How To Train a Dog for Search and Rescue

A search and rescue (SAR) dog is used to find people or objects as part of an investigation. Whether this would be to find a missing person or rescue someone that’s hurt, they will need to be able to handle rough terrain and extreme weather conditions. 

It’s said that a dog can smell 1,000 to 10,000 times better than humans, giving them a huge advantage in sniffing out someone that needs help. However, training a dog for search and rescue is a long process that requires lots of patience and perseverance. 

If both you and your dog are passionate about doing this, it’s definitely worth the hard work and is a rewarding experience for you both. Training for search and rescue will bring you and your dog closer together, building a very special relationship that also helps others.

We’ll let you know everything you need to know about how to train your dog for search and rescue and will touch on the following:

  • What do search and rescue dogs do?
  • What makes a good search and rescue dog?
  • Are rescue dogs hard to train?
  • How long does it take to train a dog for reach and rescue?
  • How do you train a dog for search and rescue?
  • Registering your search and rescue dog
  • Key points on search and rescue training

What do search and rescue dogs do?

Search and rescue dogs are trained to do exactly that. Their focus will be on finding a person, for many different reasons. There are three key ways that they are trained to search:

Air scenting 

They are trained to find someone by following their scent. This could be the victim of an incident or someone who needs help. They could be looking for a human or another animal by tracking the wind-borne scent.

The weather conditions affect how clearly they can pick up a human scent. However, SAR dogs are trained to pick up a scent from 150 meters up to a quarter of a mile away.

Ground disturbances

Ground disturbance training is when the SAR dog traces someone by following footprints or tracks in the ground. This could be someone that they don’t know the scent of, apart from what can be taken from the prints.

Tracking

Search and rescue dogs may be needed to track a specific person, and they do this by being given their scent from a piece of clothing, for example. They can dismiss the scents of other people and focus on the priority scent, leading their owners to the person that they are looking for.

What do they do when they find what they’re looking for?

Once the SAR dog finds what they’re looking for they need to alert their owner. 

They can do this by staying with the person that they find and barking to let their owner know where they are. If they’re far from their owner, they will leave the person they find and return to their owner before guiding them to the person that needs help.

What makes a good search and rescue dog?

Any dog can be trained to complete SAR training, but certain dogs are more suited to the role.

Naturally gifted for rescue

There are some breeds of dogs who are naturally gifted when it comes to searching for someone and rescuing them. Many SAR dogs are labradors, golden retrievers, border collies, and german shepherds. 

However, there are lots of other medium to large-sized breeds of dogs that can become SAR dogs if trained properly.

Breed characteristics and personality traits

You would think that dogs that like to play wouldn’t be good at SAR. This couldn’t be further from the truth. These dogs are ideal as they will spend many hours searching out their toy and returning it to their owner to play with, time and time again. 

The dog needs to be friendly and well-behaved, with high energy levels. They need to also be well trained and not get distracted when they are focussing on finding someone.

Proper training

Many experts recommend starting SAR training when your dog is a puppy. Doing this will enable you to instill the right behavior and necessary skills in your puppy. It will also allow you to control the social aspects while they grow, and how they behave with other dogs or humans.

Most SAR dogs will live with their handler and visit a training school to learn the SAR skills. Dogs can be trained at home with their handler. However, this may take longer than taking them to a training school that specializes in SAR training to learn.

You can take your dog to group sessions with a SAR team to start their training. Group sessions will teach them the correct behavior when in a social setting as well as the basic SAR skills. They may also need to have obedience training to get them to understand commands.

If you’re planning on becoming involved in search and rescue work you should contact your local SAR team. They will be able to give you lots of advice and will know the training and qualifications needed to deploy. 

This is the best option if you’re looking to become operational in a search and rescue team but can be very intense if you’re just looking to teach your dog how to trail.

Are rescue dogs hard to train?

