Before You Begin: No one will become a skilled handler by reading this article or even books. It is HIGHLY recommended that you find a local team to become a part of and train with. At some point when troubleshooting, you will need the help of a skilled and experienced handler.
PLEASE keep in mind this is a VERY brief explanation of search and rescue training methods and it is not a comprehensive training guide - it is only an overview
There are very few "local courses" available for search and rescue dog training. There are some conferences that aid with the training of a sar dog but they are usually volunteers and only help once a year. That is why getting with a local team that trains multiple times a month is key. Obedience training can be accomplished by local trainers, training classes, and kennel clubs.
Some of the expectations of a team should be monthly canine training in all sorts of weather, basic first aid training (human and dogs), map and compass, and wilderness survival.
Wilderness SAR Training
You can start a puppy on the basics of search and rescue work as early as 8 weeks old. The dog in this phase should be socialized with other dogs and acclimated to various terrain and also working on manners. Socialization is introducing the dog to various sights, sounds, and smalls in our society in such a way that a dog does not feel uncomfortable. These can include introducing puppies to slick floors, the outdoors, swimming, stairs, and play. At this stage, the handler is wanting to build confidence and drive in the puppy. It learns that noises are just that ... noises and they can not hurt you. The dog also learns that people have different smells and behaviors.
Eventually the dog will be able to do the following search and rescue chain:
searching for a missing person while staying in touch with the handler
communicating to the handler when the target scent has been located
finding the source of the scent (the missing person)
making contact with the missing person
returning to the handler (in wilderness searches)
telling the handler the missing person has been found
taking the handler back to the missing person (re-find)
Beginning Wilderness Search and Rescue Training
Step 1: The Runaway
To make the training most effective choose a time of day that is not too hot or too cold and that a slight breeze is blowing. To understand why this is encouraged please read up on canine scent theory for wilderness search and rescue.
Allow the young dog or puppy to get used to the grass, smells (especially if there are other dogs and noises).
Get the puppy's attention by walking it on lead or using the look command.
Once you have the dogs attention then quickly run a few feet ahead, turn around, and yell "here boy" in the most excited voice you can.
When you have about 50-100 feet further than the puppy then drop down out of sight behind a tree or small clump of grass. If the puppy does not come straight to you, wait a minute and see if he/she will use its nose. If the puppy seems confused then make a little noise.
Only after the puppy discovers you should you praise it. I mean lots of praise and reward it with a toy or treat if you choose to reward them with such. Avoid startling the puppy when it does find you. We want to keep this as positive as possible.
Repeat the runaway game 2-3 more times immediately. Then 2-3 times each outing with each session lastng no more than 10 minutes.
As the puppy gets more experienced then choose ground that has more cover and work him out of site more.
Step 2: The Runaway Problem
Have another trainer or participant hold your puppy. Try not to use a lead here. We do not want the dog to feel any corrections during this training phase.
The owner, just outside of reach of the puppy, uses a toy or other reward to excite the dog. The person holding the dog also excites the puppy.
The handler moves a short distance away (depending on age and drive of puppy) and the person holding the dog releases it with a verbal command to find (continually praising it).
When the dog comes to the owner, the owner rewards the dog with play and lots of praise.
Step 3: Increasing Time and Distance
At this phase is where you will start introducing other people to the game. At first, use someone the dog knows well like another family member. When you find yourself teaching something new or difficult to your dog then you can use yourself as a victim. Times to use yourself is when you change to a thicker brush or vegetation area and the dog has to traverse a steep embankment.
Use friends or family when you start with a short and easy field problem. After the dog responds to the short and quick problem then increase distance and time.
Notes: Use the same "victim" until the dog while the dog is learning and until he/she has progressed noticably. If the dog is unable to close in on the person hiding, then work the dog from a downwind position and in a semi-circle around the victim. This is where you want the dog to always succeed and end on a positive note.
You will want to do these excercises 2-3 times a session, about 3-5 times a week and practice them for 8 - 10 weeks until the dog responds positively everytime.
Step 4: Victim is Out of Sight
The dog and assistant move to a location outside where they can both watch the handler move from point A to point C and then disappear. The assistant alerts the dog with "wacth him or where is he going?". The assistant then releases the dog and gives the "find" command. If the dog has no clue at this point, then have the mastercall out or clap to get the dog's attention and point him in the right direction.
If the dog performs well, then repeat this and do not let the dog see the master hide. Repeat this 2-3 times or more if necessary.
Swap up roles and use the assistant as the victim. At first you may need to cue the dog that there is a victim out there.
Next, place the victim in the usual search area and do not let the dog see or know that you have placed someone there. Wait about 15-20 minutes then go to that area and work the problem. Work the dog downwindfro the victim and through the scent cone towards the victim. Keep these runs relatively short at about 20-30 minutes.
Next is optional. (In Kentucky our air scent dogs do not scent discriminate and are trainng to go after any human scent within a given search area. However, there are teams throughout the United States that use a scent article with wilderness air-scenting dogs.) Introduce the dog to a scent article such as a tennis shoe, shirt, hat or sock of the victim. As you give the fund command offer the scent article to the canine. If the dog accepts the article then let him sniff it about 5 seconds. If he does not seem interested you do not want to force the article on him. This is to be a positive introduction.
Step 5: Improving Search Skills
To improve search skills add variations to the search problems.
Increase and vary the canine's working time from thirty minutes to 2 hours. If your dog loses motivation then fall back to short 10 minutes searches every now and then to keep his drive up.
Increase the working area and the difficulty of the terain.
Work the dog in "contaminated areas" where people and other animals have been.
Introduce into the problem a total stranger to the dog.
Do search problems where the victim's location is unknown to you.
Start using 2 victims occassionally.
Start using a victim who has no interation with the dog and appears unconscious.
Put the victim in a tree and see how the dog's nose works. This could be similating a hanging or suicide.