Training a Rescue Dog – Training a Dog to Help Save Lives

Nose in the air, the German Shepherd swings around to go back the way it came, following the cone of scent. Her tail begins an emphatic wag; she knows she is narrowing in on the person buried when the snow tumbled down the mountain. She quickly turns again, running across the wind before suddenly dropping her nose to the ground. Turning ninety degrees, she runs ten feet and starts to dig.

By the excitement in her bark, her handler knows that not only has she found someone, there is a good chance the person is still alive. When she reaches her canine partner, she calls her off and gives her a hug then tosses the shepherd her favourite toy as people begin to dig snow out of the hole she began.

Soon the skier is hauled out of the hole – alive. With her keen sense of smell, the dog cut the search time from possibly days down to the necessary hours needed to find a victim alive.

When disaster strikes, nothing saves more lives then that nose and those four fast moving feet. Yet to the dog, it is a fun game that brings vast rewards at the end of the day. She recognizes the red vest with the white cross on it in her handler’s hand when she comes to get her and knows its time to go to work. She has spent her life training for these opportunities and the adrenalin that rushes through her body makes her vibrate with anticipation.

Training a rescue dog is easily one of the most rewarding of all the different ‘jobs’ a dog can be trained to do. The training itself is fun and must always be a positive experience for the dog. All methods are based on positive reinforcement to help bolster the dog’s confidence and ability to work sometimes hundreds of feet out in front of their owner. A search dog is taught to problem solve and think for themselves – something unusual in the dog training world where usually the handler works close to their dog and expects obedience.

There are two ways or types of training for a rescue dog – ground scenting or tracking and air scenting. Ground scenting is what we are used to seeing Bloodhounds do in the movies – their nose is tight to the ground and they follow a track. Bloodhounds were bred for this job, having developed their own characteristics to assist – the long ears and loose facial folds help direct and hold the scent to their nose while their wide stance and long neck are helpful in moving quickly with their head down low.

Air-scenting is harder to recognize. Nature shows often demonstrate wolves doing it – nose is up and it is obvious the animal is sniffing the air. Both wolves and dogs naturally search for things this way. The science behind it is that an object or person gives off scent that travels in a V shape or cone that expands as the wind blows it farther away from the person or object. To search, the dog works into the wind until a scent is detected. Then the dog turns ninety degrees to travel across the wind. When they lose the scent, they turn around and run in the opposite direction until they again lose the scent. They continue to travel down the cone as it narrows until they find the point of origin – the person or object where they are then rewarded by their handler. This is obviously a simplified version without unusual updrafts or terrain to manoeuvre but the principles remain the same even in water.

Air-scenting dogs have some attributes over tracking or ground-scenting dogs:

  • A start point is not necessary nor is a piece of clothing to give the dog a specific scent to follow
  • Because they follow the scent (particles of skin) in the wind, even if an area is contaminated with family members or other people searching, once the area is cleared of people, soon the only scent remaining is that of the victim
  • The victim continuously to gives off scent so there is no need to worry about rain, heat or humidity destroying the track
  • They cover a lot of ground in a short period of time

Many dogs make excellent rescue dogs – the important part is the desire to work and an eagerness for the training. Breeds that are often used for search and rescue are Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherd Dogs as these three breeds are intelligent, adaptable and eager to please their handlers.

Although big dogs are recommended as they can cover ground quickly without tiring, small dogs can fit in nooks and crannies that a large dog is not able to do. Beagles are a common breed as urban search dogs as they are natural trackers that fit in small spaces.

Ideally, training begins at eight weeks old but even an active one to two year old is not too old to train as a SAR dog. Much of the early training is teaching the pup to chase and that finding a person is the best fun in the world! After that is established, training with a hiding ‘victim’ continues the education.

The other side of training a rescue dog is the need for the handler to be in excellent physical condition as they have to keep up to their dog and be able to work for hours on end. Many SAR organizations require physical fitness tests from the searchers with handlers having the added test of being able to carry their dog for 500 meters unassisted (an important point to remember when picking a breed of dog – you must be able to pack him out on your own if he is injured!).

There are many types of training for a rescue dog beyond tracking and air-scenting and where you live may dictate what type of rescue dog your dog will become. Urban disaster dogs live in the city, avalanche dogs work where there is a likelihood of snow, wilderness search dogs are in rural areas and water rescue dogs tend to be around large bodies of water. Most dogs can cross over from one type to the other readily enough and as was seen at the search of the twin towers after 911. Most of the dogs brought in were used to rural searches as there are just not that many urban rescue dogs available. They did a wonderful job once they got their bearings and helped find many victims.

The one other type of rescue dog is a cadaver dog – they are a unique search dog. Most dogs do not like finding dead people. Dogs that are used to finding live victims will become depressed if too many of their finds are unsuccessful and handlers will often have someone hide for the dog to find to renew his desire to search. Cadaver dogs are from the beginning that their reward comes from their handler, not from the victim. They do not have an aversion to death like many dogs, as this is all they have ever seen. Unfortunately, there is a substantial need for dogs trained on cadavers and not enough handlers want to be this kind of searcher.

North America has an extensive number of Search and Rescue organizations and many employ search dogs. Because the cost of the dog and the hours of training are absorbed by the handler, well-trained dogs are always in demand as well as people who may not be in a position to have a dog of their own but would like to help in their training i.e. playing victim.

Please contact your local search and rescue organization for more information or to make a donation.



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