(This part concludes a two-part article.)
Step One: Show the dog that searching is a game played under special circumstances. The way our search team did this was by having a unique harness that dogs wore only when training or going on a search. In this way, every time you put that one harness on the dog, he understands he is getting ready to search for something. It’s like a boxer putting on his gloves, or a biker pulling on his helmet.
Step Two: Associate following a ground scent with gaining a food reward. Here’s where one friend can help. The friend walks a distance away, perhaps 50 feet, so you and the dog can still see him. The dog sits by your side on a leash. As your friend walks away, he drops tiny pieces of food treats – pea sized – every pace. This will give the dog a good taste, without filling it up. When your friend stops, tell the dog to “Find it”, or “Find [person’s name]”. Point to the food treat until the dog discovers it. Then do the same with the next treat in line. Pretty soon, the dog will realize there is a line of treats between himself and your friend. He’ll lead you down the trail to the friend. Have the dog sit at the friend’s feet, then immediately give the dog his paycheck for a minute or two.
After several successful attempts, wait a few days for this fun game to percolate through the dog’s thoughts. Next time make it more challenging. The dog should understand that the friend has some tasty treats, and he gets an extra reward when he arrives and waits at the friend’s feet. This time, have the friend walk further and stand behind trees or bushes. The dog can watch him leave, but not see where the friend ends up. The friend should leave a treat-trail, but on every second pace so there is greater distance between the prizes. The dog again sits at your side on a leash. After the friend is out of sight, point to the first treat, and say “Find it!” Once again, the dog will learn to follow the path – this time utilizing your friend’s scent to lead him to the next treat. If the dog gets confused when the friend can’t be seen, continue to say, “Find it!” and point to the next treat. When he “finds” your friend, have him sit at the friend’s feet. Then, payday!
Do the same thing with a different friend and other kinds of food treats. The dog learns that it doesn’t matter who he is looking for. There’s always fun and games when the dog locates the person. Do this once or twice every three or four days, enough that the dog learns it’s special and fun but not so much the dog starts to get bored.
Step Three: Spacing the food treat so far apart that the dog has to follow a human scent to find the goodies. The friend drops the treat morsel irregularly every 10 or 15 feet, walks a further distance (300 feet or more), and hides behind a tree or bushes. The dog should watch. Once again, “Find it!”, then “sit” when arriving at the found person, and a few minutes of the paycheck. Repeat this several times over a week or two, with different friends “getting lost” until the dog knows exactly what to do.
Step Four: This consists of increasing the distance, decreasing the number of food treats, and complicating the trail. Now, as the dog sits and watches, the friend walks out 500 feet, only drops a few treats along the way, curves around several obstacles, and hides behind something. By this time, the dog already knows he’s going to search for the friend and get some goodies and then a Big Payday at the end. This time, the dog is going to learn to stay concentrated on the task because the real fun comes when the friend is found.
Some dogs will be off like a shot when they’re told to “Find it!” Others take a while longer to play this more complicated game. You may need to remind the dog to “Find” if it loses focus, or gets distracted by wild rabbits, birds, or other interesting scents. If needed, you can reduce the complexity and go back to a shorter, easier search until the dog is ready to move up. When the dog has completed this longer course successfully, you can eliminate the food trail entirely.
Once again, “sit” and “payday” at the end. At this point, the dog has also learned when he finds the person, he needs to sit down and wait, not run off sniffing around for something else.
Step Five: This is actual searching. For this, you’ll need a fresh baggie, and an unwashed sock from your friend. Have the friend place the sock into the baggie and seal it – this will be the “target” scent for the dog. Again, the dog is placed in his special harness, is able to see the friend walk off into the distance and out of sight. The dog sits and waits for the search command. Open the baggie and place it in front of the dog’s nose. He might actively sniff the sock, or might turn away – the scent gets into the dog’s nasal cavity either way. Now, tell the dog “Find it!” The dog will remember that finding the friend resulted in a Payday, and he’s got the friend’s scent deep in his nose from the sock. Most dogs will pick up the new game right away, leading right to the “lost” person for the Payday.
