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Volunteer Search and Rescue Dog | A great job for your dog

Volunteer search and rescue dog

volunteer search and rescue dog serve’s on the front lines locating people missing after natural disasters, lost children, injured hikers, skiers in an avalanche and a whole lot others. 

Being ready at a moment’s notice to bravely injure the elements and save lives. 

They are playful loving pets at home until the call comes in and they head for a disaster site with their handlers. It’s a call you hope never comes but when it does you and your canine have to be ready to go.

Search and rescue canines and their trainer’s main objective is to seek out live human scent.

They develop skills that may require nearly two years of intensive training at least three days a week in order to receive their certification.

Unique set of skills

These dogs particularly have to have a rather unique skill set that includes incredible agility, incredible endurance and the ability to focus on their handler and the ability to take direction from them.

They also have to be able to work independent from their handlers. When they are sent into a search scenario they’re completely free and off of the leash or collar.  Oftentimes, the handler is not able to enter whatever the site may be, forcing the dog to go in and search it completely on his own.

Obedience training

When it comes to training a search and rescue dog, obedience is the most important thing to begin with. 

You don’t want to take your dog into the woods or on a mission and not have them return to you. It is recommended to train your dog for at least a year on obedience before taking them to train in the open off leash.

When a disaster dog is working in a rubble situation it is up to the handler to direct the dog. For instance, the handler may need to direct the dog into an area of the building that has not yet been cleared, where she herself may not be able to physically go. She will use voice commands and hand signals to send her dog either further away, to the right or to the left.

Being able to direct your dog completely with your voice and hand is crucial for the safety of your dog and the success of the mission. 

This particular exercise is done off lead and demonstrates the control and the focus that these dogs are known for.

The intent of the exercise is for the dog to take direction from the handler while maintaining focus and control. He shouldn’t stop, he shouldn’t sniff, he should be completely focused on his handler.

Continued training

Volunteer search and rescue dog continued training and skill set

There is extensive training and testing required to be certified for search and rescue missions. Handlers and their dogs train over a thousand hours a year while maintaining a full-time job. They spend all day every Saturday for eight to ten hours training and every Monday night for four to seven hours plus. 

Then there’s the maintenance of the dog every day, which is 24 hours a day. If that doesn’t seem rigorous enough, they have to certify every year to the provincial standards which are governed by the Ontario Provincial Police and they have a two-day certification that they have to pass in order to use their dogs with the opp.

After thoroughly training your dog on being 100% obedient you are ready to move on to more advanced things like area searching and article searching. 

Area searching

The dogs are trained to conduct different types of searches, one is called area searching. In which a dog locates a person in a wide outdoor space by detecting the airborne scent emanating from them.

Area searching is when you hide a person out in a field upwind from the dog. When the person is hiding  the appropriate distance away, the dog then comes out and instructed to find a human. The dog will search the field in a grid motion back and forth, back and forth into the wind until you see the dog alert.

You know he’s alert because he’ll start pulling strongly which is when the handler let’s go of the dog to go and they find. When they discover a human they bark and they stay with the person until their handler comes to them which is when the dog is rewarded. Handlers use the wind to help because the scent of our body is in the wind. Each human has their own personal smell and the dogs can pick that up in the wind.

Article searching

The second type of search is known as article searching. This involves hiding a t-shirt or article with human scent on it. After scenting up a t-shirt or article by rubbing it on your body, hide it and give your dog the article search command, which is different than the area search command.

With the dog on leash the handler will begin to grid the same way you would grid if you were doing an area search. Once the dog catches the scent he will alert by raising his nose and breaking away from the handler. Once the dog finds the article he will bring it back to his handler.

Searching through rubble

Volunteer search and rescue dog searching through rubble

Searching through rubble and debris is difficult for humans. With four legs dogs literally have a four wheel drive capability. They can easily maneuver through collapsed buildings or houses, dense forests and woods and most other rubble.

When a SARS dog approaches rubble he works his way through a complex maze ignoring the scent of the people he can see and focusing on the person that he can smell but cannot find with his eyes.

Once the handler advises the search team manager of the most probable area of live human scent she has two options. The first decisions will be to ask for a backup confirmation by another dog. Her second option  will be to ask for a rescue team to come in and remove the rubble in order to try and locate the source of the scent.

The most important factor when training a search and rescue dog with the rubble search is teaching them the confidence to alert. Alerting is a repetitive bark. 

A repetitive bark is used to alert because it can be heard from a long distance and it helps draw attention. This allows the dog to indicate very clearly that they found a person.

Obstacle course training

Volunteer search and rescue dog agility training

During the training process one of the components worked on with search-and-rescue dogs is agility. They work on agility in a controlled situation like obstacle courses. In a real-life disaster situation handlers are not certain of the footing their dogs are going to encounter so they try to make sure and learn in a very controlled environment how to handle, how to get their dog to balance and relax and control unstable surfaces. 

A major tool used for getting comfortable with balance is a ladder. Utilizing the ladder component makes sure that they have the ability to access buildings perhaps ones that entrances are traditionally disturbed. 

It allows them to work across planks should we need them to search areas that impossible for the handlers to get to.

The beginning of the plank is actually two two by fours that whittles its way down to just one small board that the dog has to cross. The plank can be a scary, unpleasant and sometimes unsuccessful task. That can sometimes be the reality of the situation that they face.

The preservation of search dogs

Self-preservation is rather low on a search and rescue dogs priority list, which is what makes them great for the job. 

There are many situations where handlers will ask the dog to go into a building. A situation perhaps where the house or building is not necessarily structurally safe for humans. They don’t want to risk a rescue personnel unless they know for sure that there is a person inside.

Building their skills

The kindest thing that you can do for a volunteer search and rescue dog is train them harder than you’ll ever work them. 

You don’t know what the conditions your search dog will have to search in so through extensive training you can get them ready.

By offering different obstacles and challenges in a practice scenario that makes them nervous you’re allowed to coach them through it with confidence. After numerous repetitions and practice your dogs confidence will build stronger along with their repertoire of skills.