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Choosing the Right Dog for SAR

by Laura England Vice-President MASAR

Search and rescue work is something that requires a great amount of dedication, hard work, study, and sometimes-great personal sacrifices. Training and working with a dog requires even more of all of the above, because not only do you have to learn what the dog needs to know, you also have to train the dog. I have found working with a dog has rewards all it's own not found in any other part of rescue. Dogs have just as many feelings as people, and when you have trained and worked with a dog day after day you learn to read his thoughts and feelings just as he does yours. After a long day of cadaver search in a collapsed building your dog needs comforting and cheering just as much as you do, and it's something the two of you can provide each other.


If you have decided you want to train and work with a dog the first thing you have to do is get the dog, and selecting the right one is very important. Unfortunately, cute has nothing to do with whether a dog will work or not. If it did, all puppies would be great search dogs! As far as breed goes, that is a matter of personal opinion, some teams prefer a certain breed, such as shepherds of various types or bloodhounds, while others believe mixed breeds are fine. Talk to the dog handlers on the team you will be working with and see what they prefer. That is also a good source for information on the best place to find a dog in your area.

Things to Watch For

Once you have found a few potential puppies there are some traits you should be watchful for as you are deciding. It is a good idea to see the pup's parents if possible. This is because some traits can be passed on, such as hip dysplasia, natural scenting ability, and temperament, if one or both of the parents is very aggressive you should be wary, as this may be genetic. The aggressive dog may be a good watchdog, but aggression has no place in rescue work.

Size and Coat

Other things to consider are, the dog's size. How big will it be? You will want a dog small enough to be agile, but large enough to have the stamina needed for miles of tracking. Another thing is the dog's coat. You will need to consider the climate(s) in which you will be working. A heavily coated dog may not be suitable for very hot climates, just as a very short-coated dog may get too cold. A dog with a double coat has a natural insulation for all weather extremes.


The next thing is temperament; a pup that is very shy and cowers when approached will not have confidence enough to train well, and may even become a fear biter. Also the "bully" of the litter should be rejected. He will likely try to be dominant, be hard to train and may not get along well with other dogs.

Play Drive and Personality

Another thing to look for is play drive. Toss a ball or toy for the pup, if it runs happily to it and picks it up a few times it probably has a good play drive. Also see how the pup reacts to new situations. Walk through some tall grass calling to the pup to follow, if he sits and cries he lacks initiative. You want him to follow you eagerly. Also try the pups reaction to new situations, place it on a table to see how it reacts to height, walk it across different types of footing such as concrete, gravel, or any surface it is not used to. The pup should adjust quickly to new experiences without fearfulness. Another good test is to hold the pup down on his back for a few seconds while talking reassuringly to it. The ideal reaction is for the pup to struggle for a few seconds then submit to your control, if the pup struggles more than a few seconds you may have trouble with trust, and acceptance of dominance.

Making the Decision

All of these tests should be done with one pup at a time away from the rest of the litter. Once you have found a few pups that pass all of the tests, you will have to decide on one. Let your instincts make the final choice. You will probably find there is something "special" about one of the pups. That will be the one for you. To succeed in search work, there should be a strong bond between you and your dog from the very start.


While it is best to get a puppy that is a few weeks old, it is possible to find an older dog that would be suitable. If you are considering an adult dog choose one that is friendly towards people and other dogs and still retains a high puppy-like play drive. It is also a good idea to get one that is already well trained in basic obedience, and will obey basic commands from you the first time you are with it. Keep in mind when considering an older dog that you will spend at least one year in basic training, and 1 or 2 more years "polishing" their skills. Most dogs are physically ready for retirement by 7 to 9 years of age, so if you start with a 2 year old dog and spend 2 or more years training you may have a dog that is only able to work 3 to 4 years. For this reason it is always best to get as young a dog as possible to get as many years of service as you can.

Thank you for checking out Mid-America Search and Rescue's Website. I hope you have found our information useful, and will visit out site in the future for more on dogs, different types of searches, setting up a base, equipment updates and other rescue related news.