How to Train Your Dog to Search and Rescue

Hard
6-12 Months
Chores

Introduction

Dogs have some serious physical advantages over us humans. They're equipped with an amazing sense of smell that allows them to track stuff down from far away. Most canines have strong legs that enable them to move fast through brush or other terrain. To top it all off, pooches come with a keen ear.

These traits make puppers the ideal helpers in a search and rescue. A dog may be able to quickly find the person in need-- long before a team of professionals.

Defining Tasks

When someone goes missing, especially in the wilderness, it can be hard for rescue teams to know where to start. A dog is able to easily pick up on scents left in the area in the last day or so. Once the pooch finds the scent, he can follow it through the rough terrain, either bark or run back to his handlers, and potentially save the missing person!

The best breeds to use for search and rescue are smart and eager to learn. Labrador and Golden retrievers, Border Collies and German shepherds can make excellent trackers. If possible, start training the pup as young as twelve weeks. Youngsters catch on quicker, but older mutts can learn to perform this important task as well.

Getting Started

Once you've decided to help your pooch become a hero, you're going to need to prepare. Some key things to have include:

  • A Helper: Training a search and rescue dog is so much easier with two! Pick a family member or friend who won't mind coming along for numerous sessions.
  • Treats: When the dog makes a find, you're going to want to fill him with treats to let him know that's the point of the exercise.
  • A Toy or Other Object: During practice, a toy replaces the missing person. The dog will be required to seek the toy, often without having seen where it went in the first place.
  • Some Outdoor Gear: Search and rescue dogs are used no matter the weather, so both you and your pup will have to get used to the elements.
  • A Harness and Lead: This lead should be at least 20 feet in length, but no longer than 30 feet.

While your young pooch is learning how to rescue, they should also be tuning up their obedience skills. A fully trained search and rescue dog can use location directions from vocal commands alone!

Below are some of the best methods for teaching a doggo how to be a hero. Keep in mind that the order you teach certain skills will impact how the dog uses them. Trailing and tracking skills should be taught before air scent training.

The Air Detection Method

Most Recommended
4 Votes
Air Detection method for Search and Rescue
Step
1
Hide out
Have your assistant retain your dog, while you get his attention and then run and hide. Make sure to take his favorite toy with you, and keep it simple at first.
Step
2
Introduce the command
The assistant then lets go and says the verbal command.
Step
3
Locate
Reward your dog and make a really big deal of him when he finds you.
Step
4
Teach a signal
Tell the dog to “speak” every time he finds you, and make sure he gets treats if he obeys.
Step
5
Increase difficulty
Begin hiding outside of your dog's view, and gradually increase distances. Leave more and more time between when the person hiding takes off, and when you allow your dog to search. Work up to three hour long searches with over a day since the hider has left. Go in all types of weather and vary the land you cover.
Recommend training method?

The Right Track Method

Effective
2 Votes
Right Track method for Search and Rescue
Step
1
Prepare your dog
Put your pooch in the harness and attach the lead.
Step
2
Start scent path
The assistant then should drop one piece of clothing that they have worn, and wipe their feet a few times over one patch of ground.
Step
3
Leave an unmistakable trail
The assistant then walks a short distance away and hides, but leaves a trail of treats behind them.
Step
4
Introduce command
Give the dog a verbal command like “search”, and let him follow the treats.
Step
5
Locate
If the dog finds the assistant, give him tons of praise and a few more treats.
Step
6
Increase difficulty
Keep increasing the distance, and add some twists and turns. Decrease the number of treats left on the ground and work up to scent trails that are over a day old with no treats on the ground.
Recommend training method?

