The Challenges of Training Search and Rescue Dogs

As a dog owner with over 25 years of experience, I can attest that having a dog is one of the most wonderful things that has ever happened in my life. The companionship and joy they bring is incomparable.

Dogs can make great Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs if they have the right temperament and are well-trained. However, the methods used to train these dogs vary greatly and can range from humane to cruel. In this blog post, we will explore the two primary schools of thought that influence SAR dog training and what it takes to choose the right method for your dog.

Positive Training Techniques

In the early 19th century, W.N. Hutchinson wrote about positive dog training in his book, Dog Breaking: The Most Expeditious, Certain and Easy Method. This view was also supported by Lieutenant-Colonel E.H. Richardson, who studied war dog training from the Germans and later ran the British war dog school during World War I. However, despite this, harsh methods such as the use of pinch collars, choke collars, shock collars, and dominance methods became popular in the 20th century. Modern research has shown that these methods can cause lasting harm to a dog's mental and physical health, so there is no longer a need to use them.

Two Schools of Thought

The two primary schools of thought in SAR dog training are both based on the dog's prey drive or hunting instinct. In the first method, the dog stays with the scent source and gives an alert. In the second method, the dog returns to the handler, gives a signal, and leads the handler back to the scent source. Both methods work and involve the same steps: search for human scent, work out the scent following the scent cone, and receive a reward. The reward can be a toy, food, or praise for one method, and an old sock or rope toy for the other.

Choosing the Right Method

The success of SAR dog training ultimately comes down to the individual dog and what method will work best for them. The head trainer or handler must be experienced in dog training and be able to determine, based on the dog's breed and individual characteristics, which method will work best. For example, some Labrador retrievers may have a strong hunting drive, while others may have very little. Similarly, one English setter may be very "birdy," while another is not. It is important to train your dog in a way that meets their specific needs.

Challenges in Training SAR Dogs

When it comes to training dogs, it is crucial to understand that obedience is not just a matter of the dog knowing what to do, but also requires the dog's ability to display self-control and perform the task. This understanding is key to identifying the root cause of training problems.

Classifying Dogs: Generalizers and Legalistic Dogs

There are two main types of dogs, regardless of breed: generalizing dogs and legalistic dogs. Generalizing dogs are able to apply what they have learned to new situations, while legalistic dogs need to be taught each situation separately and take longer to generalize. Both types of dogs can be reliable with proper training, the difference being the amount of time required for training.

A common pitfall for legalistic dogs is undergoing competitive obedience training before SAR training. In competitive obedience, the dog is trained to perform specific actions at specific times and locations, and if the dog does not comply, a correction is made by withholding rewards. This process can lead to the dog becoming too reliant on following commands and having difficulty transitioning to making decisions in the SAR field. SAR dogs must be obedient and under control while in the field, but they also need to be able to exercise independent thinking, like a guide dog for the blind.

Common Mistakes Made by Handlers

Avoiding training problems can be achieved by teaching the dog the mechanics of search scenarios before moving on to larger or more difficult tasks. Handlers often become too eager to search, even in training, and increase the difficulty of the search scenario before the dog fully understands the expectations. This can lead to the dog failing in various aspects of the search scenario. It is crucial to ensure that the dog performs satisfactorily 90% of the time before moving on to the next step, and repetition is necessary for the lesson to be remembered long-term by the dog.

Handlers may become frustrated when watching other dogs learn faster than their own, but it is important to keep in mind that the combination of handler and dog is unique and may take longer for some teams to develop their skills. A skilled dog trainer can help to address any problems.

One of the biggest mistakes made by handlers is micromanaging their dogs, which can hinder the dog's ability to think and make decisions. SAR dogs need to be able to work out problems on their own, but handlers may train their dogs as if they can detect the scent and know everything the dog knows. This can lead to the handler giving the wrong message to the dog. It takes patience to allow the dog to work out problems independently, such as when the dog may overrun a scent trail. Correcting the dog in this situation may cause the dog to think the handler knows where the scent is, when in reality, the scent may have drifted elsewhere. It is better to let the dog lose the scent and find it again, as this will help the dog learn to work with wind, weather, and terrain.


SAR dog training can be a complex process that requires the right method to be chosen based on the dog's breed and individual characteristics. The success of SAR dog training depends on the handler's experience in dog training and their ability to understand the dog's specific needs. The two main schools of thought in SAR dog training are based on the dog's prey drive and involve either staying with the scent source or returning to the handler to lead them back to the scent source. There are also two types of dogs, generalizing dogs and legalistic dogs, that require different training methods. Avoiding training problems can be achieved by teaching the dog the mechanics of search scenarios, allowing the dog to work out problems independently, and avoiding micromanaging the dog. It is important to remember that the combination of handler and dog is unique and may take longer for some teams to develop their skills, and a skilled dog trainer can help address any problems.


Q: What are SAR dogs?

A: SAR dogs, or search and rescue dogs, are highly trained dogs that assist in disaster response efforts. They use their incredible sense of smell to locate missing persons and bring them to safety.

Q: What should be taken into account when looking for a breeder for a new SAR dog?
A: A successful match depends on finding the right breeder for the job. Interviews should be conducted to make sure the pup is up to the standards needed for SAR work - seeking someone who specializes in working dogs as opposed to show breeds is recommended.

Q: How do we ensure retired SAR dogs stay comfortable and happy?
A: Retired SAR dogs need regular vet visits, a safe environment, nutritious meals, and activities to keep them occupied. They deserve lots of love and respect - just like they did while they were working!

Q: What is the history of search and rescue dogs?

A: The use of search and rescue dogs can be traced back to the use of Red Cross dogs during World War I. They were initially trained to bark at the location of wounded soldiers, but this method was changed to picking up a designated item. Today, search and rescue dogs have been used in various disasters around the world, such as earthquakes, and have proven to be a valuable asset in saving lives and recovering bodies.

Q: How do SAR dogs locate missing persons?

A: SAR dogs use their keen sense of smell to quickly locate missing persons. They work closely with their human handlers to search areas that would be too dangerous or time-consuming for human teams to search.

Q: What breeds are best suited for search and rescue work?

A: Many breeds can be trained for search and rescue, but some of the most commonly used breeds include German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Belgian Malinois. The breed chosen will depend on the specific requirements of the search and rescue organization, as well as the individual dog's temperament and ability.

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