How to Choose a Puppy for Search and Rescue

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It’s easier to start with a puppy than an adult dog. (Photo: hxdbzxy)

First, why a puppy? Or, in other words, must you start with a puppy? Can you use an older dog instead?

Well, of course there are examples of adult dogs being successfully trained in search and rescue work. You do need to keep in mind the following:

  • It can take two or three years to fully train a dog. If the dog was three years old when you started, it will not be ready for work until it’s at least five years old — and then it will be ready to retire only a few years later, depending on its breed, health and the demands made of it.
  • Certain types of socialization are very important for the SAR dog, and it’s easier to ensure that a puppy gets this socialization. Such a dog must be completely reliable around people, and it must be curious, inclined to investigate and be utterly self confident. Many ways that dogs are “typically” raised (Stop sniffing! Stop pulling on the leash!) typically inhibit a dog’s curiosity.

For the purposes of this discussion, though, we will assume you’ve decided to look for a puppy for your search and rescue work.

Should I Consider a Purebred or a Mixed Breed?

I have seen many dogs of all description do excellent work in search and rescue. This includes most of the retrieving and working breeds, and mixes of these breeds. The common factors seem to include approximate size (medium, from 50 to 90 pounds) and athletic ability.

A purebred is probably more predictably talented and it’s easier to find one that will conform to your personal preferences on size, color, coat, depending on how important that is to you.

Most important, a purebred is more likely to have a properly documented familial history, whereas a mixed breed usually does not. This is important when trying to find a sound, healthy dog. This is in my opinion the only serious caveat to using a mixed breed; otherwise I see no definite advantage to going for one or the other.

What Are Some Other Things I Should Consider?

You may have coat requirements — long and thick in colder climates, short and smooth to avoid tangles and burs in high country, waterproof in rainy places. You might want a light colored dog to withstand warm temperatures, or a darker, more strikingly colored dog that is easy to see.

You might be interested in trailing, in which case nose and dedication to the trail are important. Or you might want to do area search in which case you need a dog responsive to your direction. You might be doing felony work where a larger more powerful and protective type of dog would be best. Or you might be involved in finding lost hikers and children where a dog less imposing in appearance is better.

Wide-ranging searches require endurance and focus; work on rough ground requires agility. You might want a male or a female. A smaller dog that is more easily handled in tight areas or on a boat; you might want a larger dog that can run all day.

You may have a personal preference for certain breeds; it’s important to consider this, as your relationship with the dog will be one of the crucial linchpins in making up a successful SAR team. Make a check list for yourself and sort the traits out in order of importance.

Nature vs. Nurture

There is always an ongoing debate over the necessity of early training for a SAR dog versus the innate talent the dog has.

My position is that while the early training is vital, you might as well stack the deck in your favor from the nature side as well.


The absolute first thing to look at is health. If the puppy is not sound or healthy, you will have nothing to work with no matter how talented the puppy is.

This means that the puppy’s parents should be screened for all the health problems of the breed, at minimum. It means you should take the time to learn about the structure and gait of dogs to understand what goes into a skeletal structure that can take the physical demands you will make on it.

What exactly is a problem in the breed you select depends on the breed. You need to do your homework and find out what the problems are in the breed. All breeds have some problems, some of them specific to the breed and others possible with any dog. Mixed breeds are not exempt — in fact if they are primarily of two breeds, they have the potential of inheriting both breeds’ set of problems!

As an example, for Labradors (and retrievers in general), you need to make sure the parents have been checked for:

  • Both hip and elbow dysplasia — hips and elbows should be X-rayed and cleared by OFA.
  • PRA and retinal dysplasia. The breeder should be screening all breeding stock annually for eye problems, including older dogs no longer being bred; some problems surface later in life.
  • Epilepsy, allergies, thyroid function. Not as common in Labradors, but conscientious breeders keep an eye out for these problems cropping up in their lines.

Golden Retrievers should be cleared for subaortic stenosis (SAS), which is a heart defect that tends to suddenly kill young (2-3 years old) dogs.

Other breeds have other factors to consider, such as von Willebrand’s Disease (a blood clotting disorder), luxating patellas (the kneecaps slip out of place), or cancer. Reputable breeders screen for these type of problems.

Picking Out the Breeder

There are other, less tangible, things to look for when picking out a breeder besides basic health checks.

Why are they breeding? Do their goals coincide with yours? If the breeder is as concerned with their dogs’ working ability as in other areas, that is better for your goals than a purely show-oriented breeder. Does the breeder place a high importance on correct and predictable temperament in their dogs? You need a dog that is stable, confident and reliable. Temperament seems to be inherited and learned in about equal parts, so look at the parents of the puppy and other close relatives. Do you like their temperament? Is it what you want to see in your puppy?

References — ask the breeder for references and look them up. Talk to other people who have this breeder’s dogs. Are they happy with them? Especially if the breeder has placed other dogs in search and rescue or working homes, talk to these people and find out what they think of their dog and the breeder.

You need a dog with a good working nose, but you also need a dog that is willing to keep trying.

Abilities Needed for Search and Rescue Work

You need a dog with a good working nose, obviously. You also need a dog that is willing to keep trying. You want a dog that does not give up easily. You want a dog that is confident and outgoing.

