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Ready, Set, SEARCH! - Training a Search and Rescue Dog

Updated on January 27, 2010

Dogs have become a vital component of many Search and Rescue organizations around the world. A dog's nose senses thousands of times better than a human's, and it's thanks to this amazing natural ability that many lost people owe their life.

Labradors, German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, beagles, standard poodles, bloodhounds, mixed breeds and many others make excellent search dogs. Most pertinent is that they are sociable, sizeable enough to overcome wilderness obstacles such as large logs and high ledges, and love to play the search game.


Planning an outing in the woods?

  • Always leave information at home: return time & location(s). And STICK TO THE PLAN!
  • Always wear bright clothing in the wilderness.
  • Organize a survival fanny pack like the one below and wear it EVERY TIME you visit the wilderness. Focus on lightweight and simple, something you will be inclined to grab on your way out the door.


  • Don't panic.
  • STAY IN ONE PLACE once you realize you're lost. Do not keep 'looking for the way out'.
  • Look around for a sheltered spot by a clearing. If you can see the sky, a search pilot can see you.
  • Stay calm, stay there.

Organize one for each member
Organize one for each member


After its first set of shots, a puppy can begin playing hide and seek with its owner, who must be a member of the search organization they will work for. Sometimes called a ‘puppy runaway', the owner/handler will walk away from the puppy, making sure it's watching. At perhaps twenty feet she'll stop, turn and make excited noises to trigger the pup's curiosity then quickly duck behind a barrier such as a tree or bushes. The person holding the puppy, usually another search member, will release the puppy with a command decided upon by its owner such as ‘Search!' or ‘Go find!'. If the puppy runs immediately to its owner it's a good sign it could respond well to search training.

As the puppy gets older the play searches lengthen. By the time it is ready for certification as a mission-ready search and rescue member, typically around two years, the dog and handler must be capable of searching hundreds of acres for several hours. This is where a strong will-to-please is truly tested. Search dogs love to serve their humans and they especially love the rewards they receive after a ‘find'. Treats and play time, such as tug-of-war or fetching, are typical incentives. But praise is the best prize of all!

The dog must learn to seek only human scent. If it chases the wildlife, called ‘crittering', or spends more time playing than searching, the dog, and perhaps its handler, need more training. If, after diligent guidance, the dog still ignores commands it may simply be uninterested in wilderness search work.


There are two methods for canine wilderness searching: "air-scenting" and tracking.

Working off-leash, sometimes hundreds of yards from its handler, an air-scent dog is free to range back and forth through the forest seeking any human scent. This type of search dog can cover vast expanses of wilderness much easier and quicker than a human on foot.

A tracking dog works on a long lead and is trained to follow a specific human scent, helping to determine a direction of travel. Both types have great advantages.

Alert! Alert!

Different alerts tell the handler the dog has found someone.

  • Jump Alert - returns and jumps on the handler.
  • Bark Alert - barks at subject or returns and barks at handler.
  • Sit Alert - sits by subject or return and sits for handler.
  • Tug Alert - returns and tugs on a specific article like a Kong toy or a brinsel.

The handler will choose the best alert based on what the dog seems to do naturally during training.


...the air scent dog.

Humans shed body cells by the millions and search dogs can smell these cells. The wind carries them in a scent trail', and as an air-scenting dog ranges it can hit upon this trail and will follow it to its source; a human being. This is called working the wind'. If the subject has STAYED IN ONE PLACE right from the moment he realizes he is lost, a ‘scent pool' is created in the area. This pool can grow very large and potent, giving air-scenting dogs a greater advantage of encountering it. (Picture a lighthouse or foghorn guiding ships safely in to port. Their alerts are loud and bright across a foggy ocean. A large scent pool makes a human ‘loud' to a search dog's nose in the wilderness.)


...the tracking dog.

A tracking dog works on a long lead with its nose to the ground, sniffing for one particular smell, also called ‘scent specific' work. The tracking dog is introduced to a ‘scent article' , such as a piece of clothing, a hat, a hairbrush and sometimes the car seat the subject typically sits in. Articles can be used if they are found ‘on scene' (the spot where the lost subject was last seen or where their vehicle has been found), as long as the article can be verified by a friend or relative as belonging to the subject.