The Follow Trail Method

Least Recommended
2 Votes
Follow Trail method for Search and Rescue
Step
1
Prepare your dog
Attach your dog's harness and lead.
Step
2
Choose a spot
Go to an area that is more populated, such as a park or street.
Step
3
Introduce the scent
Give the dog an article of clothing from the assistant and say your command.
Step
4
Sniff and Search
Allow the dog to sniff around and find the scent trail from the assistant. It's okay for the dog to take brief short cuts as long as they're headed in the right direction.
Step
5
Distract
Arrange for a second assistant to create a distraction.
Step
6
Teach focus
Teach your pup to ignore all other scents but the one of the first assistant. If the dog finds the first assistant, reward him like crazy!
Recommend training method?
author-img

Written by Amy Caldwell

Published: 09/20/2017, edited: 01/08/2021

Success Stories and Training Questions

Training Questions and Answers

Question
Lola
Labrador Retriever
5 Years
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Lola
Labrador Retriever
5 Years

Hi! My name is Andrea, I´m from Guatemala and I´m becoming part of a rescue team, with dogs. With a group of fire fighters. I been training dogs for 3 years, Im new in this. So I´m writing to you so you can help our team to dog serach and rescue training. My email is: andrearodriguez@chilerodesign.com Thank you!

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
817 Dog owners recommended

Hello Andrea, What is your specific question? I can answer here but I do not contact through email here. Thank you. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

Add a comment to Lola's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Question
Mutt
Rottweiler
7 Years
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Mutt
Rottweiler
7 Years

I have recently got a rottweiler as a rescue because he was being kept in a kennel..he is an ex search and rescue dog and we were just wondering if there are generic commands for him... he is really really well behaved and he sniffs the ground constantly when I walk him... also is he now too old to start doing it again ? Any info on how to do this would be great...
Many thanks....
Justin Wilkinson

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
817 Dog owners recommended

Hello Justin, There are a few commands that are used across the board. Check out the article linked below. Most obedience commands used are the same ones taught in standard obedience classes like: Come, Stay, Sit, Down, Leave It, ect...Plus a few certain search commands. https://animals.howstuffworks.com/animal-facts/sar-dog4.htm Whether he can still perform at his age depends largely on his skills and physical fitness as a search dog. If his age negatively impacts his senses and endurance, then he may not be able to do it any longer. If he is still able in all the necessary areas then he likely could participate if you can find a team that is open to working with you guys. There is a lot of commitment and dedicated needed from the dog's handler as well. So if you decide to pursue search and rescue you will also need to be very dedicated and interested in it yourself. If you have the time, energy and commitment to do it, then there is a huge need for handler/dog teams. http://www.sardogsus.org/id87.html http://www.vsar.org/SARdog.html The websites linked above are also good places to email someone with questions, to direct you to the right contacts to begin. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

Add a comment to Mutt's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Question
Amora
German Shepherd
6 Months
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Amora
German Shepherd
6 Months

I would like to teach my dog to find any scent that I give them. For example, I show my dog some hair from my other dog and she goes and finds her. Or I present the smell of alcohol and she goes and finds it. Or I present the smell of another person and she goes and finds them. How do I go about this?

