Training a search and rescue dog comprises three basics – positivity, passion and tons of patience. So if you think you’re ready to enter into a very special friendship with your four-legged companion, you’ve come to the right place.
A trained Search and Rescue (SAR) dog goes beyond the usual Lassie-esque image that we tend to associate with them. They help us locate victims of natural disasters, accidents and crime, who otherwise are bound to reach an unfortunate end. SAR dogs command the kind of respect that is usually reserved for the men in uniform, and are treasured additions to any rescue and search party.
Preconceived notions lead us to believe that these animals are born with an amazing amount of talent, but it may not always be so. At times, it is possible to train a few dogs to become SAR operatives, irrespective of their breed. SAR training is a serious business and for those of you who are in the dark about what this routine entails, here is a brief introduction:
- SAR dogs are expected to deftly make their way through difficult landscapes in order to locate a lost person or object.
- They have to work in extreme weather conditions.
- These dogs and their handlers have to be at the constant beck and call of the concerned authorities.
- Rescue situations are impossible to predict; nevertheless, a SAR dog needs to be fighting fit all the time, irrespective of participating in rescue missions.
- One cannot classify this job as a money-making enterprise. It is mostly understood to be voluntary work.
Having taken a laud-worthy decision of training your dog to become a SAR specialist, you need to consider every possibility that comes with it before you actually do so. Dogs belonging to certain breeds like German Shepherds, Bloodhounds, Border Collies or Labrador Retrievers have built a reputation for themselves when it comes to fulfilling search and rescue duties. However, going beyond the breed, there are certain qualities that set a good search dog apart from the rest.
The most prominent ones are:
- The capacity to discern and follow scents and odors
- High levels of endurance and enthusiasm
- The ability to undergo rigorous training
Search and Rescue Dog: Pre-training Tips
Socialize the Dog
A dog that is friendly and approachable makes for a fantastic search dog. While it is true that training a puppy is definitely easier, it doesn’t mean that training a grown dog is a lost cause. Puppies need to interact with several humans of all ages as much as possible, so that they become more affable. You can’t really have a search dog who is temperamental or snobbish; or worse, a dog that cowers when there’s a thunderstorm. The first step, therefore, is to ensure that your soon-to-be SAR dog isn’t really cat-like.
Make Him Run
A SAR dog should essentially be light on his feet. Exercise is an integral part of every dog’s life, but for a dog who is undergoing SAR training, it is somewhat of a compulsion. Take your dog out on regular walks in the park, make him run and sweat regularly. SAR dogs are required to be adept at swimming, hiking and walking on dangerous terrains. Ideally, this dog needs to be exposed to all the elements of nature so that the conditions during an actual mission don’t take him by surprise. The socializing and exercising activities should be conducted at least four times a week, with every session ranging from 20 minutes to an hour, depending upon the age of the dog.
Train the Ears
There is a solid reason why this point gets priority over teaching a dog to follow a scent trail. An average dog (varies according to breed and age) can hear sounds between frequencies ranging from 40 Hz to 60 kHz, which is really sharp. A SAR dog, on several occasions needs to take chopper, snowmobile or speed boat rides, which can be really noisy for their sensitive ears, and can distress them to a great degree. Dogs that are used to harsh sounds perform well under any circumstances, and those sharp ears always come in handy to locate faint sounds that are not audible to humans.
Making the Dog Nose-worthy
Nosy-parkers as they already are, trailing a scent is a quality that comes naturally to all dogs. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that dogs literally see with their nose, as their olfactory cortex occupies a considerable part of their brain. Comparing our sense of smell with a dog’s would be a complete insult to the pooch community. Nevertheless, an average dog can comfortably beat us with its 200 million smell receptors to our paltry 5 million. It is this valuable talent in dogs that makes them excellent search companions.
