What is SAR

Training SAR with Collies

It is written numerous books about SAR-training.

I have written just a fraction here, and hope that some can be inspired to train SAR.  Take contact with your local dog-club and get help starting and read some books.  It's great fun


What is a SAR dog?

It is a canine who is trained to search and find people in specifically chosen areas, based upon visual, olfactory, or auditory clues. When the dog has found the person, it can alert its handler in two different ways, either by picking up the "bringsel" hanging from his collar with his teeth and returning to the handler carrying the “bringsel” in his mouth, where as the handler will then follow the dog to the figurant, or by remaining in the immediate vicinity of the figurant and barking until the handler arrives to the figurant.

This training of search dogs is the same for either competition or rescue purposes. Even so there are several different ways to reach ones goals (as with other kind of dog work).   I have used different methods with my collies, and will mention a few of the things I have done. There are also numerous books to read that cover different methods. Something that works for one dog will not necessarily work for another, and one must find the method that works for both handler and dog, one that both are comfortable with. This is just an overview, not a comprehensive training guide. If you wish to learn more, read books or contact a dog training club nearby.

As with many other fields of activity/work, the Collie, not surprisingly, is also a fantastic search dog. It must of course have the appropriate qualities of being approachable; being able to concentrate on the job on hand, being fast, having the will to hunt (prey-drive)/social-fight, and it must be willing to work and please its handler. And of course, be inquisitive, confident and outgoing. This may be unnecessary to mention, but the dog must be well built (it has to work) as well as be in good condition and free of major health problems. Some dogs are late developers and will not play or be especially sociable while being young.  Some need extra time, where one works on the playing and socializing. Let the dog/puppy meet many different people, men and women, with and without strange clothing etc. Do not give up, but be patient.

One uses different types of rewards according to what the dog thinks is "out of this world", such as treats, throwing a ball, a pulling game/tug-of-war or anything similar. It does not matter what one uses, only that it is a treat that the dog considers to be fantastic. As a handler one must also be a bit fit, and have imagination about the training, and also patience, patience and more patience.

SAR-vest One does not need much equipment to train for search. One must have a service dog vest as well as a lead and collar. We also need a “bringsel” (if one does not want a dog that is trained to bark) as well as a long leash 5 meters long. There are also different types of “bringsels”. I have had one sewn for my collies as the usual orange one I feel I can not adjust properly to my dogs - it was either too loose or too tight.

Here are 2 examples of a bringsel this one is fixed to the collar and this is the one I have had sewn for my Collies and which I feel function best for my Collies.

And most importantly - good helpers/figurants - who are willing to work hard, so that you and your dog can progress. Without good figurants, one will get stuck. Good figurants are alpha and omega

During the search we work on an imaginary centre line along which we move, and from which the dog move out 50-60 meters on both sided where we want the dog to search. It’s like an imaginary corridor of about 100-120 meters forward in the terrain. Figurants are placed on both sides, and later in the training backpacks will be laid out and a pair of pants hung in a tree for the dog to indicate. The dogs have to indicate visible figurants and figurants who are well hidden, and objects people could have lost.

One can start with search training very early. My youngest puppy, Villemo, started when she was about 3,5 months old. Before that she took part in a puppy obedience course, and I started training her to fetch/retrieve from the day she arrived 8 weeks young. I have also worked very hard to teach her to come when called.

Do not train with a dog that has eaten. The dog must be hungry and should be well walked before training (so they have peed and pooped).

The first time Villemo was to attempt a search, the figurant gave her a lot of cuddling before going straight out. As soon as this person was about 40-50 meters away, she started going forward through the terrain while Villemo and I walked on the centre line about 20-25 meters. The figurant then sat down and I sent Villemo out. We move always forward in order to avoid a dog that uses tracks to find people (later on). We want the dogs to hold their heads high and sample the air currents. When Villemo reached the figurant, she was praised with cuddling and treats. I went towards her and praised her too, but it was up to the figurant to give the most praise. We then returned to the centre line with the figurant in front of us.

This was continued for a while; thereafter the figurant stood 30-40 meters out in the terrain before the dog came. The same procedure was then followed, Villemo and I, together with the figurant, moved forwards through the terrain, the figurant moving out at an angle so that it stayed about 50 – 60 meters out. The figurant lay down. Villemo circled me before being sent out. Plenty of praise from the figurant when she got there. I came along and praised her too, and the figurant returned with us. We use both men and women as figurants.

