Training the SAR Dog Properly: Lives Are at Stake

I have been lied to by Trainers, Organizations, and Employeer throughout my working careear,
so I operate differently. You & your dog will be trained by me, no one else , how can you honestly say
you trained someone or their dog if you had hired help doing it ? If that be the case, they'd be as smart as I
and should be training on their own making more money, Right ?

It was a beautiful December morning in Ajax, Ontario and I was on a day off watching a national Canadian produced morning talk show on a national station broadcast from Vancouver. A man and a woman from a local Search Dog Team were the guests along with a couple of young bloodhounds, promoting Sar Dog training and the wonders of canine service towards mankind. The man although very quiet, did manage to tell us that they use human hair, and teeth they collect for Cadaver. My God! All this time I thought it was the Tooth Fairy. Then he went on to say that they use fresh human blood they get from people who had just cut themselves. Wow talk about some heavy Search Team dues. I could only hope he was using these items for advanced Cadaver Dogs and not his little pup.

The woman who seemed to be the trainer stated that about 4 years ago she decided it was time to train dogs, now I won't guess her age but I figure this would have at least put her in her middle thirties when she started. It was going well until the woman started talking about canine scenting abilities. She advised the host of the show that dogs detect scent through the mucus under the lips, pointing to the rolled back muzzle flaps of her laid back hound. Then she announced that "if a dog loses a canine tooth it can't scent anymore."

What? Did I hear right? If that is true nobody told my Malinois, who broke his two top fangs, and managed 197 criminal arrests and recovered about $273,000.00 worth of evidence and stolen property in his 6 year career as a police dog, or the numerous other dogs I have trained with canine teeth worn down, pulled or replaced by silver ones and still perform brilliantly. I can only believe this woman was suffering from stage fright and I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt and hope she was referring to the Volmar Nasal Gland on the roof of a dog's mouth and how mucus transports scent to the nerve receptors in this gland, and that it is possible for dental disease and infections to affect this ability.

Watching this program made me realize that the time has come for someone to stand up and speak frankly about the Search and Rescue Dog situation in North America. In my 30 years of all fields and profiles of dog training, I have never seen or experienced a more inconsistent, undisciplined, rag tag area for canine working dogs than this.

Now I'm not referring to such groups as FEMA in the United States or those provinces in Canada that are administered by the R.C.M.P. standards. These groups have at least some form of Standard Training Tests and Programs for dogs to be reasonably tested and maintained for quality.

I am not referring to those groups or Teams that have these safeguards already in place either and there are a few good ones out there. However, there are problems that come up constantly, seminar after seminar, training day after training day, public appearance after public appearance, that are always the same and make this whole theater of dog training suspect, unprofessional, amateur at best.

In the following article I will attempt to bring these things to light and address them with tips on how to remedy the situation or prevent them from happening.

Problem #1

The first problem is the trainers themselves . Any club, team, or person can be trained by anybody whether they have any knowledge or not; or someone may have just read a few books on the subject and now are "head trainer" of their newly formed search team. There are no standards to the dog training industry as a whole. I have even had students of mine wrongly open dog training schools after only having three obedience lessons on a basic course. We all know people who call themselves "trainers" after attending a couple of seminars. There are many unqualified people out there training Search Dogs who have no business training any dogs for anything.

Then we have the so called "Qualified Instructors." These are the people who were trained by police/military or ex-police/military. Even this claim to fame has its phony and unqualified share of the pie. For some reason, the general public loves to be able to say that their dogs were trained by, or we were at a seminar with, this former/ex/retired/serving/cop/officer/armed forces/whatever.

Having formed a police canine unit and being a trainer/handler, I can tell you that the majority of police and military personnel are not qualified to be trainers. They may have been great dog handlers and could possibly even get by teaching a basic course, if -- and it's a big if -- all goes right. Now if things go wrong, the mark of a good trainer is to know what to do next. This so-called "expert" may have even been dismissed from the unit and believe me there are lots out there. I have been to a few seminars where the police instructor has made numerous critical training errors, resulting in good dogs not locating the hides and this going unquestioned by awestruck civilians.

Another ploy is to attend a seminar with a well known trainer and then claim to have studied under them or use their methods. I only attend seminars that offer a certificate upon completion. This can be given to a prospective client so they can determine the type of instruction received, how long, by whom, and how many I have attended.

Please beware of slick advertisements with claims of training for government agencies. Most police and military train their own. Be prepared to demand references and call these people. I like referrals because they come from satisfied customers. Just because a person has an "Academy" and appears big, doesn't mean they are better than the lone trainer.

Many people offer dogs to departments only to have them fail preliminary tests. The dogs are returned a short time later, but they still claim to have supplied dogs for these agencies or train with them. Telephone these agencies and ask about their dog suppliers and training help.

Be concerned that monetary profit is not the sole force behind the training. Although there are a few good trainers around who solely depend on dog training for their livelihood, money should not come before ethics. If you have been in the business as long as I have, you know that the best way to make a million dollars training dogs is to start with three million. Most good trainers supplement their pensions or train dogs part-time.