You can train almost any dog to become qualified in search and rescue, but some are easier to train than others. Some breeds of dogs are born to track scents, and others much prefer laying on the sofa in the warm home, keeping their owner company.

Training your dog to become qualified in SAR takes time and lots of patience. They must be the kind of dog that naturally enjoys hunting out toys and chasing balls. This shows that they have a good instinct and won’t give up searching after a couple of minutes. 

Training is easier if you start young. It can take around two to three years to thoroughly train your dog to become a SAR dog, so you need to start early. 

Puppies are learning every day, so this is the best time to start your training in search and rescue.

Behavior plays a big part in becoming a SAR dog, and they need to be taught how to behave well from a young age and how to socialize with others. Playing and searching out toys is all very well, but you also need to make sure that they react well in large groups and don’t get distracted easily. 

Dogs that are passionate and friendly will enjoy the training, especially the rewards and treats when they get things right. Being passionate about what they do and wanting to please their owner or handler makes it a lot easier to train your dog to become a SAR dog.

How to train a dog for search and rescue

How long does it take to train a dog for search and rescue?

The length of time it takes to train a dog to be field-ready for search and rescue will depend on the dog itself, and the type of training they are having. It will also depend on when you start their training as it will take an older dog longer than a young puppy.

It generally takes up to 600 hours to train a dog to become ready for search and rescue. If you train a dog from a young puppy it can be easier. 

You need to take into account that puppies are also learning lots of other things, so it may take a little longer to train them in every aspect of SAR. And all puppies will need to mature physically before they can do all of the challenging tasks of a SAR dog.

An older dog already has a routine and lots of different habits, so you will need to retrain your adult dog for them to become a SAR dog. This can be easy if they have the right personality for the role and the required temperament. 

Before you start training

Your dog will need to want to learn to be able to train as a SAR dog, so they must have the right temperament before you start any kind of training. They need to be well behaved and listen to their owner’s commands quickly and without messing about. 

You will need to understand that becoming a SAR dog generally means being a volunteer with no money being paid for the role. You will also have to fund the training and registration of your dog yourself, with no support given. 

This can be expensive and will take a lot of time out of your daily life with little compensation. However, the reward of helping to save someone’s life is enough for most SAR dogs and their owners.

Pro tip:  Contact and meet up with a local SAR team before getting a dog specifically for SAR training. Observe training sessions and talk to the members to decide if this is really for you. Remember, you will also have to be in good physical shape!

Spend time with their dogs to get an idea of the personality, energy level, etc that comes with a successful SAR candidate. Some of these dogs can be wonderful house pets, but some are also a bit intense, so you’ll want to do your research when choosing a puppy too. 

How do you train a dog for search and rescue?

There are many steps in how you train your dog to become a SAR dog, and many people complete this differently, depending on their own dog and how they pick up on things. There are key elements involved in the training:

Rewards for completed tasks

All dogs (and humans, if we’re being honest) will complete a task more quickly and thoroughly if we have a reward at the end of it. The reward could be lots of praise and petting for your dog or a small treat.

You should never punish your dog if they get something wrong, as this will discourage them from learning. 

If they don’t do it right, don’t reward them. The dog will soon learn that to get what they want, they need to work with you.  

SAR dogs will complete the task needed by them to get the reward at the end of the game.  

Tracking 

For your dog to learn how to track items and people, you need to show them an object that has been touched by just one person. That person then needs to make footprints, wiping their feet on the ground. 

The dog then needs to be shown both the scented item and the scent on the ground. The person that the scent is from should then hide, and the dog will then be given the command to search. 

Treats and the dog’s favorite toys should be placed along the search route to lead them to the person that they’re searching for. Your dog should be given lots of praise when they go the right way as this will make them want to carry on.

As the dog gets used to tracking the person or item will be moved further away, and fewer treats and toys are given to them. Tracking search dog training needs to be completed in different areas and on a variety of terrain to get the dog used to challenging conditions.

Specific terrains 

SAR dogs will work on different terrains and in a variety of weather conditions, and some will be more extreme than others. 