These are all working abilities, and it’s the same attitude you see in good hunting dogs, herding dogs, and other working dogs. You need energy — not hyperactivity, which is when the dog can’t focus for long on anything and exercise fails to calm it down. You need a dog that is eager and happy and quick to work but that can remain focused at the same time.

I find one of the most important predictors of working ability is the dog’s ability to focus. A dog that is easily distracted (and I’m not talking about puppy distraction), will not stick with the job. The dog must be able to maintain intense interest in what it is doing. Unfortunately, because a young puppy develops focus as it grows up, it’s a little hard to predict this trait.

Picking Out the Puppy

Now that you’ve screened the breeder down to one that shares your philosophy on dogs and that you think works with your goals, you have to actually pick that puppy out of the litter.

You should listen to what the breeder has to say about each pup. The breeder has been observing them for the last several weeks and can give you a good summary of each pup’s personality and temperament.

You should also examine each pup’s structure to eliminate any obvious structural problems — stick with dogs that have clean straight legs, and are properly angulated for their breed.

Puppy aptitude tests are quite popular. I think it’s important to understand how they work and what their limitations are before using them. They attempt to evaluate specific traits that a puppy may have. There are no “passes” or “fails.” Different breeds will profile differently, e.g., feisty independent little terriers versus cuddly lapdogs versus playful retrievers.

The tests consist of a series of events in which you note the reaction of the puppy to the event. Different types of responses will depend on the confidence, aggressiveness, or independence that a puppy has (or does not have). The age of the puppy at testing time is also important, and available evidence suggests the “right” time differs somewhat by breed and individual development.

In general, testing the puppy sometime between 7 and 9 weeks is appropriate. Finally, the puppy should be evaluated by a stranger, so that learned responses (“this person feeds me”) does not affect the test. They should also be tested in an area new to them.

Here’s an up-close look at Labrador Retriever puppy search and rescue training:

Social attraction: The evaluator kneels down and calls the puppy. The puppy can:

  • Run toward the tester, jumping up and biting or barking at him
  • Run toward the tester and lick their hands
  • Look at the tester and bark at them
  • Come toward the tester but hesitantly
  • Come slowly with tail down
  • Look away from the person
  • Ignore the person

Following: The evaluator stands up and walks away from the puppy. The puppy can:

  • Run along with the tester, getting underfoot, biting at the ankles
  • Run along with the tester, getting underfoot
  • Follow along at a cautious distance
  • Remain standing (may show varying signs of indifference or fear)
  • Ignore the person

Restraint: The puppy is rolled over on his back and a hand on his chest prevents movement. After thirty seconds the pup can be:

  • Squirming and barking and or nipping
  • Squirming and licking hands
  • Settling down
  • Not moving at all from the onset (may or may not show signs of fear)

Social dominance: This must follow the restraint test. The evaluator sits next to the puppy and strokes it from the head to the tail. The pup can:

  • Wiggle closer and lick the tester’s face
  • Wag its tail and accept the petting
  • Appear sulky
  • Squirm away

Elevation dominance: The evaluator interlaces his fingers under the pup’s belly and lifts the pup off an inch or so from the floor. The pup can:

  • Squirm and bark and/or try to bite the tester’s fingers
  • Squirm, and continue squirming
  • Squirm and then settle down
  • Remain relaxed
  • Show signs of distress

Retrieving: The evaluator tosses crumpled paper or a small toy and encourages the puppy to get it and then bring it back. The pup can:

  • Race after the toy and jump on it, pick it up and shake it
  • Pounce on the toy and bring it back (or nearer to the tester)
  • Jump on the toy and run around the area with it
  • Ignore the toy, or jump back from it

Sound sensitivity: The tester makes a sudden loud noise (such as a spoon on a metal pan). The pup can:

  • React to the sound and bark at it
  • React to the sound and come over to investigate it
  • Be fearful or upset at the sound
  • Ignore the sound

Sight sensitivity: The evaluator ties a string around a towel and drags it on the floor in front of the puppy. The pup can:

  • Watch the towel and bark at it
  • Run up to the towel and bite at it or jump on it
  • Watch the towel with interest
  • Look at the towel but loose interest
  • Be upset at the sight of the towel and refuse to investigate
  • Ignore the towel

In general, what you are looking for are responses that indicate interest and confidence in the puppy. So responses in which the puppy approaches new or interesting things are what you are looking for. I feel that the sight sensitivity test is one of the better ones at showing focus and interest. A pup that enjoys that towel is interested in his surroundings and comes out to investigate.

The retrieving test is good too, but non-retrieving breeds may or may not do well on this test regardless of their suitability for the work.

The Restraint/Social dominance sequence is supposed to tell you whether the puppy is inclined to hold grudges. A sulky puppy can be more difficult to train, especially if you make mistakes or lose your temper. Most people find it easier to work with dogs that forgive you readily.

There is another test often included in this sequence called the Touch sensitivity. It involves pinching (gently then with increasing firmness) until the pup squirms. The longer it takes to reach this point the less sensitive the dog is. This trait is very breed specific and I’m not sure it really tells you all that much.

Supposedly dogs with a high tolerance to pain are “harder” — that is, they react less to physical corrections, etc. Since this type of correction is not used in SAR training, which is highly motivational in nature, it strikes me as somewhat irrelevant.

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