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

ribbon-method-3
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

ribbon-method-1
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

ribbon-method-2
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?
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Written by Amy Caldwell

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

Success Stories and Training Questions

Training Questions and Answers

Question
Sodana
Mix breed
1 Year
0 found helpful
Question
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Sodana
Mix breed
1 Year

Everything

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1101 Dog owners recommended

Hello Emmy, Check out the following resources to learn how about getting started with search and rescue and training your dog for it. https://sardogsus.org/resources/ https://highlandcanine.com/search-and-rescue-dog-training/ Forums where you can talk to others who are doing search and rescue and training their own dogs. http://k9-sar.com/forum/viewforum.php?f=12 https://www.workingdogforum.com/forums/search-rescue.32/ I don't know where you are located, but one of the first things I would do if seriously wanting to pursue search and rescue work and training would be to find a local group in your state, where you can be mentored by another person locally. I would search that online using your location to see if there is a group anywhere within driving distance of you. Regardless of natural ability and the scent detection work, pup will definitely need off-leash obedience. I would start working toward off leash obedience like you would with any working dog, while you research and get connected with search and rescue in your area, and begin scent games and ease into the more specific tracking work. Not all dogs are cut out for search and rescue so a lot of this depends on pup's natural ability too. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Francis
Golden Retriever
13 Months
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Francis
Golden Retriever
13 Months

Francis is my dog that I will be breeding this summer. She is extremely intelligent and very eager to please and she is always finding things and bringing them to me. I am very determined for her to become a search and rescue canine. Any advice?

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1101 Dog owners recommended

Hello Beth, I would work on building confidence around new things, like spending time hiking, around people, and around other animals and rewarding calmness in new situations. I would play scent games at home with pup to help pup learn how to use their nose more in preparation for formal training. I would find a community of others who work with their search and rescue dogs. Having a support system when training on your own can make a huge difference. There may be a local group you are already connecting with in your area. Often this will be done on a team. If not, look on places like facebook and instagram for other owner trainers who are working with their search and rescue dogs, who you can learn from, ask questions as they come up, and even meet up with those more local to you that you connect with for training practice and supporting one another. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Teddy
Labrador Retriever
1 Year
0 found helpful
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0 found helpful
Teddy
Labrador Retriever
1 Year

How long does it take to train as a rescue dog?

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1101 Dog owners recommended

Hello Sophie, The answer to your question depends partially on pup's natural aptitude for rescue work, any prior obedience training or socialization, and how often you practice. In general about 1-2 years. Most dogs who are regularly trained are ready to do work one year into training, sometimes sooner, but the training is ongoing until they master it. It really depends on how often you train though. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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Question
Bear
German Shepard and GREAT PERANESE
3 Months
0 found helpful
Question
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Bear
German Shepard and GREAT PERANESE
3 Months

Want to train to be a RESCUE dog

Caitlin Crittenden
Caitlin Crittenden
Dog Trainer
1101 Dog owners recommended

Hello Luis, At this age I would find a really great puppy class to help with socialization. I would really emphasize socialization and basic and intermediate obedience this year, so that pup has the social skills, obedience foundation, and confidence to prepare them for future rescue work. Basically start by pursing the things that would make pup a wonderful pet that could go with you tons of places to get started. Check out this free PDF e-book After Your Get Your Puppy for some tips on socializing and general manners. www.lifedogtraining.com/freedownloads I would also play search games with pup this year, like Round Robin and Hide and Seek Come. Treat hiding games, go find commands for leading you to house hold members that pup needs. You will want pup to have great social skills, a good nose and a desire to search that's been encouraged in fun ways, and an off-leash level of general obedience by the time you start more formal rescue training closer to a year. Round Robin Come: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-whippet-to-recall For hide and seek come, once pup knows the initial come, you will practice hiding in easy spots around your home and telling pup come from there. When pup finds you, give a treat pup loves. Start with easy spots and give hints like noises to help pup locate, then as pup improves, give less hints, hide in harder or further away spots, and take the game outside in fenced areas. Any time you hide treats for pup to search out make sure the area has not been treated with pesticides if outside. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

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

Want to possibly start SAR training

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

Hello. You can start with basic obedience and scent tracking. I am going to provide you with steps to teach your dog how to track a scent. Advanced training will have to be done with a trainer who specializes in search and rescue. 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.

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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!

3 years ago
Book me a walkiee?
Pweeeze!
Sketch of smiling australian shepherd