Training Search and
When you think of a search dog, what do you imagine? A bloodhound following criminals in the TV cartoons of your childhood? A German Shepherd in hot pursuit of bad guys, corralling them until a human cop arrives? These are the search dog images many of us know, but they don’t represent the great diversity of today’s search dogs who are trained to help in life-and-death situations.
Throughout the country there are thousands of K9 Search and Rescue teams deployed every day to locate and save missing people. In California, CARDA (California Rescue Dog Association) is the largest K9 resource for state emergency management, with over 100 active certified teams. The human handlers are volunteers who train their dogs to state standards, achieve certification, and deploy on hundreds of searches every year.
The training of a search and rescue canine (SAR K9) usually starts when the dog is less than a year old and takes about two years. For CARDA, the breed of dog is not the main criteria for acceptance into the training program. Suitable dogs have high energy, learn quickly and well, and can apply intense focus in a sustained way. They need to have a higher than normal prey or hunt drive, a solid and stable temperament, and be of strong physical size and shape to withstand hiking rugged terrain over periods of three to four hours or more.
In many cases, these dogs do not make perfect pets. In fact, some become CARDA dogs when given up for adoption as a result of being hard to handle in typical family situations.
There are three main disciplines in K9 SAR and within those disciplines a number of specialties. Dogs train in Area, Trailing/Tracking, and/or Cadaver/Human Remains Detection. Specialties include Disaster, Water, and Avalanche.
AREA searching trains the dogs to search off leash and air scent for any live person in their vicinity. This begins by using a game referred to as the “Runaway” in which the dogs learn, through a graduated series of exercises, to 1) find a person who runs away from them and hides, 2) return to their handlers and give an “Alert, and 3) bring their handlers back to the hiding person, called a Refind. Eventually, the Runaway exercise shifts and the dog learns to enter an unknown area and, on command, hunt for any human scent, then complete the series described. The Alert can be a bark, sit, down, jump, or any other specific behavior the handlers have trained the dogs to let them know, “This is it!”
TRAILING Dogs (different from tracking) locate a specific person after sniffing a scent article provided by their handlers. The initial training includes a variation of the Runaway that is scent specific. Trailing dogs practice on both fresh and aged trails, starting on those recently laid by the helper and moving on to trails up to 4 days old. Trailing dogs search nose down, sniffing the ground for the scent but not necessarily following the specific footsteps of the missing person, as the scent left behind may have shifted off the footstep itself. Since they are usually searching on a long leash with handlers at the other end, when they find the missing person the job is finished. Trailing dogs also give an Alert when they find their subject.
CADAVER dogs search for the scent of human decomposition, blood, and bones. They are trained to ignore animal remains and many specialty dogs can find blood or body fluids of only a few drops in volume and can even detect very old and buried remains. The sequence for training for cadaver work begins with imprinting the dog to the scent of various items – bones, teeth, blood, tissue, and combinations of all. The dog carries out a similar sequence as described in Area searching with a Find, Alert, and sometimes a Refind. Many times, searching for small sources like bones means the dog is working slowly with the handler close by and a Refind is not necessary.
SAR canines are lucky dogs whose “work” is play to them. Their handlers, though, say they’re the lucky ones. Clearly, SAR is a win-win-win for all concerned.
Kathryn Stewart is a certified Mission Ready Handler for CARDA (California Rescue Dog Association) and searches with her 4-year-old German Shepherd, Max. In her “day job” she is a licensed clinical psychologist and the Executive Director of the Orion Academy, a college prep high school for Asperger’s students in Moraga, CA.