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:

  • The dog barks for its toy, either by the handler or helper teasing the dog or using a bark command.
  • The dog is restrained by the handler and watches a helper run away with the toy and hide (this is appropriately called a “runaway”). The dog is then released by the handler to find the hider.
  • The dog is restrained by the handler while watching a hider (already in place) who remains in view long enough to tease the dog with the toy before hiding in that place (a “pop-up”). The dog is then released to find the hider.
  • The dog is sent to search for a hider without seeing that person ahead of time (a “blind search”).
  • The dog is sent to search for multiple hiders in multiple locations.

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.