Search and rescue dogs provide a vital service to humans in times of crisis. They can track scents of humans from great distances. In her book Canine Behavior, veterinarian Bonnie Beaver points out that dogs have 220 million olfactory receptor cells, while humans have only 6 million, giving dogs substantially stronger and more sensitive noses than people. Search and rescue training leverages dogs' impressive sense of smell to hone in a human's distinctive scent in a search operation. This training frequently requires cooperation of large groups of dogs and people, so enrolling your dog in a class is the best way to ensure proper training. However, there are several exercises you can do outside of class to foster learning.
Select a healthy dog from a breeder or rescue group. It is easier to train a puppy to become a search and rescue dog because puppies are more easily socialized and learn more quickly than adults. However, an adult dog can learn to become a search and rescue dog; the process of training may take longer. Many trainers select dogs known for their scent and tracking skills, such as basset hounds, bloodhounds and German shepherds; but any dog with a properly functioning sense of smell can become a search and rescue dog.
Socialize your dog to a variety of people and settings. Search and rescue dogs must be well-socialized and friendly, and must not be fearful. Puppies are easiest to socialize before they are 16 weeks old. Take your dog to parks, stores, friends' houses and other locations, and encourage people to interact with your dog. Help your dog develop positive associations with people and new environments by clicking a training clicker and giving your dog a treat for each new interaction.
Encourage your dog to develop positive associations with finding people by hiding in the house. For the first few days of this exercise, call your dog. When he finds you, click the training clicker and give him a treat. When your dog is reliably finding you, then begin walking away from your dog and hiding. When he finds you, give him a treat. Repeat this exercise three to five times each day for several weeks. Do not begin practicing scent tracking until your dog is strongly motivated to find people.
Move outside to play the game of hide-and-seek. Enlist the help of another person to stay with your dog while you hide. When you have hidden, have the other person allow your dog to sniff a piece of your clothing, then say, "Find!" Your dog will not understand the find command at first but will be motivated to look for you because of your previous hide-and-seek exercises. When your dog finds you, click the training clicker and give him a treat. Begin with small distances of 10 to 12 feet and gradually increase the distance over several weeks. When your dog begins responding to the "find" command and finding you every time, begin practicing with other people.
Repeat the find exercise with other people. Start with people your dog knows well and ask your dog to find them using the steps in Step 4, making sure to use a piece of fabric the person has worn. Repeat several times a day for at least a month. When your dog is reliably finding friends, begin using strangers or people your dog does not know well. You may need to use volunteers from your dog's search and rescue class for this portion of the training.
Continue practicing the "find" exercise every time you get a chance. Ask your dog, for example, to find a specific hidden food by giving your dog a whiff from a bowl and then saying, "Find!" The more frequently you practice this exercise, the more skilled your dog will be at search and rescue.