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Search and Rescue Dogs: Everyday Heroes

Dogs have been our companions for thousands of years. For hundreds of years, they have been even more than that. We have long taken advantage of the keen senses of smell, the willingness to work for us, and the loyalty of dogs to help us when we get lost. Dogs love to work and are willing to do it for a gift or a toy, or even just a pat on the head. Without dogs, countless people would have lost their lives over the years.

Where are search and rescue dogs used?
Search and rescue can occur in a variety of places and in various situations. We probably all think of a Saint Bernard with a barrel of brandy pulling a skier out of an avalanche when we think of rescue dogs. Certainly that was the original role of the Saint Bernard in Switzerland, but today the use of dogs in rescue has expanded enormously. Search and rescue dogs are used by police forces and volunteer organizations to find missing children, people buried in an avalanche, people in collapsed buildings, and even people who are drowning or lost at sea. These dogs can find people simply by their scent and inform their caretakers where the missing person is.

How are they chosen?
Search and rescue dogs are selected in a variety of ways. Many law enforcement agencies purchase puppies that are carefully selected from breeders. However, many search and rescue teams are made up of volunteers. In this case, the owner may not have selected his dog for search and rescue, but found that he was particularly suited to the job and wanted to help. Some keepers may search for their perfect working dog at a shelter. Although many professionals prefer purebred puppies, rescued dogs can be excellent co-workers.

How are they trained?
Dogs that have the ability to work in search and rescue must go through very rigorous training. The work is hard and demanding and cannot be done on a whim. The basic job of a search and rescue dog is pretty simple: find the human scent and alert your handler. Training the dog to do this, as well as to traverse some fairly difficult terrain, takes time and effort. It takes around 600 hours of training to set up a dog camp.
The training begins with finding humans in very easy situations. When the dog finds a person and alerts his handler, barking for example, he receives a reward to encourage him to do it again. The reward depends on the dog. Some are motivated by candy, others by a tennis ball or some sweetie. Dogs live with their caretakers and develop a bond and a mutual sense of loyalty and respect.

What about retirement?
Search and rescue dogs are tough cookies, but even they can’t work forever. Retirement becomes inevitable when a dog is too old to do the job right. This usually occurs around eight to ten years of age. At this point, the dog is no longer physically capable of rigorous search and rescue work. There are also emotional problems. Search and rescue work is emotionally stressful and dogs are not immune to this. Not only do you need to retire at a certain age, you deserve it.

In many cases, the retired dog’s keeper will keep him at home for the rest of his life. There you can live your days in comfortable retirement. If for some reason the handler cannot stay with your dog, there are organizations that help you find a great new home for your working dog.

With any hope, you will never find yourself in the position of needing a search and rescue dog to search for you. However, if you must have been lost, buried, or in a dangerous situation, knowing that the dog that will stop at nothing to come find you should give you great comfort.

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