For a basic method of training, you will need a piece of cloth and three or four small buckets. The buckets should be placed close to each other in the upside down position. Then, take the piece of cloth and let the dog smell it. This piece of cloth should be taken away from the dog and placed under one of the buckets. You can now ask the dog to “find” or “fetch” it, or use any other search command that you’re already using. Once the dog finds the cloth, follow it with a treat and some playful petting. You must make the dog realize that locating a hidden object is a fun activity.
Another way of training your dog to follow the scent trail would be to play hide and seek with him/her. Allow the dog to smell your clothing and surreptitiously hide in another room. Let another person command the dog to find you. On successful completion of this task, a reward in the form of a treat should follow. Healthy encouragement in the form of positive reinforcement makes the dog realize that he has done a good job. As your training advances, you must repeat this exercise using different people (ideally people who are unknown to the dog), and on different outdoor locations, under varied weather conditions and at different times of the day.
Keep these training sessions short initially, and go on increasing the time as you proceed conducting them outdoors. A SAR operation may go on for hours on end, and a good dog should be able to work for at least four hours on the trot. When on duty, a dog may not always be paired with the handler, so it is necessary to train him/her to obey commands from other people too.
Increasing the Dog’s Productivity
SAR dogs that are summoned to work in areas struck with natural disasters have a tougher job on their hands. As they’re expected to find victims trapped under the rubble, they must be trained to alert its handler once they spot something. Just as a dog is trained to find or fetch, he must also be trained to bark or scratch to indicate an alert message.
To do this, the dog is given a whiff of the object she is supposed to track, which is later hidden. Once the dog gets to the object, the handler must command her to “speak” or any other command that will prompt the dog to bark. It is necessary to reward the dog for not giving in to distractions that may be encountered during the search. This happens often when a dog is trained outdoors, where there are several things to disturb his focus.
You must remember that a SAR dog may need to enter hard-to-reach areas like crevices, climb up trees or ladders, descend on to elevator shafts or basements, and the trainer needs to make sure that the dog is up to the task. This training should include a lot of verbal and physical encouragement from the handler due to the hard work that the dog puts in. There will be times when the dog would be required to get inside hazardous areas, this is when the handler is supposed to gauge the amount of risk involved and ensure the safety of the animal.
Trainers, Train Yourselves Too!
I’ve put in this section keeping in mind those of you who are planning to SAR-train their dogs with a view to volunteer with your local community police, and are not really professional trainers. While there are no monetary benefits to be reaped from volunteering on rescue missions, there are a whole lot of people out there who wish to contribute to the welfare of their community by rendering this service.
Enough has been said on the special relationship that a trainer shares with his/her animals. When you play the dual role of the dog’s master and trainer, you need to focus on a very important aspect of this relationship, which is the emotional bond that you share. Your puppy or dog has possibly shared a bond with her breeder, walker, caretaker, trainer, or even with previous owners, and the closest relationship that she has will be with her penultimate owner, that is you. While professional trainers cultivate the ability to teach the dogs, you will have an upper hand simply because your dog will want to please you above anyone else in his world, provided you’ve been kind to him. Since you plan to put your dog through the rigorous routine of SAR training, it would only be right to capitalize on the bond that you share to make it relaxed and fun, instead of military-like. The results will be for you to see.
The theory that dogs have the capability to sense emotions in humans is not completely outlandish according to scientists. Your dog understands when you’re happy, and she senses it if you’re having a bad day, all thanks to the pheromones that your body emits as per your mood. While training, your dog will not miss any signs of slackness, exasperation or rising tempers, so ensure that you remain cheerful and upbeat when you are in a training session. Remember that your boredom or lack of interest will be mirrored by the dog, which amounts to a complete waste of time. It is extremely important to respect the dog (never, ever look down upon him or deride him), encourage him, and above all, truly love him to bring out the best in him.
Training your dog for rescue missions is in itself an act that deserves utmost praise. When you are training one, make sure you become the person that the dog can look up to. What follows will be a relationship that you will cherish forever.