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 Right Track Method

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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.
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The Follow Trail Method

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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!
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The Air Detection Method

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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.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

Training Questions and Answers

Question
Lola
Labrador Retriever
5 Years
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Question
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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: [email protected] Thank you!

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
327 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

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Question
Amora
German Shepherd
6 Months
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Question
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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
327 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

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Question
Biza
Golden Retiever
12 Weeks
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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
327 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

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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!

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