How do I train my dog to search and rescue? Find Out Here

Obedience and focus are crucial. A handler must be able to control their dog at all times and in all situations. But a SAR dog who cant think for itself is useless; air-scent dogs work off-leash, so the handler wont always be nearby to give commands. The ideal search dog can solve problems on his own but also always be aware of his handler.

Once a dog really gets the game of “find it,” training her to alert to the find should be easy. In the case of avalanche searches, dogs usually dig at the area where they detect human scent. If a reward immediately follows a correct alert (meaning the dog is digging in the right place), the dog will continue to alert in that manner.

The next step is to increase the amount of time the assistant holds the dog. This increases the level of memory and attention span required to find the handler. First, the assistant holds back the dog for, say, five seconds. The dog finds the handler and gets to play tug-of-war. Then the assistant holds the dog for 10 seconds, then one minute, then five minutes and so on. Each time the dog finds the handler, she is rewarded with her game of tug-of-war.

Training a dog to “find it” is more about directing a dog than teaching her. Dogs have a natural inclination to locate scents — SAR training involves letting a dog know which scent the handlers wants her to locate and where the scent might be. Each time the dog completes a task, she gets her reward. Lets say this particular dog works for games of tug-of-war with a stinky sock.

It may seem like a dog obsessively focused on play would make a poor working dog, but for search-and-rescue work, this is actually an ideal trait. A dog that will chase a tennis ball for hours would probably walk through feet of snow, over a mountain and down a rocky embankment until his paws bleed to find it — and get someone to throw it for him again. For this SAR dog, locating the origin of a human scent would mean a game of “find the ball.” This is the basis of SAR training: associating human scent with something the dog wants very badly.

What Exactly Do SAR Dogs Do?

First and foremost, what exactly do SAR dogs do?

Well, the clue is in the name, search and rescue. They are generally trained to complete three different tasks:

  • Air scenting – finding people in general, so perhaps victims (human or sometimes other animals) of an incident.
  • Following ground disturbances – this means following footprints and other traces left behind by an individual, but not necessarily knowing the specific individual being tracked beyond their remnant scent.
  • Tracking a specific person – this is when they track a specific person, and are given their specific scent, from something like a piece of clothing, to track them down.
  • When SAR dogs find their objects, they are trained either to return to their handler and lead them to the object or stay with their object and alert their handler to their locations through signals such as barking.

    SAR dogs can be called up in a variety of situations: if a child goes missing from school or an inmate escapes from prison, if a group of hikers go missing, or if an avalanche buries an area under snow and rescues aren’t sure how many people they are looking for.

    Dogs’ superior sense of smell means that they have a better chance of finding people than human rescuers, who often do not know where to start looking when all they have to work with is the missing person’s last known location.


    SAR dogs are classified by the methods used to locate and follow scents.

    The three types of dogs are:

  • Air-scenting (locating humans in general, tracking)
  • Following ground disturbances
  • Trailing (following the scent of a specific person)
  • Using their well-developed sense of smell, dogs use their noses to locate people in a variety of SAR missions, including:

  • Assisting law enforcement with crime scenes
  • Weather-related disasters
  • Earthquakes
  • Avalanches
  • Collapsed buildings
  • Drowning
  • Becoming a SAR dog requires an immense amount of skill, and not every dog is up to this task. Breeds that traditionally are chosen as SAR dogs include German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, Dobermans, Rottweilers, giant Schnauzers and golden retrievers. Additionally, dogs should be fully grown (at least 18 months old) before beginning certification.

    Dogs can be trained for any situation — live person search, wilderness or urban tracking, disaster and cadaver searches — but to begin laying the groundwork for SAR training, many handlers will begin training their dogs as puppies by playing games such as hide and seek with the addition of simple commands.

    SAR dogs must also prove their endurance, friendliness, trainability and agility to obtain their certification. The official SAR training can take anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the hours both the handlers and dogs are willing to put into it.

    How to teach a job like search and rescue

    We all know that dogs are phenomenal animals, ingrained with a wide array of capabilities which help us in our daily lives. From police K9s who aid law enforcement officers, to a service dog who helps an autistic child, dogs are reliable, valuable assets in a variety of settings.

    The world of search and rescue is another area where dogs excel. Using their renowned olfactory system, search and rescue dogs are able to locate missing individuals in different environments. This incredible skill helps search and rescue (SAR) teams across the world to track down missing individuals in the wilderness or in the aftermath of disasters. Using a well-trained SAR dog, searches can be conducted with precision and have a higher chance of success.

    In this article, we will provide an overview of search and rescue dogs; look at what makes a dog the perfect candidate for finding a missing person; and discover how SAR could even help your dog to build confidence and learn a new skill – even if you don’t intend to join a search and rescue team.

    The aim of search and rescue is straightforward: to locate an individual or group who has gone missing or is in imminent danger, and return them to a place of safety. Some search and rescue personnel or units are also responsible for helping to locate deceased individuals and bring closure to desperate families and help bring justice when heinous acts are committed.

    These actions are usually performed by a trained team of volunteers. The SAR team may also be able to offer medical assistance such as first aid.

    In the United States, there are numerous organizations at national, state and local levels who have responsibilities for SAR. You may be familiar with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR). Although these are two of the more popular groups, there are are numerous national organizations who provide training, resources and certifications to SAR teams.