Training the Dog

135joeHow do we do it? Our team follows a general progression of training steps, always with the final goal in mind. Since each dog and handler are different, and each team works differently together, the training plan is always modified to fit the needs of the team. The process of training the disaster search dog takes about 2 years, depending on the skill of the handler, the drive and disposition of the dog, and the amount of time the team can devote to training.

Training the Handler

sunnydirectionalsEver seen the bumper sticker that says “Caution—dog smarter than handler”? Although our dogs are independent in spirit and know their jobs well, we spend quite a bit of time working on our handler skills and knowledge. It takes a well-trained handler to manage the dog’s search and ensure that the dog is able to work in the most effective manner possible. Also, since disaster search is an inherently dangerous process, handlers must learn how to assess scene safety in order to minimize the risk to themselves and their dogs.

Photo galleries

See our dogs and people at work learning their craft! Training is rigorous and rewarding.

FEMA Certification

The Federal Emergency Management Agency currently has 28 Task Forces throughout the United States, which are ready to deploy to large-scale disasters on a moment’s notice, anywhere on US soil. A crucial part of the search operations of a Task Force is canine search, and FEMA has set up a highly competitive and stringent certification process to ensure that each of its disaster dogs is capable of excellent performance under the most demanding circumstances.

Equipment List

Both NDSD and FEMA have required individual equipment lists.

Training the Dog


A disaster search dog must be obedient to its handler’s commands, yet independent enough to search at a distance without constant reliance on the handler’s direction. Although a small amount of obedience work is done at each group training session, most of our obedience work is done independently by each handler, on their own or with a private instructor. We do not strive for AKC-type obedience, but for working dog obedience. This allows the handler to focus the dog’s drive on the job at hand and fosters good communication and trust between the handler and the dog.

FSA Sept 11, 2010 - Figure 8 -RickThe well-trained search dog should have mastered all basic obedience commands, as well as extended down-stays, emergency stop on recall, and other more advanced maneuvers, both when near the handler and when at a distance from the handler. The dog must respond to directional commands (move right, left, away from handler, toward handler) in order to be directed to search specific areas at a distance from the handler. The dog must be able to work off lead, and must also be well-mannered and able to deal with crowds at airports, public training demonstrations, and other public venues. Due to the travel distance that disaster search teams encounter, the dog must be able to travel safely and quietly on all forms of transportation, either restrained by a lead or harness or in a crate. In addition, the dog must not show aggression toward other dogs at any time.


In order to be effective and safe during search operations, a disaster search dog (and its handler!) must be agile on all types of surfaces and able to negotiate obstacles with confidence. Moving over the rubble should become second nature to the dog, so that it can concentrate on its job of searching. Extensive agility practice takes place during group training, and handlers also work at home to improve their dogs’ abilities in this area. Disaster search dogs must be able to climb a ladder to a second-story window, traverse a high walkway, negotiate a seesaw, crawl under low surfaces, walk and balance themselves on unsteady and slick surfaces, and go through dark tunnels. The dog must move slowly, stop or turn as commanded.

097ajAll of this training teaches the dog body awareness and how to work safely and confidently on the unstable surfaces and debris inherent in a disaster site. The usefulness of this type of training became very apparent to teams responding to the WTC, where our dogs were very successful in moving over narrow I-beams and through fields of rebar and twisted metal. Just another play day for them!

Search and the Bark Alert

Disaster search dogs are trained to notify their handlers to the presence of the scent of a live human by giving a “bark alert”. This means that the dog barks forcefully and continuously, and is focused directly on the strongest area of scent. The dog must continue to bark until the handler arrives to mark the alert location. This type of alert is in contrast to the normal “refind alert” of the wilderness dog, in which the dog finds the missing person, returns to the handler to alert, and then leads the handler back to the person’s location. The disaster dog bark alert keeps the dog from unnecessary travel over dangerous debris and allows the handler to pinpoint the scent source of the hidden person accurately.

barkboxEarly bark alert training is done off the rubble pile until a solid bark alert is formed, then the training moves onto the pile, where the dog works through a similar training progression in the new environment. At all times, the training should be perceived as a fun game for the dog, encouraging the dog to link the search for a hidden person with a great play reward. Although there are many small steps to teaching the bark alert from beginning to end, this is the major progression:

No matter what the training level or stage, the dog must bark for its reward, and the hider then plays extensively with the dog to encourage it to focus its attention on the hider and stay at the hider’s location until the handler arrives. As the dog progresses, the searches become more difficult, incorporating more difficult rubble, larger search areas, multiple search areas, and distractions such as food, noise, recently-worn clothing, smoke, and even other animals. The disaster search dog also learns how to search intact or partially-intact structures, which have different air movements and currents than the dog encounters on top of a rubble pile.

Photo galleries

See our dogs and people at work learning their craft! Training is rigorous and rewarding.

Training the Handler

All NDSD personnel (handlers and support) are proficient in the following areas:


Many of our personnel are also trained in search management, ham radio operations and advanced first aid and CPR. On their own time, our dog handlers attend various training seminars and courses throughout the country, in order to continuously improve their skills.

All handlers associated with FEMA’s Washington Task Force One attend 40 hours of Canine Search Specialist Training with their dogs, including mission preparedness, search operations, canine first aid, scent theory and dog training/behavior theory. Task Force handlers also complete a 40-hour course on rescue techniques and operations, and pass a Task Force fitness evaluation that includes various tests of strength and agility.

dickaframeAlong with training our dogs, we are constantly training and challenging each other during our group sessions. Whether setting up a search problem that challenges the handler to think “outside the box”, working together to set up a rope and harness system to raise a dog to a third-story window, or helping to overcome a dog’s fear of heights, experienced handlers and support personnel mentor and guide newer handlers through the ups and downs of learning to work their dogs in a safe and effective manner for disaster search.

FEMA Certification

rosietarptubeIn order to assure that disaster search dog teams deployed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency are highly qualified to perform their job, FEMA has established two levels of evaluation and certification. All FEMA-certified dogs are required to retest every two years to maintain their certification level and deployability status.

rickycrawlAt NDSD, one of our primary tasks is to certify our dogs at the basic and advanced levels, in order to provide qualified dog teams for FEMA Washington Task Force One (and also to be assured that our dogs are highly capable in case of local deployment with our county and state emergency management agencies). Although our handlers are not required to join the Task Force after certification, almost all choose to do so. As members of the Task Force, dog teams are deployable to any disaster incident on US soil.

The evaluation for the Fundamental Skills Assessment (FSA) consists of:

The evaluation for the Certification Evaluation (CE) consists of:


For more information on FEMA’s evaluation process, go to:

Equipment List

Equipment for Training and Local Deployment

Each handler in NDSD purchases their own equipment for training and deployment, except for radios and other group training gear.

Required Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for training on rubble:

Additional recommended gear for rubble training:

Recommended canine equipment for all training sessions:

For local deployment, canine handlers bring all of the above gear, plus items such as the following:

Equipment for FEMA Deployment

For deployment with FEMA, handlers must pack a much more extensive kit, with most items purchased by the individual handlers, and some equipment/clothing provided by the task force. For more information, click here.

>>> Get the FEMA Equipment List (PDF document)

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