How rescue dogs are trained

In the previous article, we wrote about what rescuing people entails and which dog breeds are suitable for searching for people in collapsed buildings. This topic is so interesting that we decided to focus even more on dog training itself, i.e. on the process and what it entails. Our questions were answered by Michaela Martinů, a dog breeder.

What does dog training involve?

Dog training is about motivation, which is the alpha and omega of any work with dogs. For rescue training, a suitable puppy should be selected. The puppy should be as independent as possible, confident, fearless with balanced temperament. If we manage to find such a puppy, we are on the right path towards rescue service. From an early age, we try to build positive associations towards humans, whether in the form of treats, toys or praising. The puppy should not be subjected to excessive demands which it could not meet at such age. We should give the puppy the time to mature mentally.

What is the important focal point of training, where does it begin? Is it important, for example, how should the dog alert the handlers when finding a person?

Yes, this is one of the most important points that we need to think through from the get go. Officially, a dog may mark a person in several ways. The first and most commonly used method is barking, where the dog marks the found assistant by barking and should remain in place and keep barking until the arrival of the handler. The dog should not attack the found persons or run away from them. Another commonly used method is the use of a special leather accessory that hangs from the dog’s collar. The dog that finds the assistant takes the accessory into his mouth and returns to the handler. The handler then hangs the accessory from the dog’s collar, and the dog takes the handler to the assistant using the shortest possible route. This method is very difficult, as dogs, out of nervousness, may take the leather accessory into their mouths as a toy. The accessory is used basically only when the dog, that otherwise shows all the necessary talents, refuses to bark. The last marking option is digging, which is only possible on snow or loose terrain. The dog is not taught to mark in this way, he is only support in his natural behaviour.

So the purpose of marking is to locate the marked person?

The purpose of this exercise is to teach the dog to alert the handler about all found subjects as accurately as possible. During training, the hidden persons must not draw the dog’s attention in any way, encourage barking or other marking methods or influence the dog to stay in place. If the dog is marking the assistants hiding spot, he should remain in place and bark until the handler arrives. As soon as the dog marks the assistant’s hiding spot, the handler raises his hand to report the find and verbally describes on the radio what kind of find it is (e.g. “living person at height”). Then, at the direction of the referee, the handler goes to the place of the finding. This is what takes place in trials, but those should mimic a real situation during a rescue mission as much as possible.

How does the human-dog relationship work in training?

When we teach the puppy to mark, it is at first about building trust between the dog and humans, and about teaching the dog to actively look for humans. At first, the dog sees the assistant leave, and only runs to him, which is followed by a reward. After that, the dog sees the assistant leave, but a reward is given only after the dog barks. The barking time then slowly increases, but it is always necessary to remember the one-step-at-a-time rule, where we cannot increase multiple steps at once. As an example, the puppy can bark at a known person longer than at a person it sees for the first time. With age, this rule is followed in a framework. The next step is that the dog does not see the person go to a specific place but sees them leaving in the field. Which is followed by the step where the dog does not see the person leave. Initially, the dog is sent to a place where he will find the person, and then the search is extended to minutes. However, this only applies to areal searches. For rubble searches, different terrains and other complexities should be included in the training. Everything, of course, with taking into account the dog’s age and safety. Training rescue dogs is very time-consuming and theoretically demanding. Nothing can be rushed, and basically, all rescue dogs keep learning throughout their entire lives, getting to know different terrains, situations, people, and the more stimuli the dog encounters in life, the more likely he is not surprised in rescue practice.

So, is regular training of rescue dogs a necessity?

Regularity and alternation of stimuli, environments, assistants, terrains, weather is the basis of good performance. However, we must avoid “boring” the dog with too frequent training in one environment he knows. Dogs are playful, they enjoy hide-and-seek games, challenges, new people, new kind of fun. We should put the training together so that it remains fun for the dog, keeping him guessing what’s next.

Where can I train my dog for rescue tasks?

Currently, there are a number of organizations dedicated to rescue dog training. Some private entities focus only on training to entertain dogs, with no practical ambitions. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I think it’s actually good when both the dog and human have a common pastime, which may develop into a very demanding hobby later. Officially, training is carried out by the Union of Brigades of Rescue Dog Trainers of the Czech Republic, which has individual brigades in each region.

In what situations and how can a dog help?

I am a member of the Prague Brigade of Rescue Dog Trainers, which carries out searches for missing persons using specially trained dogs and GPS, in rubble, in open and hard-to-reach terrains, water bodies, possibly even in avalanche areas. We cooperate closely with the Fire Rescue Service of the Czech Republic, the Police of the Czech Republic, the Water Rescue Service and other components of the Integrated Rescue System. Some members are certified by the Ministry of the Interior for deployment in the Czech Republic as well as for international missions. Any private person can contact us for help in missing a loved one.

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