Rookie SAR dog shows superpowers on first shift

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Snow, paw prints

A few days ago, U.K. news reported that a rookie SAR dog — that is Search and Rescue dog — surprised everybody in a recent rescue mission. The German shepherd mix dog is only two years old and completed its training less than 6 months ago. The dog, Max, and his handler trained as partners, and on their first rescue, they were first to locate a missing mother.

SAR dog, man in snow
Search and Rescue dog and handler

They were members of a group of rescuers on a mountainside in Wales searching for the mother and her 1-year-old child. No one had her from them in two days, and the woman’s phone was dead. This was Police Constable Peter Lloyd and Max’s first shift, and they came through it with flying colors.

Search and Rescue helicopter

Max led rescuers to missing mother and child

Collaboration between several teams helped rescuers locate the woman’s car, which gave them a point from where to start the search. Ground units searched the vast area and rough terrain, with aerial support from a police helicopter and a mountain rescue team.

The rookie SAR dog’s amazing capabilities brought the pair to the trapped mother and child between the mountainside and a steep ravine. Max heard the woman’s calls for help and led his handler to her. She and the child were cold but uninjured. Police Constable Lloyd praised Max for remaining focused throughout the rescue mission.

In June, Amy Tallmadge wrote about another type of canine superhero in a piece about a military dog trained to detect improvised explosive devices.

Dog, play. ball
SAR dogs love their toys

Playfulness essential trait for any SAR dog

Dog trainers say the training of Search and Rescue dogs is based on the playfulness of the dog, and finding a favorite toy is where it all starts. A significant part of the work of the police service involves finding people. They search for lost or kidnapped people, and the SAR dogs learn to find victims or the remains of missing persons. The unique precision in the way they search, and their ability to search large areas in limited time makes them invaluable.

A dog’s obsessive playfulness may seem to indicate poor working abilities. However, their love for searching and bringing back a tennis ball thrown by the trainer is what makes them ideal for the job. Trainers say the best dogs for the SAR academy will spend hours chasing after tennis balls and then want more. That trait is developed during the training period. As a result, they will walk over a mountain, through deep snow and down rocky embankments. Even with bleeding paws, they will fetch the ball and bring it back, ready to search for it again. Consequently, for them, following the scent of a missing human will be the same as finding that ball.

The extreme conditions a SAR dog will work in

It takes about 600 hours for a SAR dog to complete training. By the time it graduates, no conditions will prevent it from searching for that “ball.”  SAR dogs will search for avalanche victims, lost hikers in forests, and even underwater in lakes and oceans to find the bodies of drowned victims.

SAR dog, snow
Dog searching for victim in snow

Required characteristics for successful training

Along with their love to “find it,” Search and Rescue dogs must be attentive, friendly and obedient. Above all, the dog must be able to work off-leash and be intelligent enough to make decisions. However, it must remain aware of the handler. For example, when the dog runs ahead and searches, the handler will not be nearby. Therefore, the SAR dog must think for itself. Moreover, the dog will work with many different rescuers and their dogs, which is why friendliness is crucial. There is no time for getting used to other handlers and their dogs.

Dog, favorite toy

Different levels of SAR training

Although I referred to the “ball,” the object each dog loves is the object used in training. So, even if it is a soft toy, the dog will learn to associate the human scent with that object and search for it. A SAR dog’s primary task is to respond to an order to “find it” after smelling the human scent. The next mission is to alert the handler of the victim’s location. Once the SAR dog can do this, regardless of distractions or extreme weather conditions, training might be complete.

On the other hand, some dogs learn even more. Their SAR training could include additional commands, like “show me.”  At that level, the rescue dogs “find it,” and fetch their handlers. They  show the handlers where to find the victim or the remains of a missing person. Even more advanced SAR training teaches victim loyalty. At this level, the dog will search and find the person. Then it will stay with the victim while barking to call the handler.

Dog, treat
All he wants in return is a treat

NO! A SAR dog does not do charity

Most importantly, from the first day of training, the trainee dog will do the work for the reward that follows. It knows there will be a reward for completing the task successfully. Nothing for nothing — they don’t do charity. The difficulty level changes progressively, from very basic to complicated. Throughout the training and the subsequent rescue missions, it will remain a game of “find-it” and “show me.”  All the SAR dog asks in return is a reward at the end of each task successfully completed.


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