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
817 Dog owners recommended

Hello Haelie, First, research how to teach a "Go Find" command. Once your dog understands go find in relation to certain people and certain things that you have practiced teaching her to go find by name, then have her sniff something related to that person or thing that she already knows how to find. Since she recognizes who she is supposed to be looking for, the scent should already be familiar to her. Work on this with just a couple of people or objects at first until she is really good at it. When she is really good at finding those couple of things by name after smelling them, then remove the name of whatever she is supposed to be finding, so that instead of "Go Find Jimmy" it's just "Go Find" and you give her the article of clothing to smell. At first she may need to be told what she is looking for if she gets stumped at times, tell her to "Go Find Jimmy" again if she can't seem to locate based on scent. Practice this until she can find Jimmy with just his scent and the "Go Find Command". Add in new scents, teaching each one the same way that you taught the first couple. She should be learning to "Go Find Jimmy", "Go Find my white shoes", "Go Find Freddy", "Go find cat", ect...until she knows many different things. Once she knows how to find them by name with the scent article, then stop saying the name and work on her simply sniffing the article and then finding it when told "Go Find". You will have to teach her to find dozens of different things by their specific names and scents, one at a time before she will probably learn to match a new scent to an unknown object. She will also probably need to smell the article several times while searching to help her remember what she is looking for. Some dogs have a great nose for this, some have to learn only individual items. German Shepherds do often have good noses so your dog may be able to do it. If nothing else he can learn to find many individual items for you. While teaching this make sure that the scent article matches the actual thing he is supposed to be looking for. For example, if he smells the laces of your white Nikki tennis shoes, only expect him to find that particular shoe and not simply any shoes - since he is looking for a certain scent not just shoes in general with this type of training. You can also look into how tracking dogs are trained to sniff out missing person's since the training concepts are similar - they are given an article of clothing, then follow a trail of scent to the unknown person. Your dog will need more encouragement to keep hunting however, because objects will not have a trail of scent. You will have to encourage him to search for the object room by room and encourage efforts slightly, and findings with higher rewards. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

Add a comment to Amora's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Question
Biza
Golden Retiever
12 Weeks
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Biza
Golden Retiever
12 Weeks

Hello, I am wanting to get Biza into some search and rescue training but am unsure on how to start. Do your methods work with puppies? I know that it will take more time a patience as he is younger but I think we would do extremely well. Is there any equipment I should get to encourage him more?

Thanks

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
817 Dog owners recommended

Hello Stella, Starting training while a dog is still very young is actually ideal. It will take a lot of patience but your main goals are to teach your puppy the concept of something existing when it's out of sight (like you being in the room even if he can't see you), how to use his nose to find something, basic commands, and socialization around the things he will need to encounter later (people, dogs, outdoor objects like logs, critters, and different environments. The Right Track method and the Air Detection methods would be good to practice, the second method may be too hard right now. When you do the Air Detection method, start by simply playing an easy game of hide n seek - where you pup sees you go hide at first. Once he has learned the concept of the game, make it gradually harder - hiding when he isn't looking but sticking out, ect... Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

Add a comment to Biza's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Question
Rapunzel
German Shepherd/Pitbull
7 Months
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Rapunzel
German Shepherd/Pitbull
7 Months

I’m a service dog trainer and have Rap who is too high strung to be a service dog. She had excellent agility and high intelligence which I feel would make her perfect for search and rescue. Do u have a group I could donate her to? They would have to pay travel expenses but would be getting a great dog.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
817 Dog owners recommended

Hello Amber, I am not specifically affiliated with any one group I could recommend but if you truly feel based on your training experience that she is a good candidate and she has already had some great socialization, manners, and obedience work put into her, I would reach out to SARIUS and see if there is an individual there who knows of someone in need: http://www.sardogsus.org/ I would also follow groups on Instagram and Facebook with individuals who owner train their own dogs and see if there is an individual or group within driving distance of you interested in homing her for that work. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

From the picture it looks like you have yourself a Mal. We use this breed in USCBP mainly just due to their desire to go from zero to 90 in 3 seconds and then stop on a dime. They are definitely the most hsrd working, enthusiastic breed.

Add a comment to Rapunzel's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Question
Remi
Labrador Retriever
3 Years
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Remi
Labrador Retriever
3 Years

Is my dog to old to be trained as a search and rescue?

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
817 Dog owners recommended

Hello Ruben, The answer to your question depends a lot on the dog and on your local Search and Rescue group. Many times older dogs are considered still for Search and Rescue work and they can be trained. There are some skills that a dog must already have present by your dog's age, such as a balanced temperament, good with people and other dogs, confident in a variety of environments and terrain, a good nose, intelligent and eager to please, ect... Those types of skills are more based on the dog's inherit traits, socialization and the way they were raised. Often task specific type training can be taught to an older dog as long as that dog already has the other skills necessary to do the job - the ones that you likely won't be able to develop this late in the game if not already present. I suggest reaching out to your local Search and Rescue group and perhaps speak with those who lead the organization and see if they feel based on your description of your dog, whether your dog could be a good fit and be worth the time to train for you. There is certainly a need for good dogs if your dog might be a good fit so it would be worth looking into and asking! Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

