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In times of crisis, we often rely on first-responders to help provide safety and help when they’re able to. The actions of these select few can be the difference between life and death in the worst case scenario, and while they can normally be seen working in teams or groups to accomplish their objective, they also employ the help of a few smaller individuals who specialize in crisis response. These individuals are known as Search and Rescue - or SAR - dogs. Consisting of a variety of breeds, these dogs may be present in a number of emergency situations and excel in assisting their handlers with the tasks necessary to ensure public safety.
These dogs are not selected at random, however. They possess incredibly sound temperament, a love for work and play, and acute focus on their goal. While there are several breeds likely to be better suited than others, look no further than the ever dedicated Beagle. A member of the hound group, their sense of smell is incredibly suited to tracking: a necessary skill required in Search and Rescue.
Teaching your Beagle to perform Search and Rescue is no easy feat. It takes early temperament testing, mastering of typical obedience, and a further dedication to the actual work involved. A SAR Beagle must be heavily reward and play-motivated and it’s said that SAR dogs must be able to work in a variety of rough conditions for long or sporadic amounts of time and most importantly, under stress. Search and Rescue is not for every dog and takes commitment and practice to perfect.
While an older Beagle may be capable of learning SAR, you must consider his health restrictions. For this reason, it’s better to begin SAR training with a puppy in order to solidify commands and obedience, as training can take anywhere from six months up to a year. Beginning with a game and play environment is good for puppies to acclimate to the behavior, allowing them to move up to more complicated task training.
Ensure your dog is evaluated by a veterinarian and temperament tested. A shy or aggressive dog is not a suitable candidate for Search and Rescue as they will be working with strangers, nor is it fair to ask a disabled or ill dog to perform under stress.
To begin training, you’ll need a long leash that ranges from 20-30 feet. Your dog will need to be independent, so a longer leash is ideal. You’ll also need some toys and treats to use as a reward as well as another person or two to assist with the training. Search and rescue is all about finding live people in emergency situations, so it’s important to use other people in the training. Socialize your puppy early on to many different things. Preparation for different environments and situations is key.
The Play Method
Begin in the puppy stages
This method is best used for puppies who are just beginning their training. Your Beagle will need to establish the basics before moving on to more taxing work.
Master basic obedience
Ideal commands for search and rescue work are ‘come’, ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘stay’, and ‘speak’. Ensure that your Beagle has these commands down before progressing.
Hide and seek
Begin with teaching your dog a simple game of hide and seek. With two people present, have the puppy’s favorite person, typically his owner, get him excited with a toy while the other holds him on a leash. The first person then runs away with the toy. Find an easy-to-see spot to “hide” and allow the second person with the leash to release your puppy to chase after you.
Use a verbal cue
It’s important to start establishing verbal commands early. A common one to use with puppies just starting search and rescue training is ‘find’ or ‘find it’. Feel free to use another command as you see fit.
As soon as your Beagle finds you, give him lots of verbal praise and immediately go into some play time with his toy. Offer him treats as well, if you’d like. It should be fun and exciting to find someone.
Challenge your Beagle
Find harder hiding spots like behind a bush or a door, if you’re training inside. Play hide and seek in a variety of environments and terrains to expose your puppy to different situations. Always remember to keep it fun!
The Tracking Method
Find a scent article
Scent articles are items which contain the scent of one specific person and no other scents. Clothing works best. Handle this item with tongs or a stick, if necessary, to avoid placing another person’s scent on it.
Leave a trail
The owner of the scent article should drop it near your Beagle, then proceed to walk away several feet, leaving a trail of treats behind them before hiding in an easy to find area.
Instruct your Beagle to ‘find It’ or ‘search’. Allow her to sniff the article and then follow the treats until finding the hidden person. Reward with playtime and lots of treats when the person is found.
Increase the length of time
While the owner of the scent article should continue to leave the article and a trail of treats, they should maintain a straight line from your Beagle to their hiding place. Later on will be time for curves and more complicated places. Continue to repeat the process, but have the person hide further away each time. Hide behind different objects and in different environments. Indoor and outdoor should both be practiced.
Complicate the search
Have the hiding person start hiding around curves and farther away. Phase out the trail of treats by using less of them each session. Have longer searches that take upwards of twenty or thirty minutes.
Find a stranger
Once your Beagle can reliably find someone she’s familiar with, have her try it with a stranger. Use a scent article from the new person and have them hide just the same as in your past exercises. Reward for positive progression.
Use two people
Have one person be the hider and the other person be the distraction. Use a scent article from the hider and have them drop it and then walk off with the distraction. Have the two people split off from each other and go in different direction once they are far enough away. Allow your Beagle to follow the scent from the article to find the hider. This may take some practice and time, but reward generously for any time she successfully finds the hider.
The Alert Method
Master the ‘speak’
Before you do anything else, practice a good and solid ‘speak’ with your Beagle. He should be able to bark on command at any time.
Establish the ‘find’ command
Have a friend go and hide after a brief play-time with your Beagle. Have them take the toy with them and hide somewhere within your dog’s line of sight. Use the command ‘find it’ or ‘search’ and release him to go and find the friend. This method is best done off-leash.
Whenever your Beagle successfully finds someone, you should always act like it’s the greatest thing he’s ever done. Offer lots of treats and plenty of play time. Make it fun to find someone.
Train the alert
Every time your Beagle finds someone, have the hider use the ‘speak’ command with him. Do this every time he finds your hider to establish a routine. Once he barks, go to where he is and reward for barking.
Face your Beagle away
Now your hider should go and hide while your dog isn’t looking. Keep searches short at first and then increase the distance and length of time. Feel free to go back to hiding with him watching if he struggles. Keep practicing to increase reliability.
Mix it up
Use people your dog is unfamiliar with, search in various different environments, and increase the length of time and distance he has to search in. Your Beagle should eventually be comfortable with searching for anywhere between one to three hours.
Remember that search and rescue training can take up to a year or more to really master. Don’t try to rush your dog to improve faster than he is able to.
By TJ Trevino
Published: 01/04/2018, edited: 01/08/2021