Another way is to let the dog watch a figurant go out on both sides.  We the  move back and walk forward after the figurants have hide themselves, and then send out the dog

In the beginning one should to have an idea as to which direction the wind is coming from. It is much easier for the dog to catch the scent of the figurant if there is an upwind.

Very early in the process the figurant lies down under a camouflage rug so that the dog has to use its nose and not its eyes to find the figurant. It is very important that the dog learns not to search by tracking along the ground or using its eyes. One does this by taking care when placing the figurants.

A method for teaching to search that is popular nowadays is to use the “L”. The handler and figurant move 15-20 meters out into the terrain, breaks off to the left/right (always moving forward through the terrain) and then walks a further 15-20 meters. The figurant and dog have cuddle session here. The handler and dog then return the same way and when back at the centre line they move 15-20 meters forwards in the terrain, just past where the figurant is lying in the terrain.   The dog is then sent out. The distance is increased quickly so the figurant is placed about 50 meters out. We do not want a dog that stays too close to the handler while working the search area, we will make sure that the dog is cover the terrain (50 – 60 meters out)

At the same time I have consequently trained her to the bringsel by having her fetch it. I throw one bringsel, and as soon as she returns I throw the other one. I also train correct delivery after retrieving

Training with the bringsel is done in the training field. A companion sits with the bringsel in his/her hand while one sends the dog out (the same way and with the same command as one uses in the woods). When the dog had taken hold of the bringsel, one move slightly forwards and calls the dog to come. The distance is later increased. One gradually works ones way into the woods in this manner until one finally has a dog that fetches the bit from a figurant in the terrain.

This video shows Villemo’s tentative attempts to fetch a bringsel in the woods:  See Here

One places the figurant with the bringsel in the woods when one has come so far that the dog can be sent out on a search without external influence and where the figurant is well hidden. One takes a step back in the training, and has a figurant who is very visual and with a bringsel that the figurant holds close to the ground so that the dog learns that it must reach down to take hold (that has we already worked with on the training field). This makes it easier for the dog to get hold of the bringsel hanging from the collar when the time comes. We make this gradually more difficult by having the figurants hide themselves well.

At the same time I progress along the centre line so that we get a dog that runs straight out, finds the figurant and has good forward action. When she has fetched the bringsel and delivered it to me, she is asked to indicate and we both run to the figurant she has found who then makes a great fuss over her. Later on in the training we attach a long line (5 meters long) before we go out on an indication.

After a while we work without a figurant. The dog is sent out, we move forwards in the terrain/on the centre line 20-25 steps, but after a few steps; we call so that the dog returns to us on the centre line. There are many methods to train a dog to search an area where we know there are no figurants.  They have to learn to run out where we say they shall search.

Once in a while one can play “hare and hound” to increase the dog’s motivation, if it begins to tire or if the terrain is difficult, etc. The figurant runs out and when he/she is 20 meters away the dog is allowed to chase, catch up and get a reward.

The training session must end on a positive note so the dog wants to continue, we must not tire it out.  Another way is that after a session is finished, a figurant is allowed to run into the woods while one takes the dog away from the terrain without letting it search for this person. The dog will then remember next time that “there are people here”.

When the dog feels secure about the bringsel, we start with the bringsel hanging from the collar (see picture)

Very often the figurant will have to help a little by tipping the bringsel into the dog’s mouth, but the dog usually learns very quickly what to do.

We must not forget that there will be many ups and down. Or how to work through these challenges. Everything can go smoothly for weeks and even months, then the dog reaches maturity and then seems to have forgotten absolutely everything

When asked to go out, the dog will look very questioningly and wonder what on earth you are doing. Its head is “empty”. This is when one must not give up, something that is much easier said than done. Take a step back in training and repeat what you did in the beginning. Or just take a break.

A dog can need weeks to get its head sorted out. But when it clears up, it really clears up. The dog has everything stored in its “harddisk”; he/she just has to elicit the information.

It takes a long time to train a good search dog, and as previously written, there will be many ups and downs. One just has to keep control of one’s nerves and not give up. And have patience, patience and even more patience.  And good helpers. Even so, this is one of the most rewarding disciplines one can participate in with a dog, and one should really try it. Here in Norway we have an organisation, NBF to contact to get in touch with people that are training search and there are 3 dog rescue organisations one can join if interested, amongst them the Norwegian Rescue Dog Organisasion (NRO).

I wish you good luck with your training if you should decide to try – you will most certainly not regret it.