The following guidelines can be used to pick a qualified trainer:

  1. Your trainer should have many years experience training all breeds of dogs for all types of profiles, not just search dogs but obedience, protection, agility, hunting, herding, even parlor tricks. Sooner or later a problem will arise and many times I have relied on another method of training from an unrelated field to see the dog through. They should also have a paper trail of titles to support their claims such as Companion Dog (C.D. C.D.X. U.D.), Schutzhund (I II III), Agility Dog (A.D) etc.
  2. Your trainer should have knowledge of all breeds, their history, purpose and limitations such as coat, endurance, and physical characteristics. They should be able to advise you against, say, training an Old English Sheepdog for Cadaver work in the deserts of Texas in summer, or a Bull Mastiff for open searches in Alberta in winter.
  3. Your trainer should have actual experience in search and rescue so that they may relate to your actual scenarios based on real life find experiences, including how lost or wanted persons react and the behavioral patterns you may find useful. The trainer should be able to qualify as an expert witness in a court of law. In the Cadaver search field, there is a good chance a located body was the result of criminal intent Therefore a knowledge of rules of evidence is imperative.
  4. Ask for references from agencies and call them and talk specifics about the trainer and the services he has supplied them.

Problem #2

The second problem is Training . Quite simply, no minimum standards . In Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police govern SAR Dog standards in all provinces except Ontario and Quebec. Now the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a good program for standard training but these two Federal agencies are it for North America.

In the U.S.A. it is even worse. You may have a state that is divided into thirty counties. In one state, the Fire Department, the Sheriffs Department, the Public Safety Bureau, and the State Patrol can all be individually responsible for SAR in their counties. Then the next county doesn't even have one -- they just depend on the "Guy with the Coonhounds."

Training Standards and Certification are a must. This should be regulated by a government run program and recognized by statute. Any trainer who opposes this idea is only fooling you and themselves. This usually is a sign that their training methods can't meet any kind of minimal standard and they are afraid of change.

It is very important for you to meet or exceed other training standards from different organizations so that you may take part in joint searches. There may come a time when you may be working in another State or Province and although you may not have standards or certification in your area, you may legally be held responsible for a standard in the jurisdiction you are working in.


Gather up as many standards from as many SAR and related groups as you can and find out who are the best and train to meet or exceed all these. Petition your State or Provincial governments to require standard training for all SAR Dogs and regular Certification requirements for any team to be used at any search. Trainers should have to submit their manuals, logs, lesson plans, and techniques to be registered with official agencies and Standards Committees. In this day of fiscal restraints the police agencies will have the confidence to liaison with and include you in any Administrational Procedures they have concerning missing persons and welcome your team as available resource. Finally do not treat your man dog team as a weekend warrior. You should be professional and expert.

Problem #3

The third problem as I see it is Instruction Type . There are two main ways these dogs are trained. The most popular is to join some Search Team and train your dog slowly, usually in a once a week training day, supplemented by seminars, videos and periodic visits to various trainers. The reason this is the most popular is probably because of minimal cost to the handler.

The drawbacks to this instruction types are reflected in the fact that because people join and leave or dogs get injured at various times, their dogs are at various stages in training and it is possible that a team may not have any qualified dogs to go on call.

Another thing that can affect you in this area is politics . Most search teams have a political executive made up of people who are doing the training. This should be a separate body not concerned with funding or the other burdens of running a team.


Find a trainer who guarantees his work, meets all the above criteria, offers regular updated and annual certification training and pay for or raise the money (donations service groups etc.) to attend a course. In this way your team will be Certified and on the road in minimal time, you will have the documentation and confidence to approach police and other agencies with proper credentials. The political administration on your team only has to approve funds in a budget for the courses. Since the Team is paying for this training, the Team must own the dog. If a member leaves or is dismissed and the dog is still workable, then the member can buy the dog from the team or it can be assigned to another.

Problem #4

The final problem I see is Breed Selection . I go to seminars and every breed imaginable is there. IMAGE is important believe it or not. You show up at a scene all decked out with the police, victim's family and media all waiting and you pull out a Toy Breed. I know you love your dog and you spend a lot of time training, but in the Emergency Services field reassurance to the victims and confidence you can do the job is a vital part of your Professional Image. It will also determine, like it or not, whether you get called again. Many search teams also have a truck full of dogs that are trained only for specific functions. My Bloodhound for trailing, my Lab for open search, my Doberman for articles, my Schipperke for Land Cadaver and my Newfoundland for Water Cadaver. It's not Golf folks! “Let me see. This shot calls for this dog” “Caddy fetch my #7 dog”.


Pick one dog of average size, with an all weather coat. Train it to do multi tasks EXCEPT when it comes to Live or Dead. Distinguish between these only. Never train a dog to find live victims and cadaver. Your dog is an animal and animals make mistakes. At a major disaster, searchers will dedicate a lot of time, effort and equipment to finding the live trapped victim but the dead are not going anywhere. This is no time to make a mistake on an indication. Have a dog trained to track, open search, urban search and article recovery. Have another dog trained for land and water Cadaver.


In conclusion, the authorities will only call agencies similarly set up like their own. That is what they understand. Do it right and it will work. Look at yourselves not as a volunteer, but as an unpaid professional . Remember, people, lives are at stake here. If this is not your serious focus, then you have no business being in this field of work.