Search and Rescue Dog Training
If you really wanted to find a needle in a haystack, all you'd have to do is give the scent to a SAR dog and he or she will get right to the point.
We're all familiar with the classic image of the Saint Bernard and a barrel of spirits hanging about its neck as he comes to the rescue of an unfortunate soul trapped by an avalanche. For decades this image represented one of man's best friends the Search and Rescue dog. SAR dogs are some of the most enthusiastic and determined animals that we have the good fortune of associating with, owning, training and handling.
Just for the record, the purpose of the spirits was to raise the person's body temperature and prevent hypothermia. Today there aren't many SAR dogs carrying spirits around in sub-zero climates, but there are plenty of breeds with the same enthusiastic temperament doing search and rescue with remarkable success. And that's the word that best suits SAR dogs. Remarkable.
Breeds such as Saint Bernard and Golden Retriever make excellent alpine rescue dogs since they take to the cold environment. Other heavy coat breeds like Newfoundland and Labrador Retrievers make excellent water rescue dogs, because their love for swimming makes them enthusiastic about training for flood and river rescue. Rescue dogs that are trained for alpine and water rescue have to get accustomed to traveling in boats, four-wheelers, snowmobiles and helicopters and taking long hikes. Not exactly a boring life for a dog, wouldn't you say?
Search and rescue dogs have a certain temperament that combines a strong prey drive with a desire to please their handler and breeds that exhibit these traits are candidates for SAR dog training. Most trainers will agree, the important thing is obtaining a herding, sporting or working breed from a reputable breeder and imprinting with SAR dog training at the earliest possibly age. Pups should start obedience training at 8-10 weeks old and transition to SAR dog training at 4 or 5 months.
Alerting to a scent is the "101" of SAR dog training and schooling includes the elements of release and recall, followed by reward and praise. Even though the training is seriously intense, finding an object is taught as a game, which keeps the trainee enthusiastic.
Then the object is placed under one of the three buckets and the command is given to "Find Dolly". When the dog alerts to the correct bucket, the prize is exposed and the dog receives praise and reward. A quality pup will pick up the game quickly and look forward to bringing the toy back for more reward and praise
When to Start Training?
At the 6-8 month range, dogs that exhibit certain qualities can be specialty trained to search out a particular scent each time they are deployed. Cadaver dogs are trained to the properties that are unique to the scent of a corpse, while gun and drug dogs are trained to track and alert at those scents.
Other breeds like Shepherd and Collie can be trained to find a new scent each time, and these animals are extremely valuable in finding lost and missing children. A handler will show the dog an object with the childs scent and release the dog to "find Tommy". An effective training exercise might have the trainer hide an object, show the scent to the dog and give the command to "find the baby". Whatever the method, consistency with repetition & persistence is the key to success.
Great Links & Videos
Great video on alpine training.
Here's a clip demonsrating how a dog persists, even when it can't find the scent.
Video by an agency that handles SAR dogs.
Qualifying a young dog for certain duty is one of the reasons SAR dog training is so productive and it's up to the trainer to observe the young trainees and make these determinations at some point in the initial training.
SAR dogs that will work rubble and debris from earthquakes or storms are trained to alert by barking and scratching hard when they are on the spot. So, during training the dog can be encouraged to scratch, bark an alert, get under the bucket or box and retrieve the object. At the next level the dog is given a scent and when on track, taught to associate the alert with speaking. This is a simple progression and every trainer has a proven method of arriving at the same result.
With advanced training comes the human element in the form of a second trainer or a volunteer. The dog is shown the scent as "friend" then the person will hide and allow the trainer to get the dog's attention focused elsewhere. Then the scent is reintroduced and the dog is released to "find friend". In all training scenarios, finding the person or the object is finalized with positive reinforcement.
It's never certain where a SAR dog will have to go in order to track or follow a scent. SAR dogs must learn how to climb ladders, walk on narrow ledges and climb trees, and all of these are taught through any number of typical methods.
For urban environments, SAR dog training teaches the animal to search in crowded places such as a mall, around equipment and machinery that are in warehouses, and also in basements, under houses, in elevators and in stairwells. In many situations there are things such as heavy equipment or unsupported building sections could be a danger to the animal releasing only on command is extremely important. In the field, it's the handler's responsibility to make absolutely certain the situation is safe to deploy the SAR dog.
Training a dog to track on verbal and signal commands is essential for other types of SAR dog work. In the field, and especially if more dogs are deployed to cover a large area, the handlers must direct their dog in order to maintain an organized search.
Similar methods are used to train herding and sporting dogs and it all starts with commands on a lead, accompanied by reward and praise. Then the lead is held in sight of the dog and the training continues. By combining the bucket drill with fetch and retrieve hand commands a dog can be trained to understand it is searching in a particular way. Once a dog picks up a scent it is encouraged to track that scent to the source. The trainer can devise any number of scenarios for this aspect of SAR dog training.
SAR dog training is extensive, exhaustive and intense for both the animal and the trainer. However, the reward is a remarkable animal that is extremely valuable in terms of saving human lives.