How are Search and Rescue Dogs Trained?

Ron Marr
Ron Marr
Larger breeds are preferred for search and rescue dogs.
Larger breeds are preferred for search and rescue dogs.

The search and rescue dog is an invaluable partner to law enforcement authorities and rescue personnel. Its talent in tracking and locating humans who are lost or trapped comes from natural ability, extensive training, and a close bond with the humans with whom it works. The average dog possesses over 200 million olfactory cells, in contrast to five million in humans. This incredible sense of smell allows the search and rescue dog to track and locate those whose fate would otherwise remain a mystery.

Search and rescue dogs can be trained in a number of specializations. There are air scent dogs, who sniff the air and identify the skin cells that are shed by people. Trailing dogs would be more reminiscent of a bloodhound, focusing on an exact scent, usually gained from a piece of the missing person’s clothing. Other search and rescue dogs include water search dogs, cadaver dogs, and avalanche dogs. Almost any breed can potentially become a search and rescue dog, although larger animals are preferred due to their stamina and agility.

The training of a search and rescue dog usually begins when it is eight to ten weeks old and can require several years of daily lessons. The first steps are basic obedience, the recognized commands such as sit, stay, heel, and come. Most of these commands are learned via hand signals, as verbal communication may not always be possible in a rescue situation. Next comes agility training, teaching the dog to carefully negotiate treacherous terrain, jump through windows, or balance themselves while walking along beams, ridges, or areas with unstable footing.

Searching and tracking lessons are intensified as the dog progresses in its efforts and gains skill and confidence. Search and rescue dogs are also taught to retrieve, as finding a piece of needed evidence and quickly returning it to a handler could mean the difference between life and death for a person in need.

Handlers of search and rescue dogs must develop a strong bond with their animals. They work as a team, and to the outside observer it would almost appear than the dog and its handler can read each other’s minds. The handler must become aware of minor changes in the dog’s body language, and notice any small behavioral changes. Different dogs may well have different responses to locating a person in need of rescue, and it is up to the handler to learn these verbal cues and respond to them immediately.

Discussion Comments


It seems like the handler needs to be trained to the dog as much as the other way around. The best search and rescue dogs probably have wonderful, intuitive handlers who are able to tell exactly what the dog is sensing or has noticed from small signs.

It seems like it would be a wonderful job to have, although I have no idea how you'd go about getting it. I suppose you'd have to start work in a search and rescue agency and then request a dog, maybe after working with dogs somewhere else.


@browncoat - It's interesting that you say that. I immediately thought of earthquake and storm rescues when dogs are used to seek out people trapped in buildings.

I looked up some photos and it seems like most of them are medium sized dogs, like Labradors or German shepherds.

I can't claim to be an expert, but I do wonder why they don't use the smaller dogs, which are bred to move through tight quarters, as you said.

It might be because of endurance, and it might also be because search and rescue dog training is so expensive that they can't really afford to train a specialized dog like that.

A terrier would be wonderful in any circumstances where searching in confined spaces is an advantage but they will never have the endurance and strength of a larger dog.

They do tend to train smaller dogs at airports, to seek out smugglers, like beagles and I suspect that's because they eat less and are less obtrusive (and cuddlier) than bigger dogs, like bloodhounds.


I think it's interesting that this article says that larger dogs are often preferred for search and rescue animals.

I can definitely see why that might be so, as people are usually lost in extreme conditions and are very rarely found quickly and easily, particularly once it gets to the point where a dog needs to be brought in.

But, I do think they might need to take advantage of what smaller dogs have to offer as well. Many of the smaller breeds were developed for the same reason that the larger breeds were developed, as hunting dogs. The smaller breeds were supposed to be able to go into a burrow after, say, a fox or a rabbit, and needed to be able to guide themselves in a small area with a keen sense of smell.

Now when we think of small breeds we think of useless yapping creatures that get carried around in handbags, but terriers were bred to handle all conditions and to be brave and fierce in bad conditions.

Granted, they couldn't keep going as long as the bigger dogs, but if their traits were bred with a bigger dog, or if they were kept in reserve for when the search had been narrowed to a particular spot, they could be very useful.

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    • Larger breeds are preferred for search and rescue dogs.
      By: artSILENSEcom
      Larger breeds are preferred for search and rescue dogs.