Dogs need to be trained on the terrains that they will be working on as this will get them used to searching through a specific environment. 

Some of the terrains where SAR dogs will be used are:

Mountains

Mountain-based SAR teams are trained to operate on mountainous terrain and need to be very fit and strong, to be able to climb the uneven and rough terrain. They need to have an understanding of rock climbing and specialized first aid training. 

This terrain is difficult to handle for many dogs and is only suited to the fittest of SAR dogs.

Ground

Ground SAR teams mostly work in a woodland environment, fields, and residential areas. These lowland terrains are the most popular terrains for SAR teams to work. 

The SAR dog needs to be trained on different kinds of terrain when doing this work as they will work on grass, tracks, and in forests full of trees and roots.

Cave

SAR dogs working in caves need a specialized kind of training as they will need to search out people who are mostly trapped deep inside a cave. 

Area search 

SAR dogs completing an area search use their noses more than in any other search and rescue. They are trained to pick up a human scent that could be anything from 150 meters away to a quarter of a mile away. Dogs instinctively use their noses more than any other sense so they just need to be trained on how to find people safely and how to alert someone.

They are used to track missing people or people who are trapped, and they do this by picking up a smell in the air current and following it to its greatest concentration, hopefully finding the person. Humans drop 40,000 skin cells each minute, leaving their scent everywhere they go.

Extreme winds and rain can hinder a dog from trying to find someone this way as the scent will be blown around, confusing the dog’s senses.

Rubble and avalanche search

Training your dog to search through rubble and an avalanche can be difficult and requires specialized training. These dogs have to search for a human scent that could be buried up to 15 feet in snow or rubble from destroyed buildings.

SAR dogs are trained to follow the scent by digging in the snow and then alerting their handler. Rubble and snow can be very dangerous conditions to be working in so these dogs need to undergo specialized search dog training for dealing with unstable and dangerous surfaces.

Water rescue

Dogs that are trained in water rescue are used to search for drowning victims. When someone is underwater their scent rises through the water to the surface via skin particles and gasses, allowing the dog to locate them. 

As there are currents in the water, SAR dogs find it difficult to exactly locate the victim, but they can alert the SAR team as to the area where they are located. 

Registering your search and rescue dog

Once your dog is fully trained in SAR they then need to be registered, along with you as their handler. This allows the dog to be called up to help with search and rescue situations. 

Many nationally recognized organizations provide search and rescue dog training and will then test your dog to make sure that they understand what is required. The dog will then be certified as a SAR dog, and you can then register them.

Your contact details will be passed onto local SAR teams who will call on you and your dog when needed. You need to note that this could be at any time during the day or night as emergencies don’t run to a schedule.

Key points on search and rescue training

The main purpose for SAR dogs is to locate a subject using their scent. This could be a human or an object that’s missing, trapped, or injured. They will be trained to work in extreme weather conditions and on difficult and dangerous terrains, so your dog will need to be fit and strong.

A dog who loves to play and hunt out balls or toys can be ideal to train as a SAR dog. They will search and dig for hours to find what they’re looking for. 

Personality and the dog’s temperament are important when training for SAR. They need to be friendly and listen to commands, without getting distracted. 

It doesn’t matter what breed of dog they are, but the most popular dogs for this role would be medium to large breeds, such as German shepherds, labradors, golden retrievers, and border collies.

Training requires lots of time and patience and is done voluntarily, with no support, so you need to make sure that you have the time and funds to complete this before starting the training.

Becoming part of a SAR team can bring you and your dog closer as you will be spending many hours working with them. If you have a passion for helping others and your dog feels the same way, this could be the role for you. 

It’s a very rewarding experience when you find the person that you’re looking for, and they are alive and well. This will make all the hours of training worth it and will build a relationship between you and your dog that you can cherish forever.

Start now and check out the search and rescue teams in your area.

Kate Basedow, LVT
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