What Does It Take to Train a Search and Rescue Dog?

The great thing about training is that, given the right combination of human and dog, you can take it as far as you want to. And training to become a search and rescue dog team definitely takes it to the limits.

When it comes to assisting and serving others, search and rescue dogs (SAR dogs) and handlers are certainly among the elite. Almost everyone has heard about the feats of these amazing teams who help save lives in the aftermath of a tragedy or track down missing persons.

Search and Rescue Dog Specialties

What many people may not know, however, is that there are a variety of search and rescue dog specialties and almost all SAR dogs are trained in only one. According to the United States Search and Rescue Task Force, dogs can specialize in any of the following disciplines:

  • Air Scent Dog – Can pick up traces of human scent drifting in the air.
  • Trailing Dog – Directed to find a specific person by following their scent.
  • Tracking Dog – Physically follows the track of a person without relying on scent.
  • Disaster Dog – Finds scent in structures and areas affected by tornadoes, earthquakes and other disasters.
  • Cadaver Dog – Trained to locate only human remains.
  • Water Search Dog – Able to detect human scent either in or under the water.
  • Avalanche Dog – Detects human scent under snow (sometimes up to 15 feet or more).

 Training a Search and Rescue Dog

The first step to becoming a certified search and rescue team begins with the dog. Many experts recommend starting a puppy since it’s easier to control important behavioral aspects like socialization. Adult dogs can also be good candidates for search and rescue, but they should be objectively evaluated (preferably by a professional dog trainer) to make sure they have the right temperament for it.

Key characteristics of SAR dogs include good health, intelligence, high energy, and confidence. They also have a high level of play drive (especially with a ball) and are able to focus for a long period of time without becoming distracted. The breed typically isn’t as important as drive, but most search and rescue dogs tend to be German Shepherd Dogs, Belgian Malinois, and Labrador Retrievers.

Those interested in SAR work should lay the foundation by enrolling in a beginning obedience class to solidify manners, key skills and self-control. Once they have the basics down, a local SAR clubs can help evaluate the dog and guide the handler during training.

Anyone interested in becoming a certified SAR team should know that it requires both time and commitment. About 600 hours of training are required for a dog to become field ready. This can take anywhere from 8 months to two years, depending on the specialty and the amount of time the handler is able or willing to devote to it.

For more information on becoming a Search and Rescue team, visit DisasterDog.org.

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