Dogcharmer: Search and rescue

How do dogs do it?

Search and rescue dog Michelle and friends Tanzy and Celine. Courtesy Tom Shelby.

He identified himself as Bob. He’s called out to me at Tradewinds a handful of times, each time asking me a question about search and rescue dogs. Every time we met he was either walking, or jogging, or on a bike, but never with a dog. Every time we met I asked him if he had a dog, and every time he answered with a smile. I still have no idea if this guy, Bob, even has a dog, but he now knows more about K-9 SAR than most patrol cops. More of Bob’s questions to follow.

Hey, Dogcharmer,

How do you start a puppy finding missing people? And how good are their noses, anyhow?


Hey Bob,

When you come home and Rover smells your pants, he knows who you touched, what you ate, and what environments you were in. Depending on the dog, believe it or not, most dogs can smell a decomposed bone 20 to 80 feet under the water from a rowboat. The key is getting them to tell you when they do!

I read about whale researchers on boats with Labrador retrievers. They’re trained to detect whale scat. When the dog indicates, a diver goes down and retrieves the feces for study about whale health, migration, etc.

I got my Doberman, Michelle, when she was about 10 weeks old, on a Thursday. Friday morning we took the two-hour drive to our cabin in the Catskills, and late Friday night I carried her into the middle of a 10-acre field and put her down, and slowly walked away. I never chase dogs. If your untrained dog gets loose outside, good luck chasing her. Rather, the moment she looks at you, give a yelp and run away from her, and when she gets close, drop to your knees.There’s a real chance she’ll end up in your lap.

So Michelle’s in the middle of this huge field in the middle of the night, and I had guessed right. First major lesson — brain imprint for off-leash — “I don’t chase you; you look for me, you come to me!” Looking over my shoulder as I’m leaving her in this new universe, she sniffs a bit, looks up, sees me walking away, hesitates, then closes the distance between us as she realizes I just keep getting farther away. I immediately call her, “Michelle,, come!” Upon her arrival, chicken accompanies my praise. Spent a half hour walking away when she got distracted, she responded beautifully every time I called her.

Next morning, took her to where the field met the woods, let her off-leash and hid behind a huge rock the moment she was distracted, then furtively observed her. I was lucky she didn’t head back toward the house. Thanks to the night before, I think, she followed her nose and found me behind the rock. Lesson: “I don’t look for you, you look for me!” As an adult search dog, two of the people she found were alive.


The Dogcharmer

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