Add a comment to Remi's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Question
Agatha
Cane Corso Italiano
10 Weeks
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Agatha
Cane Corso Italiano
10 Weeks

Looking to train my friend Agatha here to be an S&R dog. She’s half cane half coonhound. She has all the traits of an excellent search dog. We start basic obedience this week. How do we incorporate S&R into our training?

Alisha Smith
Alisha S., Dog Trainer
219 Dog owners recommended

Hello! You can start by doing scent tracking training. If your trainer doesn't have the resources available to you, there are some really good references on Google about how to start with the basics of scent training. Follow the steps, in conjunction with your basic obedience classes. If your trainer knows someone in your area who can help you with this in person, that's the best option.

Add a comment to Agatha's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Question
Schatzi
German Shepherd
5 Months
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Schatzi
German Shepherd
5 Months

Difficult in obeying basic commands and not doing them without a treat.

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
817 Dog owners recommended

Hello Precious, It sounds like it's time to switch to intermediate methods, or work on phasing out treats. To phase out treats, first practice commands with treats not in view, then pull a treat from behind your back to offer - so pup is obeying without seeing the treat first even if they suspect you have one. Next, only reward pup with a treat every second, then third, then fourth command as pup improves, and/or only reward pup for obedience that was more skilled than their average - like praise pup when they come slowly but don't give a treat, but praise and give a treat when they come running right away, ect... Certain commands may need a little more follow through as well, such as following the Reel In method opposed to the Round Robin type method initially used to teach come below, or following the Pressure method instead of the Treat Luring method that's initially used to teach Down and Sit from the articles below. Come: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-whippet-to-recall Down: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-german-shepherd-to-lay-down Sit: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-german-shepherd-puppy-to-sit Also, be sure that you are gradually working pup up to harder and harder distractions - starting with a distraction free environment and very gradually progressing to more distracting environments as pup gets good in the current environment each time. This requires a lot of repetition and intentionally taking pup places to practice as they improve, to achieve a higher level of obedience that's needed for search and rescue work eventually. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

Add a comment to Schatzi's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Question
Bjorn
Blood hound
6 Weeks
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Bjorn
Blood hound
6 Weeks

Just wondering what processes I should put my dog thru classes etc. to get him ready for search and rescue. Obedience first? Search and Rescue school for him and myself?

Alisha Smith
Alisha S., Dog Trainer
219 Dog owners recommended

Hello! I would start with basic obedience first. After a few months, you can probably start training him for search and rescue. I would definitely start the search and rescue training before 12 weeks of age.

Add a comment to Bjorn's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Question
Heidi
German Shepherd
2 Years
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Heidi
German Shepherd
2 Years

I want to get her started on Search and Rescue. Right now we are working on scent work. I just want to make sure I am doing the training correctly. Any information is greatly appreciated!

