Dogcharmer: How to find a human

How do you train a dog to search for humans?

Search and rescue dog Michelle pretending to be dead. —Courtesy Tom Shelby

So I met the guy who identifies himself as Bob again, and he accosted me once more with a SAR question. This time we met outside the Oak Bluffs Post Office, not at Tradewinds, and he still didn’t have a dog with him.

Hey Dogcharmer,

So OK, you don’t chase a puppy, you get him coming to you. But when do you teach him to actually look for human beings, and how do you start?


Hey Bob,

As to when to start training, I start immediately with simple “finds” of treats and toys. I told Michelle (my SAR Dobe) to sit and stay, making it obvious I had a treat in my hand as I backed away, acting silly. Then she observed me placing the treat on the floor, maybe behind a chair leg. Then I went back to her and with an excited tone said, “Go find the treat!” Having a visual of where I placed the treat, even though she couldn’t see it because it was behind the chair leg, she of course found it immediately. This progresses to where Michelle sees me enter a room and disappear for a few seconds while I hide the treat. At this stage, success building on success is critically important, so the treats are located in easily found spots, and as she gets more and more hyped up with the fun and excitement of the game, the treats get harder and harder to find. Now she has to really use her nose!

It’s at this point where I might start teaching her to sit and bark, telling me she made the find but can’t get to it because it’s in a closed container or high up on a shelf. If she comes across a glove in an actual search for a missing person, I don’t want her compromising a possible crime scene or possible evidence by picking up the glove. One way or another, fetch me to the scene.

Loving the “go find” game, next comes the transfer to finding people, which starts with “runaways.” We’re outdoors with a friend who makes it clear to Michelle that he has a treat as he says, “Bye, Michelle.” He runs a couple of hundred yards away from us and steps behind a tree, bush, car, whatever. She sees where he went as I’m kneeling down holding Michelle back, while whispering excited encouragement about her “go find” about to happen. After a minute or so, I release her with a very enthusiastic “GO FIND!” When she reaches the “missing person,” the treats she gets are accompanied by prolific praise. That’s how I started the transfer from finding treats and toys to humans — runaways. Bear in mind, one size never fits all. Training methods can and do vary with what motivates the dog. Some dogs will prefer a brief tug of war with a pull toy as opposed to treats and praise. The key is discerning what motivates the dog to accomplish success building on success.

Hope this answers your two questions, Bob.

The Dogcharmer

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