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Selecting a Dog for SAR

A while ago I had a discussion with someone who was asking about SAR dog characteristics and puppy selection. This is an edited version of my thoughts on the matter -- anyone with comments/suggestions/criticism is welcome to email me for additional discussion. Work is always ongoing in this area and it's rare anyone is right in the puppy choosing business 100% of the time.

Are there certain breeds which make better SAR dogs than others?

Not necessarily, though many people would argue with me on this. Some breeds seem to have a better "work ethic" than others, and their combination of strength, stamina and coat would give them an advantage over other breeds. Generally speaking, the working, herding and sporting breeds can get the job done, with differing amounts of training and longer or shorter maturation/development time. I'm of the school of thought that it's possible to find as much difference between different dogs of the same breed as it is between dogs of different breeds. Certainly it's possible to say something like "golden retrievers tend to be highly trainable" or "german shepherds tend to be one-person dogs" ... but watch out for when someone says all dogs of a breed have a characteristic (or lack it!).

What are the characteristics which make a SAR dog? What I am trying to figure out is, how do you know a particular dog is a potential SAR dog?

Biddability (what some call a "desire to please," ability to be well socialized to people and dogs, and a strong prey, hunt, or play instinct are among the most important factors. Other breed-specific things to consider are coat and size. Double coated dogs will shrug off extremes of cold and wet conditions. Dogs that are too small will have a difficult time with heavy brush or rough terrain. Dogs that are too large may have the same problem (and they're a real joy to load on a chairlift or heave into a helicopter). Agile dogs will handle themselves better in the woods and perhaps have fewer injuries.

Click for enlarged image: Shocka and Tristan wait patiently for an assignment (28K) Image-Shocka and Tristan - 28K

I have used some the personality tests as outlined in some of the general training books out there. The one listed in "The Art of Raising A Puppy" I've found useful -- which is really the Volhard aptitude test -- is now on the web. If the breeder you're working with is a good one, they should be able to hook you up with the puppy that'll work best for you. And nothing substitutes for taking along an experienced person to assist with selection. Even though you might have your heart set on getting a puppy from a specific litter, it's a good idea to have someone with you willing to say, "I don't think any of these dogs will be the one for you -- you'd better wait." Think about it: you'll be working, training, eating and sleeping with this dog for hundreds of hours every year. The lives of others and perhaps even your own will rely on this puppy's abilities. The crucial step of puppy selection is perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of canine search and rescue training.

I already have a dog that I think will be great for searching. How do I know for sure?

As a general rule, I think it's a good idea to begin SAR training with a puppy. You will be able to concentrate on building a good foundation of socialization and shape for desired traits at an early age. I believe it's more likely you'll be searching with the young dog sooner than an older dog that may have to unlearn undesirable behavior (such as chasing game or aggression towards other dogs or people). Depending on the age of the dog, you may need to weigh the months of training against the potential working life of the animal. If a dog is five years old, it may not be able to go on searches until it's seven. Then you'll get what? Maybe three or four more good working years from it? I'd invest more time in a younger dog so the total working time will be longer.

If your heart is still set on training your older dog, try to find an experienced handler, or handlers, to work with you and help with this decision. If at all possible you should be hooked up with an existing SAR unit before you really begin this process anyway. Certainly it's possible that your dog will learn the search game. Many of the working SAR dogs out there started life as family pets before getting a job! If your dog is well socialized (likes people and is not aggressive to other dogs), is biddable, has the physical ability to work for multiple hours and days, enjoys games of fetch or tug or other play activity, etc. then you bet there's a chance they can do it! But to be sure, find someone who has experience working with many different dogs (you'll avoid breed-specific bias if your dog isn't "their" breed) to help with initial training. The more feedback you can get, the better.

Another view

My sister Catherine has worked with dogs professionally for many years and has raised numerous guide dog puppies and trained working and service dogs. What follows is her reaction to my thoughts on dog selection. The dogs she refers to were worked by our parents back in the '70s.

Catherine sez:

You have some good thoughts, here. I like what you said about people who want to start with a 5-year old dog.

Please keep in mind that Mom's 1st, very successful dog, Ego, was started in SAR at 18 mos. So was Baron (who would have done a better job if he hadn't been with novices, I'd guess). I know that puppies are your favorite, but I have seen a lot of disappointed trainers whose "ideal" 8-week old turned into a 10-month old disaster of medical probs and they had to start over... Gotta love those pound pups...

What I look for initially:

I will flesh out these tests for you when I visit next. Some of these tests I wouldn't do on a 10-week old pup. Developmentally, the lil guy just wouldn't be ready for it. But an adolescent can handle it, and give a truer indication of potential, I think.

That all having been said, my next dog *will* probably be a puppy-- because I want to teach it attention with these new techniques I'm learning. I just don't want you to overlook the value of an older puppy for work. So many are killed because people think they have to start at 8 or 10 weeks old, and if not, well, the dog is worthless. It just isn't true. I think I could make a strong argument for the opposite.

Additional Resources

Cindy Tittle Moore has also put together a useful resource about puppy selection for SAR.

The PAWS working dog evaluation is worth a look, though I think it's better suited for potential K-9 and schutzhund dogs.

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Text and photos copyright Dan Comden, 1995-2004 Dan Comden
Seattle, WA U.S.A.
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