Most handlers believe if someone other than the lost subject touches a scent article it becomes contaminated. Therefore, it will be introduced to the dog with sterile-gloved hands, tongs or in a sterile container such as a new, plastic zip bag.

Once the dog 'takes scent', or smells the item, it will begin searching the immediate area, sniffing along the ground or up in the air. It works avidly, circling its handler until its powerful nose hits the right scent.

Sometimes a tracking dog gets so excited as it works closer to the subject that its handler must work extra hard to keep pace through the heavy brush and over logs and rocks. Stamina and a good physical condition are essential for keeping up with this hard-working canine!


Dogs can even be trained to locate the bodies of drowned victims in rivers and lakes. They must first learn that something or someone can be underwater by finding volunteers who hide, partially submerged, in shallow water. Over time, the searches will become deeper using volunteer divers and the dog will be introduced to deceased human scent through the use of, but not limited to, 'pseudo-scent'; a chemically produced cadaver scent. Handlers must study air and water currents and their affects on scent travel, which can be very tricky. Alerts from the dog can be different for this type of search; a bark, sudden animation or a head dip can cue the handler that a body is close by.

Search dogs wear vests, or ‘shabracks', Sometimes patches of earned accreditation are sewn onto it, signifying it as a search and rescue canine, along with its name and the organization it works for. The vest is typically orange, helping the handler to see the dog in the woods.

K-9 teams can work through the night, too, wearing illuminating devices such as glow sticks or collars, reflective tape or blinking reflectors.Some handlers like to attach a bell to the dog's collar so they can hear their location.

Once a dog owner decides to pursue search dog training they will have committed themselves and their dog to weekly training sessions, as well as in-class lessons on topics like wilderness survival, handler tactics, canine emergency care in a wilderness setting, weather and wind readings, search and rescue tactics, and numerous state and county certifications in CPR/First Aid, blood-borne pathogens, hazardous materials training, land navigation, communications and incident command structure. It takes consistency, dedication and perseverance to become a certified K-9 search team and this continues throughout the working life of the dog. By the time a dog and its handler are mission ready they will have formed a bond unlike any other. The trust and understanding they share, forged through hundreds of hours of hard work, is a rare and inspiring alliance.

We are still learning the amazing capabilities of the canine nose. From avalanche rescues to cancer detection, dogs' willingness to please and serve humans has made them an indispensible resource, not to mention unconditional companions.

Photographs courtesy of Jackson County Sheriff Search and Rescue K-9 Unit, and sixd617474 / Matt @

Additional information can be found at:


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    • profile image

      Daniel P. Jones 

      6 years ago

      I'm an avid skier and I admire the bravery and the passion of avalanche rescue dogs. Avalanche can happen at any moment and any weather condition and it can take away lives in a manner of seconds.

      The role of avalanche rescue dogs are so important and they've trained hard to save lives.

      For more info about avalanche rescue digs, here's a brief and comprehensive article about them:

    • Sally's Trove profile image


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Thanks for putting the time and effort into publishing this informative article. I've never had the pleasure to know anyone who is involved in this work; all I know about it is what I've seen on TV, where you get only the big picture, not the details.

      Your Hub is particularly engrossing now, as I watch the news and see search and rescue dogs working in earthquake-devastated Haiti.

      Thumbs up, Cathy.

    • Eternal Evolution profile image

      Eternal Evolution 

      9 years ago from kentucky

      American Pit Bull Terriers also make great SAR dogs. They are discriminated against because of BSL and myths about the breed.

    • profile image

      Ernie Coffman 

      10 years ago

      Cathy, thanks for sharing your thoughts and article. Soooo...when are you going back into the K-9 unit? Hee hee! The dedicated folks in K-9 surely do put in a lot of time with their dogs; and, for a very useful reason--to find the missing subject or item that they've been assigned to try and locate.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Great article Cathy!

      We should all be so grateful to these wonderful volunteers and their amazing dogs for all they do.


    • profile image


      10 years ago

      There's a lot to be said for the dedication of the S&R teams and their beautiful dogs. How they go out there and do what they do is simply incredible. Aweome article!!!!


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