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The 5 Phases of Search Dog Training: How to Train a Tracking Dog

Working dog breeds, like German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers, are ideal candidates to be productive search dogs in the field. But how are search and rescue dogs trained? There are five phases that are typically used during search dog training to guide and instruct tracking dogs.

The first thing you need to understand is that K9 search and rescue training is a gradual process as every dog responds to training methods differently. You have to be patient as dogs progress at different rates. Second, not all search and rescue dogs perform the same type of search. You have your tracking (or trailing) dogs and then you have your air-scent (or area-search) dogs. In this article, we're going to review the training process for the former type of dog, but we'll discuss the latter in a future article.

While the types (track and search) may overlap, the real distinction between the two is the training process and how the dog actually participates in missions.

A tracking dog works by putting their nose to the ground and following a trail of human scent. They can track anything from a lost child to a person trapped in a collapsed building. Tracking dogs require a "last seen" starting point and an item that has the search subject's scent on it. For tracking dogs, time is of the essence as scent trails can quickly become contaminated.

To do their best work, it is crucial that search and rescue dogs specialized in tracking go through the proper training. Additionally, they will need specialized search and rescue dog gear. Keep in mind that the following phases are a high-level overview for tracking (or trailing) dogs and should in no way be considered exhaustive training methods.

Phase 1: Introduction Of Short Searches

During this initial phase of search and rescue dog training, the tracking dog is typically placed in a rescue dog harness with a 20- to 30-foot lead. This will help the dog understand that when the gear goes on, it's time to work.

Training will begin with the dropping of a scent article (a training bag) and the creation of a scent pad. A scent article is an item that has only been touched by the search subject and can be used for tracking and training. It helps the dog gain a thorough scent of the subject. A scent pad is when the search subject wipes their feet a few times on the ground in order to lay a heavy scent. The dog should then be shown this area, as well as the scent article, and then given the trained command to gain the scent. It is at this point that the handler can command the dog to begin tracking for the search subject.

To set the scene for the tracking dog, the search subject should hide in an easily detectable location (the difficulty of the hiding location will amp up as training goes on). After the dog has been shown both the scent pad and the scent article and been given the command to search, the dog should begin to follow the scent and pre-placed treats leading to the search subject. Provide the dog with treats or their favorite toy, along with enthusiastic praise to reward them for finding the search subject.

This exercise should be practiced regularly, using fewer and fewer treats each time. Change up the terrain by practicing in parks, fields, yards or lightly wooded locations. During this phase, heavy vegetation and locations with concrete should be avoided.

Phase 2: More Complex Short Searches

Phase 2 of this type of search dog training continues short-search exercises with the use of scent articles, scent pads and a few treats every 5 to 10 steps. But now, the length of the search is increased. During this phase, begin to add more variety into the locations and terrain, keeping the search in a straight line.

Pathway Through a Forest

Phase 3: Introduction Of Longer, More Difficult Searches

Now, you'll want to start to add curves into the search path, eventually ceasing the use of track treats. As your tracking dog gets better and better, start increasing the distance, continually exposing your dog to varied terrain. Use leather dog booties if you'll be going over considerably rough terrain.

Phase 4: Use Of Unknown Search Subject

At this point, your tracking dog should be able to find a search subject on various terrains with the use of scent articles and scent pads. To increase their skills, this is the point at which an unknown search subject is typically introduced. At this phase, your dog should no longer require treats to track successfully.

Dog Running Over Gravel

Phase 5: Use of Search Subject with Distraction

When you reach phase 5, your tracking dog should be ready for their tracking certification test.

In the final phase of search and rescue training, you should now use a search subject as well as a person to act as a distraction. The scent article should still be utilized, but the search subject and the "distraction" subject should walk away together, breaking from each other at a predetermined point. To be successful, the tracking dog should be able to stay on the search subject's track and locate them despite the distraction.

It's crucial to practice these exercises on a regular basis to keep your tracking dog's skills sharp. Once again, it's important to understand that this is a brief overview of the methods utilized to train a tracking dog for search and rescue. This should not be considered a comprehensive search dog training guide. To view the national standards for search and rescue teams, visit fema.gov.

Search and rescue dogs are extraordinarily valuable when it comes to saving human lives or working on an investigative case. Scent recognition abilities will naturally vary by breed, but by properly training and working with your tracking dog, you'll give them the best chance to track down just about anything.

Get the Right Tracking Gear Today from Active Dogs

At Active Dogs, we offer the best tracking equipment to help your search and rescue dog get off on the right paw! From leather dog booties to training bags to harnesses, our selection includes everything you need to conduct K9 search and rescue training. Have a question or need additional information about our selection of tracking equipment? Reach out today.

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