Alisha Smith
Alisha S., Dog Trainer
219 Dog owners recommended

Hi there! Here are some very beginner tips on training this skill. Start Early in the Morning To teach scenting a track, you need some treats and a grassy area, such as a baseball field or park. Although hot dogs are not the most nutritious food, I find they work best, and you won’t over stuff your dog’s belly. Begin early; many people start by 6 a.m. before anyone has walked on the grass. Create a Treat Track Have your dog sit or lie down and stay. Take a couple of inch-long pieces of hot dog and use your shoe to mash them into the grass. Make sure to crush the grass under the hot dogs, which will release a grass scent. Then, with the hot dog residue on the bottom of your shoe, walk a straight line away from your dog. Every six or ten feet, drop a piece of hot dog. Stop after about 20 feet and drop one of your gloves or one of your dog’s toys; your dog needs to find something at the end of the track. Drop another piece of hot dog on top of the item. Command Your Dog to Find the Treats Go back to your dog and release him from his stay, encouraging him to smell the ground where the hot dogs were. Tell your dog “Find it!” and let him sniff. If he begins to follow the track, praise him quietly by saying, “Good dog!” and let him lead the way. Don’t be too enthusiastic or you may distract the dog from his sniffing. Also, don’t try to lead him; let your dog figure it out. At this point, your dog is following several scents: the trail of hot dogs, which helps motivate him, the crushed grass where you mashed the hot dogs and the crushed grass where you later stepped. Your dog is also following your individual scent, which he knows well because he smells your scent every day. But now your dog is learning to combine the scents, to follow them and to find the item at the end of the track. Start Increasing the Length of the Track When your dog successfully completes this trick, make another one by taking 10 steps to the side. If your dog is excited and having fun, you can do three or four short tracks per training session. As your dog improves over several sessions, make the track longer, add curves and corners, and drop several items along the way, but put the hot dog only on the one you want him to find. When making tracks longer or adding curves, use small pegs, stakes or flags to mark the track so you can tell if your dog is off track. Air scenting requires your dog to find someone by sniffing the scents wafting through the air instead of following a track. Most search-and-rescue dogs have both skills; they can follow a track, but if people walking over the track spoil it, they can also use their air-scenting skills. Please let me know if you have any additional questions. Thank you for writing in.

Add a comment to Heidi's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Question
Zen
Rottweiler
5 Months
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Zen
Rottweiler
5 Months

I put him out at night for his toilet business about 9pm. But he is still pooing in the night although his last feed is 4pm. And I’ve tried reducing the last portion size on the last meal.

Alisha Smith
Alisha S., Dog Trainer
219 Dog owners recommended

Hello! Because you have tried the most obvious and usually correct method to solve this and are still having issues, I have an in depth article for you to read about this subject. Not knowing what other strategies you have tried or what routines you have going on, it's hard to give a straight answer. So this article should help you! https://caninehq.com/dog-pooping-in-middle-of-night/

Add a comment to Zen's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Question
Daisy
Border collie and German Shepard mix
3 Years
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
Daisy
Border collie and German Shepard mix
3 Years

My Daisy is wonderful with locking on scents and finding them it doesnt matter if its rain sleet snow. she has a thing for sticks. everytime we go outside she finds her certain stick wherever it may be and brings it to me and drops it. she is very smart and Ive seen her find moles deep in the ground and dig them out. its neat to see but my question is bc she is soo attached to me Idk how im gonna get her to follow another persons scent?

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
817 Dog owners recommended

Hello Megan, I would work on some commands that can help build independence, like a distance Down-Stay and Place command. You can also recruit another friend who is interested in dog training, or perhaps training their own search and rescue dog, and begin your training by teaching pup to search for you as you hide, starting in easy locations first. Pup can be taught the search commands with you as the thing to search, then switch the training where pup is finding another person they know, with you behind pup. Finally, progressing to people pup doesn't know once pup is interested in what they think of as a game. Generally, searching is viewed like a game to pup, with pup being rewarded during practice with something they love when they find who they are searching for. Place command: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O75dyWITP1s Down-Stay: https://www.thelabradorsite.com/train-your-labrador-to-lie-down-and-stay/ Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

Add a comment to Daisy's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Question
KAYNA
Dutch Shepherd
1 Year
0 found helpful
Question
0 found helpful
KAYNA
Dutch Shepherd
1 Year

Want to possibly start SAR training

Add a comment to KAYNA's experience

Was this experience helpful?

Training Success Stories

Success
henry
Mix
2 Years

One day I was walking my dog. I fell and got a concussion. My dog, Henry howled and barked until 2 hunters came and found Henry and I. I will never be more grateful!

1 year, 11 months ago
Book me a walkiee?
Pweeeze!
Sketch of smiling australian shepherd