A search and rescue dog is almost self-driven, as it automatically moves even without a direction from its handler, going under the bushes and around trees. It sniffs, searches, and perks up to smell the air; then it suddenly dashes away and comes back a few moments later, barking restlessly and guiding its handler to a distant undergrowth where a victim lays hidden.
If you have seen this dog before it became a search and rescue dog, you would surely be amazed at the seemingly impossible transformation of a dog that was once just another silly puppy that wants nothing more than playing games. This dog, like any other, was born with just bare essentials and natural instincts, eager for acceptance and having so much energy.
Its transformation was the result of months of hard work, dedication, patience and focus. Here’s a glimpse of how search and rescue dogs are produced:
Picking the Right Dog
The first and the most crucial part of the search and rescue dog training is the dog [breed] selection process – which is starting with the right dog. Based on experience, dog trainers found the German Shepherd to be the best candidate for search and rescue work. While other breeds can’t be simply underestimated for their potential to become search and rescue dogs, the German Shepherd seems to be the one especially built for the job, as it has the intelligence, loyalty, physical features and drive that are needed for this highly demanding work that is coupled with a big sense for urgency. Being male or female doesn’t matter as far as training is concerned; as either sex works fairly well on the job.
Other breeds that have been proven to be effective search and rescue dogs are Rottweilers and Black Labradors.
After the selection process is completed, it is now time to pick the dog with the right mentality. The dogs that are perfectly suited for the search and rescue job are the ones that are always eager to please and those that are loaded with large amounts of energy. Dogs that have “ball drive” or the knack for playing with toys will have a plus for this particular type of job.
It is important to note that the best time to prepare a dog for search and rescue training is when bonding has already been established between the dog and its trainer (you) and another person who will act as your assistant. If you’re planning to raise a search and rescue dog, it is a wise idea to groom one while it is still a puppy. The actual SAR training can be started when the dog is at its sixth to eighth month of age, but some dogs do not perform very well until they are around 12 months old.
Although the search and rescue dog training has no upper age limit, it is important to consider the length of time that your dog can be of service after the training, since the skill takes a year or more to master and your pet might be too old to do the job by the time it masters the skill.
Starting the training
After picking the right dog, training could now begin.
The first step of the training is called a “Run-away.” At this point, you will need the help of another person who will act as your assistant.
Ask your assistant to hold the dog – with one arm below the belly and the other holding the dog’s collar – while you are standing and facing the dog.
Get the dog excited by stroking its face and ears while praising it and saying good things to it. When the dog gets energized, run away for about 15 paces, then drop to the ground.
At this point, your assistant should do his part by telling the dog in a clear, loud voice: “Go Find!” as he lets the dog go. The dog, which saw you drop, is expected to run towards you at once. Praise your dog as it approaches you, or you can shower it with lots of attention as a reward for a job well done. A favorite toy given to it as a prize will do fine as well. Repeat the process several times until your dog masters the game.
Increase your run-aways gradually as you practice, while your assistant also holds the dog a little longer before releasing it with the “Go Find!” command. After a lot of practice sessions, you will be able to drop under a bush or tall grass for your dog to find. Remember to increase the level of difficulty only when your dog has mastered a certain level.
The Blind Run-away
As your pet masters different levels of the standard run-away, you may now introduce the blind run-away. You should practice this with a mild breeze blowing from your location towards the dog, as this will also train it to use its sniffing ability. Start with the basic routine of getting the dog excited then run opposite the wind direction about 40 feet away and drop down under the bush. At this point, the handler should turn the dog with its back facing you, while you rise and rush toward a new position not very far from your original location, with the wind still blowing towards the dog, then hide and drop down.
The handler will now turn the dog back to its original position and gives the “Go Find!” command. Instinctively, the dog will run towards the place where it saw you last. But when it catches your scent, it will surely turn and run towards you. It looks amazing how a dog can find someone with the use of its nostrils, but a superb sense of smell is just one of the dog’s natural endowments.
Always remember to shower your dog with praises for every good work that it does. This is an essential part of being consistent.
The final stage of the regimen is for you and your helper to switch roles. You will now hold the dog while your helper gets your pet excited and run away. Most dogs can easily adapt to the switch and it will not take long for them to enjoy finding someone. In time, your dog would gladly oblige if you ask it to search for anyone.
With the remaining portions of the training, you can continually increase the distance of your run-aways. Once your dog has mastered everything, you can slowly skip the run-away part of the routine and your new SAR dog would be willing to do a search. But it is always a good start to have it energized and a bit excited before letting it go to find someone concealed in the bushes.
The search and rescue dog training, which lasts from six to 12 months or more, requires focus, determination and lots of patience. But it rewards you with a great feeling of pride, accomplishment, and knowledge that you have returned something to humanity by transforming your best friend from a mere pet into a life saver.