Dogcharmer: ‘Go find!’

How to prep your pup for search and rescue.

Search-and-rescue dogs have a highly developed sense of smell. —Patrick Lewinski

Dear Dogcharmer,

If I wanted to get a puppy into search and rescue, how would I start? And how great are their noses, really? Your answer to my questions will really be appreciated!


Dear Martin,

As to their noses, my search dog Michelle had in the vicinity of 250 million olfactory receptors; you and I have about 5 million. When you come home and your dog smells your pants, he knows who you touched, what you ate, and what environments you were in. It was Mark Twain who said, “If dogs could talk, no one would own them!”

This is literally how I started Michelle, when she was about 9 weeks old. I carried her into a large field just as it was getting dark, and nobody was around. Then I put her down and slowly started walking away. So Michelle’s now in the middle of this huge field in the dark, and sees me walking away. After a few sniffs she looks up and sees me getting farther and farther away, hesitates a second, and then closes the distance between us, receiving a great treat and a lot of praise upon her arrival. First major brain imprint — I don’t come to you, you come to me! After that I spent a good half-hour walking away whenever she was distracted, then called her to come, with her responding beautifully every time.

The next morning I took her to the field where it met the woods, and hid behind a large rock when she was distracted, then whistled and furtively observed her. To my delight, with her nose to the ground, she found me in a minute.

Soon thereafter, I had her observe my wife Jaye enter the woods and disappear behind a tree. “Go find Mom,” and Michelle, having a visual of where Mom went, found her immediately for her praise reward. Next, Jaye disappeared without Michelle seeing where she went, and Michelle really started using her nose to track.

I always made it a point to have the missing volunteer hide upwind from where I would start Michelle, because many, if not most, searches don’t have a place last seen (PLS). So without a definitive track to follow, search dogs are working the wind, or air scenting. Where and when possible, a “scent article” is used. So if we locate the car of a missing hunter, I may scent Michelle off the car seat, or a pair of gloves he may have left in the car. If there’s no PLS or scent article in an uninhabited region, the search dog is just told, “Go find,” and will zero in on the first human scent it comes across. Doberman Michelle freaked out a couple who were smooching in the woods on such a search.

A tip for those of you whose dog won’t come to you if loose. Don’t chase him! Rather, the moment he looks at you, give a yelp and run away from him. When he gets close, drop to your knees, and sit or lie down. There’s a good chance he’ll end up in your lap. Better yet, 10 times a day, when he doesn’t expect it, call him to come, with his getting a great treat most of the time when he arrives.

Bear in mind, Martin, to a SAR dog, searching is a great, fun game. For you as a handler, there will be times most inconvenient when you will be called on to help with your dog.

P.S.: Michelle found two people alive, one a 14-year-old boy in a blizzard; and six not alive.

Good luck,
Dogcharmer Tom

Have a question for the Dogcharmer? Write him at Find him on Instagram @DogTrainingDiaries