Choosing a Puppy for Search And Rescue Work
by Michelle L. Limoges, SAR Dog Handler, Search & Rescue Dog Association of Alberta
When we look for a good candidate for a SAR Dog, we are looking for a pup with many qualities. These many qualities must fit together to provide the very best dog for the work.
A “sound” dog
A prospective handler will want to look for a pup with ‘sound’ conformation, which is a bit different from the conformaton a top notch ‘show dog’ might exhibit. In other words, you need a balanced dog able to cover ground with endurance and agility. Good, balanced angulation front and rear is most important; in addition, shoulder placement and strong rear assembly are important for jumping and climbing. Find a pup with “sound” conformation; consult the experts in the breed of your choice.
Male or female?
Dog people will forever argue preferences for a female or a male – it’s a personal choice for you to make yourself.
What breed or mixed breed?
Generally the Working and Herding breeds are the best prospects for SAR dogs particularly Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers who are a very popular choice among SAR Dog handlers. Purebred or mixed heritage really doesn’t matter, so long as the dog can do the work it is being trained for. A rule of thumb to apply is that a dog that is from 50 to 70 lbs. is best for most people’s needs.
Character is the key
But temperament and character are most important. You want a friendly, stable dog who is outgoing and one who does not exhibit sound- or touch-sensitivity. In fact, the dog must like bodily contact. One of the most important characteristics of a good SAR pup is the desire to play with toys and people, and to retrieve objects of any type. Also, the dog must be able to focus on the task at hand and not be distracted. Do not confuse hyper activity with an energetic disposition. In my experience, hyper activity goes hand in hand with lack of focus; an energetic puppy seeks a focus for the drive he/she exhibits. That focus can be your search work.
Temperament tests for puppy
Many dog trainers and behaviorists swear by puppy temperament tests which are generally done when the pup is 49 days of age. Several variations of these tests exist and many experienced dog people add favorite tests of their own – I know I have a couple of tests that are not part of any ‘standard’ evaluation process, but are important to me.
The principles of SAR Dog training are really quite simple – we teach the dog to search out the desired scent (a person for example) and to do everything in its power to get to the source of that scent (the person) so that they can get their toy and play! That’s all there is to it. There’s no mystery, no innate desire on the part of the dog to save humanity – all they want is their toy! The dog’s drive to get that toy is most important. The ‘alert’ is a “trained behavior”.
You would be well advised to look for a breeder who will give the pup a good foundation in that critical stage prior to eight weeks. The breeder can do a lot to socialize the pup to noise and adventures and they can begin play and reward rituals and they can set the ground work for ‘come when called’ training and other desireable behaviours. Once you take the pup home, it’s up to you to continue all of this, and it’s hard work; not a moment can be wasted in the pup’s education.
Part of the process in finding a pup is to study the pup’s pedigree. Yes, “working titles” are most important. The Schutzhund / IPO titles are the most desirable because many of the same ‘drives’ needed for Schutzhund work are also used for SAR. Tracking titles are an added bonus and demonstrate the ancestor’s ability to follow scent. Obedience titles are a good thing because they show trainability but don’t really tell you anything about drives; likewise, agility titles. If your breed club(s) offer temperament testing in conjunction with conformation titles, these can be very valuable in terms of extra information about parents, grand parents and other relations.
Often a good source of information is people in canine Search and Rescue with the breed your are interested in; talk to them for references and detailed opinions on qualities of pups best suited to SAR work in the long term.