So you want to train a search dog

Prospective SAR dogs require specific attributes before they ever start training and owners need to be very honest about their dog. It costs thousands of dollars in not only time and money but also the resources of NZLandSAR Dogs and the time and energy of the Assessors. If the dog doesn’t have what it takes don’t even start training it for SAR. Some dogs are destined to be companion dogs and that’s ok.

So ask yourself these questions:-

About the Dog:

 Is it the correct weight, active and healthy?
 Is it obedient and trustworthy off lead in all situations?
 Is it non aggressive to other dogs?
 Is it a working breed? Working breeds tend to have trainable attributes.
 Does it like people and willingly approach strangers with a good attitude? If it doesn’t like strangers or is shy why would it want to find someone lost?
 Does the dog chase other animals, eg cats, possums livestock etc. Search dogs are ONLY allowed to follow human scent.
 Does the dog perve… that is, become distracted by the scent of other dogs and continually cock its leg to mark its territory? (some dominant bitches also do this).
 Does the dog have a high play drive and retrieve?
 Does it bring toys / sticks to you to play? ( the training is based on a play reward)
 How old is it now, how old do you expect it will be if it gets operational and how many years of working life do you think it will have?

 About the Handler:

 Are you an active member of your SAR group and an experienced Searcher?
 How many actual Searches have you been on?
 Are you one of the first called out for searches in your area?
 Do you regularly attend training and SAREX’s?
 Does your group fully support your desire to train a Search dog? A dog team MUST be credible and have the respect of their group and local Police?
 Does your employment allow you to leave as soon as you are notified of a search? A SAR dog that is only available on weekends may wait years for a call out.
 What is your family and financial situation? Training a SAR dog is a long term commitment of both your time and finances. There is no funding for trainee or novice dogs. Some sponsorship is available for Operational teams.
 Do you have the ability to train your own dog? NZLandSAR Assessors are civilians like yourself and are not trainers. They are busy training/maintaining their own dog. The most likely teams to make it for assessment are those with prior experience with dogs and are self starters who get on with the job.

Above all you need personal attributes that include:

 A Team player who works with others to find the lost party.
 A great sense of humour…you might think your dog is the best thing since sliced bread but…..
 Honesty about the dog and your own abilities.
 Respect for the decisions of the SAR Dog Assessors and Police Assessors who have considerable experience. Also respect for the years of hard work that has gone into making LandSAR dogs a credible resource.
 Integrity as a person and as a searcher, ie always doing the right thing even if no one is watching.
 Reputation…. In the end yours is all you have as a dog handler and anything you do or say reflects on the SAR dog group.

A word now on the process of training a dog and becoming Operational.

Check out the training and assessment camps
 Handlers are expected to attend at least 1 of the training camps per year. At the first camp a new handler and dog will be seen by the Assessor/s and told if they make the grade as a trainee. The Handler will be given advice on any training issues or how to correct problems. From then on continuous improvement is expected. The next level is Novice and again there is the expectation that the team will continue improving. If improvement plateaus or stops and the team is considered not to have what it takes; the handler will be advised.
 Assessment Course attendance is by invitation only. Novice Teams seen at the training camps by Assessors, who feel the team is at an operational level will be invited for assessment.
 Assessment happens once a year.
Teams are assessed to the NZLSAR Dog Standards by SAR Dog (Civilian) Assessors and a Police Dog Assessor. If a team fails an Operational Assessment but is still considered close to Operational; advice will be given and an Invitation to the next Assesment in the opposite Island ( approx 6 months away). Otherwise there is a 12 month wait for an invitation the following year if the team continues to be at or near an operational level. Remember you are funding travel yourself ( some SAR groups support their prospective dog handlers by seeking grants for travel)
 Reassesment- all operational dogs are reassessed to the standard each year. Failure to requalify means the dog is taken off the Operational List and may not attend any further Searches until reassessed as Operational.
 Unqualified dogs may go to SAREX’s but are not permitted to be used on real Search Operations.

So that is the process. Having considered all of the above, have a look at the Standards for a Tracking / Area Search / Avalanche dog. Decide what type of Search dog you want to train. On the web site there is a list of current Assessors and Operational Dog Handlers with contact details. If you are prepared to contact one of these people and make a convenient time, they may give you an opinion about the suitability of your dog and recommend you as a trainee for the next training camp.

Some other issues to consider:

Qualifying your dog as Operational is just the beginning although it seems like the goal. Requalifying yearly means you know how to train and maintain your dog. It’s not until you start using it in real Searches that you begin to understand what is involved and become useful. It’s a bit like getting your drivers licence…. If you never took the car out of the garage then you’d be a crap driver. Similarly; if your dog never gets out of the kennel then it’s just a dog.
Becoming Operational does not guarantee that you will be called out when a search happens. The Police don’t have to use civilian Search Dogs and some have Police dogs in their area that are also Operational Search Dogs (Under Police Standards). It is vital that you are an experienced SAR member before training a dog and have built up working relationships with the Police and SAR management in your area. Remember the word CREDIBLE.

Credible Handlers don’t self deploy i.e. turn up at a search uninvited.
Credible Handlers don’t throw their toys out of the cot if they don’t get called.
Credible Handlers keep building working relationships and don’t bad mouth anyone.
Credible Handlers keep working hard and are patient.
Credible Handlers know that a Search dog is just another tool, not the be all and end all.

Think carefully about your desire to train a search dog. While it is an admirable desire realistically how many searches happen in your area? For example:-

In the Tasman Region ( Kaikoura to Haast) there are quite a lot of Searches ( 356 Land & Marine 2009) BUT excluding the rare multi day ones, the average number of hours for a Search to be concluded is 6.9hrs (2009 data). Dog teams aren’t getting into the field very often. One handler has been Operational for 3 years and has had 4 actual Searches but many callouts. He’s driven to the Op’s base and been stood down because it’s all over.
Consider how much it costs to train a Search Dog (a qualified general purpose Police Dog is worth $60,000.)
Think about how many Operational dogs there are in your area and are they getting any work. 

This is a gloves off non PC explanation of what it takes. If you are serious about it, become a skilled and experienced Searcher first. Choose a dog with the right attributes, contact an Operational handler or Assessor and get on with it. Be sure to cultivate a thirst for knowledge and be prepared to read about training a search dog so you can base your training on some sort of theoretical knowledge. Don’t reinvent the wheel by thinking you know more than others and use unconventional methods of training.
In your reading and training remember if something sounds too good to be true it generally is!

Training a Search Dog is not a fun thing to do with Fido. It is a serious commitment to the lost/ missing or overdue person whose life may depend on your skills as a Handler.

The Acid test is, would I want you and your dog searching for my missing child?