Rescue Dogs' Work a Serious "Game"

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
August 15, 2002

Search and rescue is a difficult job. It demands skilled, highly dedicated individuals who are ready to spring into action at the first word of an avalanche, missing hiker, or devastating earthquake.

Many of these heroes are volunteers, who receive no compensation for their efforts. Others work for food, and the chance of a playful tug-of-war after a successful operation.

They're search-and-rescue dogs—working canines from a wide mix of breeds. Their missions are as diverse as the animals themselves.

They've tracked missing hikers in Yosemite, aided rescue workers at the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, and searched the pile of rubble at Ground Zero in New York, where the World Trade Center towers collapsed last fall after a terrorist attack.

Training dogs for such missions is a lengthy, difficult, and costly process. It generally takes one and a half to two years for a dog and its handler to become "mission ready."

The end result is worth it: These dogs help save lives.

Search as a Game

Rescue dogs are trained in a variety of behaviors. Trailing dogs, like traditional "tracking" dogs, follow the path a missing person has taken. Other dogs seek out human scent in a specific area. Some have even worked from boats helping to locate human remains underwater.

The dogs are trained to view the search as a game, complete with suitable rewards. The game is a challenging one. "In human detection," said trainer and handler Bev Peabody, "we sometimes train them on as little as one tooth."

Peabody is a founding member of the California Rescue Dog Association, Inc. The all-volunteer organization is the nation's largest search-dog group. Positive reinforcement, Peabody said, is key to keeping the dogs enthusiastic about searching.

"Usually after we have a search where they are not successful, the next time we have training their problem might only be ten minutes," she said. "Then we celebrate, and praise them, and that really jazzes them back up."

This training technique also is employed in the field. If a dog spends an entire day searching but has been unsuccessful, the handler might "hide" someone and enable the dog to track that person within minutes, thereby allowing the dog to end the day with a successful find and the rewards that come with it.

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