How to train a search dog

If you are interested in training a search dog, please do not hesitate to contact us and we can discuss the suitability of you and your dog for being accepted on one of our training courses. Please be aware there are minimum requirements for handlers as well as dogs and in fact the handler probably plays a bigger role than the dog, particularly in the beginning stages.
We suggest you do your research, check out the information on puppy selection, work on basic training with your puppy and talk to an operational handler before attempting to train a dog for searching.
For avalanche search dogs - you need a good level of skiing/riding ability to be considered and avalanche safety/first aid/mountaineering qualifications are an advantage. Response time is critical - therefore during the winter season, teams must be located no more than 30 mins from high risk avalanche areas or live in close proximity of a helicopter base likely to be involved in a rescue operation. Preference is for teams to be located at ski areas.
For wilderness search dogs, you must be an active member of your local SAR group with all the accompanying skills that are required.
Here are some ideas to think about...


Socialising the Pup
From 4 weeks old to approx 12 weeks the pup establishes social relationships with other dogs and people. If the pup is only socialised with people it will be difficult to rear, or on the other hand if it is only socialised with other dogs it will be anti social towards human beings and be difficult to train. It is important that at this stage the pup should be exposed to all the variables it will encounter later in life, including other dogs, animals, vehicles, different people, children, noise and so on. The pup cannot be given too much experience and reassurance by its owner at this stage. The belief of some working dog trainers that pups can be spoiled by children is not supported. It is very important that a working dog is socialised with children to avoid biting accidents later in its life.
Pups up to 5 weeks old readily approach strangers but after this age they avoid them. Studies have shown that this avoidance phenomenon reaches a peak at about eight weeks and is with some variation among breeds and strains. It seems to be nature’s way of protecting the young animals from predators by an “anxiety period” of avoidance behaviour. What a pup has not experienced before 12 weeks of age will be avoided and possibly feared subsequently.
It has also been shown that learning is unstable in young pups 5-6 weeks old, but more stable at 8-9 weeks old. This 8-9 week age is a very sensitive time for pups. Pups which were punished at this age never forgave the handler, whereas pups punished at 12-13 weeks did. These older pups were emotionally attached to the handler, irrespective of punishment. Thus 4-12 weeks is the most critical and formative period of a pups life. The best period to take a pup as a pet is between 6-10 weeks old, so that it has both social experience with its own kind but is still able to develop an emotional bond with humans.
The main point to remember during rearing is that a dog is a pack animal, and most pack animals are cooperative and fit in to clearly defined hierarchies, either with other dogs or a mixture of dogs and humans.
Correct human dog relationships can be built up by the following steps:
Feed the pup yourself so the pup associates you with the control of its food supply.
Occasionally interrupt its feeding for a few seconds, praise the pup and replace the food, it if resists use the shake praise procedure.
Never deliberately call the dog to you to administer discipline.
Avoid being separated from the pup for long periods of time during its early development. Take it along with you whenever possible, but take care it does not get injured or too frightened.
Introduce it carefully to traumatic situations such as noise or action. Keep it in a safe position near you to reassure it.
Do not change the rules, be consistent with the pup and praise it regularly. If it shows dominance or develops bad habits, use the shake praise procedure. Examples of faults are nipping or snapping, growling, barking when not wanted, mounting peoples lets etc.
Good non-fearful signs of a subordinate dog are vigorous welcome, ears held back with head and body slightly lowered, tail held down but wagging, mouth open and lips drawn back in a grin and licking of the owners hands and face.
Training a dog is on the whole a reasonably uncomplicated procedure, as long as the method used is strongly adhered to and is of a standard and system already proven. The method must follow in stages, beginning relatively simply, with the dog using its sight and then progressing with increasing difficulty, to the point where it is relying solely on its sense of smell, at this point more and more difficult and complicated tasks can be undertaken, so long as the capabilities of the dog are not surpassed. Most breeds, whether it be pedigree or cross, are able to be trained, although it must be stressed that the handler plays probably a bigger role than the dog, particularly in the beginning stages.
It must be stressed that a dog will generally want to please its master, and in return expect a feeling of gratitude in the form of voice tone, reward or patting. When a task is presented to the dog at an early stage it must be presented in a manner that would seem like a game to be played with its master, when the task is completed, whether it be successful or not, the dog must be rewarded and praised in a sincere manner. Not every dog has the same character, which is often typical of breeds, or its upbringing, this factor must also be taken in to account, particularly in the early stages of training. A very timid dog must be given a lot of support and encouragement from its master, a dog with no or very little enthusiasm must be made to become interested in the task presented by a the introduction of a small play or game immediately beforehand. At this point the introduction of a toy can be recommended in cases where the dog shows a lack of enthusiasm. On the other hand a dog that has too much enthusiasm must be controlled a little, here one must be careful not to be overpowering.
We suggest you do your research, check out the information on puppy selection and ensure you work on basic training with your puppy before you decide to train your dog for searching.