The complexification of this level comes at your next training session. This time, you’ve collected your friend’s baggied sock ahead of time, perhaps the day before, and placed it out of the dog’s reach (such as the trunk of your car). Your friend arrives and walks a trail, but the dog should stay in the house or somewhere it can’t watch. Next, place the dog’s special harness on, and take him out where the friend started his trail, perhaps next to his car. Have the dog sit. Open the baggie, and let the dog smell the sock. Tell the dog, “Find it!”
At this point, the dog is primed to follow a scent trail and get a Big Reward at the end. He understands that the odors on the sock represent the scent trail he needs to follow to get the Payday. Bring the baggie along so that if the dog loses focus, you can remind him what he’s looking for.
The first time your dog locates a person, by scent alone, you’ll know you’ve got a real, working search dog – a genuinely valuable team member no matter what happens. For professional search dogs, it can take two years to achieve certifications and demonstrated competence during extreme conditions – but that’s not what we need. Our needs are for a dog that can help us find someone, like Granny, who is right in our own neighborhood. Weekly practice will keep the dog’s skills intact for the rest of its life.
- Wear a backpack. You’ll need fresh drinking water for you and the dog, some snacks, a first aid kit, bug spray, sting-relief pads, a pocket knife, compass or GPS, hat, cellphone, and items specific to your environment. If you’re going into an area with dangerous predators, carry personal protection of the right size for the predators. Obey all laws.
- Utilize handheld radios to communicate between the “searcher” and the “lost” person. Sometimes a dog needs a helping hand to turn corners or search behind rocks or trees. The lost person can report their position to the searcher via radio. The searcher then encourages the dog by pointing at the ground where the trail is, and reminding the dog to find it.
- It this brief overview, we’ve taught the dog to sit when it finds the lost person. This assumes you are at the other end of the dog’s leash. If you hope to have the dog search off of a leash, first train the dog to give another sign – barking, for example. Train the dog to “speak” on command. Have the helper tell the dog to “speak” when the dog sits, then give a treat. When the dog finds the person and barks before being told to, give a treat right away. You’ll hear the barking from a distance, leading you to the goal.
- When the dog has got “blind searching” in his repertoire, switch it out – have family members “get lost”, and use other articles of clothing to provide the scent source. Or have two people go out together, switching back and forth to cross their trails, and then separate – the dog should only be given the scent source from one of the two.
- Make trails longer and more interesting – go over rocks, streams, into thick woods, along railroad tracks, or across fields that livestock have manured. If it’s permitted in your town, carry on a search across a department store parking lot, or along a strip mall. Put the dog in situations where there are distractions, so it learns to keep focused on the task.
- As you train the dog, the dog will train you. You’ll learn to watch for subtle signals – a twist of the ears, or the position the dog holds its tail can tell you a good deal about what the dog senses. You may notice your dog moving his head from side to side, or taking really deep sniffs at some spots, or snuffling his nose free of scent. It’s all in the way the dog works.
- Let friends and family know you are training your dog to search. If folks get lost, try to be the first called on the scene – not the last one after half the county has tramped over the area obscuring the scents.
Professional organizations offer certifications for dog handlers and higher level in-person courses, training, and resources. In my experience, it is a very expensive hobby – requiring transport cages and vehicles, uniforms, special boots, personal insurance, insurance for your dog, and sometimes emergency treatment for an injured dog or handler. Every training session removes you from family. Each search can wake you from sleep or call you from your day job, costing you income. It is a largely unseen and mostly thankless task, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in helping others.
The same satisfaction is present when you take your own trained dog out to find someone – a friend, child, or family member who is lost or just hiding. When the day comes that someone must be found, you’ll be ready for that too – and so will your dog.
Although Worthless wasn’t specifically trained for searching, he performed the valuable service of a search dog. My background in search helped me recognize what he was doing. I would not have looked where he found Granny – I was going in the opposite direction! Granny lived two more years after her adventure, and never wandered again. This achievement earned Worthless a permanent place on our farm, where he lives in doggy comfort to this day.
- Tracking Dogs: Theory and Methods by Glen Johnson and Don Amur
- K9 Search and Rescue: A Manual for Training the Natural Way by Resi Gerritsen and Ruud Haak
- National Association for Search and Rescue. (Web site.)