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Search And Rescue Dogs – 10 Tests For Finding A SAR Dog

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You’ve seen Search And Rescue Dogs (SAR Dogs) on television at many of the recent natural disasters including the Tsunami’s in Japan or Hurricane Katrina.

However, did you ever wonder how the Search Dog Foundation goes about looking for search dog candidates?

Today at our South Bay guide dog puppy raiser meeting Lyz Gregory and her black Lab, Mojo from the Search Dog Foundation joined us for a great presentation on Search and Rescue Dogs.

She talked about many different things concerning these wonderful dogs and a few interesting point I recall were about:

Search And Rescue Dogs

Search and Rescue Puppy? - Puppy practicing his climbing abilities
Charlie, A Search and Rescue Puppy?
  • Search And Rescue Dog Breeds – I thought it was quite interesting that they did not include banned dog breeds like pit bulls and rottweilers. The reasoning behind this was that if there is a disaster in a city with banned dog breeds then that dog would not be allowed to perform search and rescue (or even enter) the city. She also mentioned that good search and rescue dog breeds are usually hunting and herding breeds and specifically pointed out Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies, and German Shepherds.
  • Lyz also specified the weight of dogs in the program is between 30 – 100 pounds. She mentioned that they don’t want the dogs too large because handlers may have to lift or catch the dogs.
  • Search and Rescue Dogs also had to check out medically with excellent health. If the dogs even had mild dysplasia then they would get dropped. This is mainly due to the fact that the everyday pounding and exercise would exasperate the problem.
  • She also stressed that they try to get these dogs from the animal shelters. Some of the search and rescue dogs are donated from programs like Guide Dogs of America. I asked that Derby, my 2nd GDA puppy get tested for Search and Rescue, but apparently, he lacked focus.
  • One final thing that caught my attention was the video on how to find candidate search and rescue dogs and that’s what we’re going to talk about for the rest of this post.

10 Tests For Finding A Search And Rescue Dog

We had the opportunity to watch 2 videos.

Unfortunately, the sound was out for most of the first video which was more of an overview of what these dogs do, showing some action videos, images, and some of the recent disasters they’ve worked in.

However, I found the second video quite interesting on Search and Rescue Dogs Canine Candidate Testing.

Basically, they broke down into 10 tests they give dogs to see if they are good candidates for search and rescue.

I’m guessing this is the same kind of testing Derby went through when I asked him be tested to see if he had what it took to be one of the SAR Dogs (unfortunately he didn’t, but I’m sure he’s doing great as a pet).

Here are the 10 tests for SAR Dogs Candidates:

TEST #1 – Walking The Aisle

Walking down the aisle at the animal shelter looking for a potential Search And Rescue Dog.

  • 8 – 18 months of age.
  • Dogs are interested in the dog toy.
  • What we are looking for:  The dog runs up to the gate and wants to meet you.

TEST #2 – Greeting The Dog

When he comes up to you is he interested in greeting you? Is his tail up? Is he interested in you as a person?

  • What we are looking for: The dog approaches you in a friendly manner and willing to play.

TEST #3 – Tug And Touch

Toss a toy and get the dog to play. What you want to see is a dog that dogs harder on that toy and gets more excited.

  • What we are looking for: The dog bites down harder on the toy, gets more excited, and won’t let you have it.

TEST #4 – Reaction To Other Dogs

Tie your dog to a post while another person leads a dog by. The dog shows interest, but no aggression.

  • What we are looking for: The dog’s tail wags, he wants to play, or is indifferent. (Note: these are 2 dogs that should have never met)

TEST #5 – Sudden Movement

Have someone else walk the dog, when he walks by pop an umbrella and set it down then observe the dog’s reaction. Don’t want a dog that attacks the umbrella or turns and runs away

  • What we are looking for: The dog is startled, but quickly recovers and shows curiosity and interest.

TEST #6 – Sound Sensitivity

Reaction to loud sounds. Have someone else keep the dog’s interest with a toy. Stand about 10 feet behind then bang 2 pans together.

  • What we are looking for: Curiosity or no response

TEST #7 – Toy Toss

Dog with a sincere interest in a variety of dog toys.  Ideally, one that is interested in a variety of toys.

  • What we are looking for: The dog grabs the toy and will do anything to get it.

QUICK RECOMMENDATION: When it comes to puppies we have a similar recommendation. Have lots of different toys. Especially different textures. Here is a list 5 of our favorites:

  1. Calmeroos Puppy Toy w/ Heartbeat and Heat Pack
  2. Hide-A-Squirrel
  3. Nylabone Dura Chew Bone
  4. KONG Extreme
  5. goDog Dragon Plush Toy

TEST #7a – Toy Toss With Noise Distraction

  • What we are looking for: The dog shows no reaction to the noise.

