Teaching a dog to search is not particularly difficult if you’ve chosen the right dog for the job. Teaching the dog to tell you when he’s found something can be a bit trickier. Search and rescue dogs, really any type of working detection dog including explosives detection dogs and narcotics dogs, need to let their handlers know when they’ve located target odor in a precise and consistent manner, ensuring that the “find” is not bypassed even if the dog is out of the handler’s line of sight at the time of the indication, the source of the odor is too small to be easily seen, such as single tooth in the case of a human remains detection dog, or the victim is not visible for the handler to see, such as a person trapped beneath debris in a collapsed building. This is called their trained indication.
Trained indications fall into three general categories: passive alerts, aggressive alerts, and the refind.
Search and rescue dogs used for human remains detection, narcotics dogs and explosives detection dogs are often taught the passive alert, meaning when the dog has located the target odor (drugs, bombs, or human decomposition), the dog sits or downs as close to the source of the odor as he can get. The dog waits quietly at that location until released by the handler and rewarded. The passive alert is important when the source of the target odor could be dangerous to the dog or the handler. No one wants their canine to paw at (and possibly inhale) a powdered drug or dig at a bomb.
Aggressive alerts are useful when the dog may not be in the handler’s sight at the time of the find, such as with a wilderness search and rescue dog working a wooded area or an urban search and rescue dog in a partially collapsed building. Barking is the most common aggressive alerts, but some dogs, such as avalanche dogs, may also dig or scratch at the source of the odor.
Refind dogs find the target odor, but unlike passive alert dogs and aggressive alert dogs, they are trained to leave the source of the odor, return to the handler and give some indication of a”find” (usually by jumping on the handler or barking), and then lead the handler back to the source of the odor. Search and rescue dogs that range far from the handler-so far that even a bark alert might not be heard-are often taught the refind.
Search and rescue dog handlers should give careful consideration in choosing which trained indication to teach. The first question to ask is, “Is the source of the target odor dangerous to me or my dog?” If the answer is yes, a passive alert may be in order. Next, consider the environment the dog will be working in. If the dog will often be out of the handler’s sight, a bark alert or refind may be the prudent choice. Finally, consider the dog’s natural inclination. Many dogs do not like to bark at a stranger, especially one sitting or lying down. For these dogs, a refind may be the most natural, and easiest to train, indication.
Above all, may sure that the dog’s trained indication is rock solid before moving to large, complex search problems. Once an indication problem has been created in a dog, it can be tough to fix, and nearly impossible to fix when combined with the search aspect.