plenty of different routes that you can take.

Some people choose to teach their dogs how to become therapy dogs.Other people choose to have their dogs become service dogs or emotional support animals, whether it is for themselves or for someone they are close to.

However, there are some people out there who choose to consider training their dog to help potentially save the lives of others. One example of this is taking the time and energy to train your dog to become a search and rescue dog. In spite of this, before you decide that you are going to do this, there are many, many things that you need to be aware of beforehand.

Preparing for the Commitment

For one, you are going to want to make sure that you are up for the commitment. Training your dog to become a search and rescue dog is not only a massive undertaking for the dog, but it is something that the owner is also going to have to train themselves in.

After all, any search and rescue dog is going to require a handler who knows what he or she is doing with the dog. You are also going to need a dog that has the right mindset, temperament, and fortitude to go through with the rough and arduous training that comes with preparing to be a search and rescue dog.

With this being said though, if your dog is the type of dog who can get lost in a game of “find the toy” no matter what the conditions outside are, then there’s a good chance that your dog may have what it takes to become a search and rescue dog.

What Does it Take to Train a Search and Rescue Dog?

Not counting the different specializations that a dog can get into, it can take hundreds upon hundreds of hours before your dog can be considered ready for the field.

In addition to this, You, as the owner of the dog, are going to need to put in even more hours to train alongside your dog as well as undergo several more courses.

For example, most search and rescue dog handlers have to be trained in advanced CPR, land navigation, weather patterns, radio communications, and even compass skills.

This is because, unless your dog specializes in digging people out of rubble in natural disasters, there’s a good chance that the search for a missing child will take you and your dog far out of the range of the city. If and when your dog does find the target, you will have to be prepared to administer first aid and potentially CPR, and not only that, but you will have to eventually find your way back into the city.

Training your dog to become a search and rescue dog is a two-person effort, meaning that you are going to have to commit a fair amount of your time and energy into achieving this goal and becoming field-ready.

What About the Dog?

For the dog, there are a fair few requirements to consider. Firstly, your dog is going to have to have the physical health and agility to traverse all types of terrains, under any weather conditions.

From thickets and brambles in a forest to thick snow dunes and gravelly roads, your dog has to either already be comfortable doing this, or your dog has to be willing to become accustomed to it through repeated training.

Additionally, your dog is going to have to be obedient at its core, able to obediently follow on-leash and off-leash commands quickly and without little notice. Your dog also has to have the attentive focus to be able to track the scent of a person for potentially hours on end and not be distracted by the other people and dogs doing the exact same thing. For many dogs, this is a tall order.

However, for the dogs that are able to accomplish these tasks, the possibility of becoming a search and rescue dog becomes more and more achievable.

How Does Training Work?

Training for a search and rescue dog is fairly simple and straightforward, at its core. At the most basic level, and from your dog’s perspective, being a search and rescue dog is much the same as a very advanced game of “find it.”

Nevertheless, instead of a treat inside of a cup, a search and rescue dog will be working to find a person who has gone missing. The training, which can take hundreds upon hundreds of hours, starts out as a simple game of “find it” for the most part. While the exact examples will vary depending on the training course, handler, and the specialization that your dog focuses on, here is an example that shows the basic premise of how search and rescue dog training works.

Say the situation is that you are teaching your dog to find a person underneath the snow, whether it is in an avalanche scenario or if it’s the weather in the area where a person has gone missing.

Also assume that, as a reward, your dog gets to eat its favorite treat. First you, as the handler, will climb into the snow with your dog watching. An assistant will keep the dog still while you make a show of getting into the snow. When the dog is finally released, typically after a few seconds at first, it should run and find the handler. This is where the dog will get its first treat, sparking the dog’s interest in wanting to find people.

From here, you and the assistant would increase the amount of time that the dog is restrained from finding the handler. This helps to train the dog’s memory, attention span, and control.

The time increments can be something along the lines of holding the dog for five seconds at first, then moving onto 10 seconds, and then 30 seconds, and then one minute, and then five, with treats offered every time the dog successfully “finds” its handler in the snow, and so on until the dog has reliably shown that it can hold itself and still find the person underneath the snow.

Once this has been accomplished, the handler might cover themselves in a blanket so the dog cannot immediately see the handler, thus inviting and teaching the dog to dig at the ground where a person may be. This builds the core idea of working to “find” the person, even if it takes a while, and even if the person may not be readily visible.

As you can imagine, this process of adding more and more problems and distractions, while still teaching your dog, is going to take a considerable amount of time, which is one of the reasons why it takes so long for search and rescue dogs to become field-ready.

What Areas Can Your Dog Specialize in?

There are a fair few different areas where you can choose to further your dog’s training in when it comes time to get some courses done. Of course, there are the traditional courses in tracking and trailing scents of missing people, as well as air scenting.

There are also specializations in urban searches, which typically involves working with collapsed and rickety buildings and in natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and tornadoes. There is wilderness searching, which typically involves going through rough, uneven terrain which might be hard for some handlers to handle.

Then, there are both land and water cadaver searches. These focus less on the recovery of the missing person and more on trying to find any remains, whether that be hair, skin, teeth, or bones. There may be more areas where you can get your dog to specialize in, and there are definitely areas that one can cross-train their dog, depending on the circumstances as well.