TEST #8 – Toss And Spin

Hold the dog close to you and have a helper throw the toy into the bushes.

Spin the dog once around then let him go.

No encouragement we want to see him hunt for the toy.

Variation #1: do the same thing, but after you spin the dog hold him for 15 seconds.

Variation #2: wait 30 seconds after spin.

Want the dog to remain focused.

The dog has to show interest in hunting.

  • What we are looking for: The dog runs to the bushes maintaining a 2 to 3-minute hunt (Note: Make sure the dog has seen where the toy was thrown and where it landed)

TEST #9 – Hide And Seek

Throw the toy in the bushes then have your helper hide the toy in the bushes before releasing your dog. Looking for a willingness to hunt.

  • What we are looking for: The dog searches relentlessly for the toy.

TEST #10 – High Toy

Place the toy on something high, but safe while your dog is watching. Release the dog.

  • What we are looking for: The dog barks, spins, or jumps making every effort to get it.

UPDATE: Stetson loved K9 Nosework, but one obstacle for him was he refused to jump up on things to search. He would have failed miserably on Test #10 – High Toy 🙁

EXTRA CREDIT – Testing The Dog On Unfamiliar Surfaces, Trying Out Unusual Footing

Bleachers work well because they’re metal, open spaces, and it requires going up and down.  Want dog to accept new surfaces.

These tests put science to the program, but there is also a fair amount of art to finding a good search and rescue dog.

Would Any Of Our Pups Make A Good Search And Rescue Dog?

Riley Practicing To Be A Search And Rescue Dog
Riley Practicing To Be A Search And Rescue Dog – Trying to Escape the Whelping Box

After watching the video on how to find candidates for search and rescue dogs I thought about Derby and whether or not he went through the same tests that the dogs did in the video.

Actually out of all of our dogs I think the one that most resembled the dogs in the video was our old family dog, Maffy.

He was a high-energy Border Collie mix that we rescued from the animal shelter.

He was relentless when it came to finding his tennis ball.

He’s seriously been in the bush for several minutes looking for his ball (sometimes he would come out with a totally different ball).

However, I’m not sure if he’d do well with a variety of dog toys outside of his tennis ball.

If so, he probably would have made a perfect Search and Rescue Dog.

We even caught Maffy walking along the dividing wall between homes after he climbed up off of our play house onto the wall. Maybe the balance wasn’t quite there because as soon as he saw us he fell into our neighbor’s yard 🙂

It was a great presentation today and we made a donation to the Search Dog Foundation.

If you’re interested in volunteering or donating to the Search Dog Foundation then visit their website at National Disaster Search Dog Foundation.

You can help by volunteering to help find candidate search and rescue dogs at the animal shelters.

I know a couple of dogs from our Orange County Guide Dogs of America group became SAR Dogs including most recently Christina’s guide dog puppy in training, Nicholas.

Did your dog get a career changed and become a part of Search and Rescue Dogs?

Are you volunteering to help find candidate SAR Dogs?

Tell us about it in the comment section below.

UPDATE: Reading through this several year later and I noticed that a lot of these tests are very similar to the tests we perform to determine the temperaments of our puppies at around 6-8 weeks old. I’m sure Search and Rescue volunteers would have a similar approach if they were testing a puppy. If you’re interested in temperament testing a puppy there’s a good section on temperament testing in Puppies for Dummies that we used to test our first pup, Linus.

Top Picks For Our Puppies

    We Like: Beef Collagen Sticks - All of our pups love to bite, nip, and chew. We love using Collagen Sticks to help divert these unwanted behaviors.
    We Like: Calmeroos Puppy Toy w/ Heartbeat and Heat Packs - Perfect for new puppies. Helps ease anxiety in their new home.
    We Like: Crazy Dog Train-Me Treats - We use these as our high-value treats for our guide dog puppies.
    We Like: The Farmer's Dog - A couple months ago we started feeding Raven fresh dog food and she loves it! Get 50% off your first order of The Farmer's Dog.

Check out more of our favorites on our New Puppy Checklist.

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  1. WE have a beautiful two year old Black Lab – Ruby – we think would be a wonderful candidate.. she meets literally all the criteria, and we would like to get her tested. Career change you could say. Is there somewhere on the west coast we could have her tested?
    She has a story, and we rescued her as a puppy..

    Patricia McKern

  2. I have a pup who we tested for SAR but he didn’t pass as well as hes a pitbull cur mix….he did however pass with flying colors for HRD. (Cadaver)….

  3. Some of the career change guide dogs from Guide Dogs of America sometimes become search and rescue dogs. You might try checking with them to see if they have any potential search dog candidates.

  4. I am currently looking for my 3rd search dog via shelters. If you have any candidates, I’d appreciate any leads. Thank you

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