Search dog training

I’m training Ozzy to be an air-scenting dog, meaning that she find things by locating and following the scent of whatever she’s looking for. Dogs have great noses and can be trained to find all sorts of things, from people to explosives and from drugs to rare amphibians.

My aim at the moment is to train Ozzy to find live people. Live people are, thankfully, fairly easy to come by, so I’ve recruited several of my friends – and Natalie, my wife – to ‘hide’ from Ozzy on a regular basis. We try to fit in a ‘search’ training session at least once a week, taking advantage of the excellent countryside around where we live.

This training might sound hard work, but for Ozzy it’s all a big – and extremely fun – game. Because all she wants to do is play with her ball. In order to do that, though, she has to find the ‘missing’ person. This is why each ‘find’ is followed immediately by several minutes of vigorous ball-throwing. It’s Ozzy’s reward for a job well done.

While we’re not members of a formal search-and-rescue dog team, I take Ozzy’s training very seriously and try to work to the same high standards as these teams. I also seek advice whever possible from those who have more experience in this area than I do. And I read widely to find out how other dog trainers and handlers do things.

How training works

We started Ozzy’s training with me walking away from her to an easy hiding place and Natalie unleashing her with the ‘find’ command, so that Ozzy got the hang of running to ‘find’ me. We then moved on to me handling Ozzy and Natalie going away to ‘hide’. Over a period of weeks, we increased gradually the distance that Natalie walked away and the difficulty of the hiding place.

We then roped in other people to hide from Ozzy, so that she knew that it wasn’t just Natalie that she needed to find. Ozzy would watch the ‘assistant’ walk away until the assistant was out of sight, at which point the assistant walked a bit further and found somewhere to hide. I’d the give the ‘find’ command, unleash Ozzy and try to keep up.

We’re now at the stage where Ozzy doesn’t get to watch the assistant walk away, so I agree with the assistant the rough area in which they are going to hide and Ozzy and I then wait out sight until they are hidden. I bring Ozzy to the downwind point of the search area, give her the ‘find’ command and encourage her to follow a search pattern with me until she picks up the scent.

We’re working on areas about 50-60 metres square at the moment, which gives us a search area of about three quarters of an acre. We’ll increase this area gradually over time. And we’ll continue to practice on a variety of terrains, from open scrubland to woodland with dense undergrowth.

Other skills

As the areas that Ozzy covers become larger, she spends more of the time operating out of my sight. So while she used to wait with the assistant once she had found them, I’m now training her to come back to me once she has found the assistant and to lead me to them. This is called a ‘refind’. In fact, she’s started doing this herself anyway, which is great news.

I’m also training Ozzy to show me an ‘alert’ when she comes back to me, so that I know that she has found the assistant and that I can ask her to ‘show me’ where they are. When she wants to get my attention, Ozzy naturally woofs and plants her front paws on me, so we’re using that as the ‘alert’ behaviour. It certainly gets my attention.

I’m helping Ozzy to get used to different types of ‘working’ environment, too, so that she’s just as happy crawling though dense brush as she is racing across open fields. And it’s great fun, when we’re out running, to encourage her to clamber over fallen trees, walk along logs and splash around in streams.

As Ozzy grows, I’m also training her to increase her endurance. Running around while sniffing the air, trying to find a particular scent, is tiring for a dog. And so we go on lots of long walks, spend lots of time playing with a ball or frisbee, and go out running several times a week.

The long-term plan

Looking for live people is great fun, but for us it’s a means to an end. It’s about training Ozzy to search for a specific scent (in this case the scent of a live person), to follow a planned search grid until she’s located the scent she’s looking for, to find the source of the scent, and to guide me to that source.

What I’d like to do then is to train Ozzy to do the same thing with the scent of… well, erm… dead people. Not recently-dead people, like the police might search for. But people who have been dead for hundreds, or even thousands, of years. Which is getting into the realm of archaeology.

This isn’t as daft an idea as it sounds. Lots of dogs are trained to search for human remains. They can find people who have been buried underground, trapped under avalanches or drowned under water. And they can do so long after the person has died. It’s just that the longer a person has been dead, the less obvious the scent will be.

I’m not the first person to have this idea. There are already a (very) small number of ‘archaeology dogs’, though not – as far as I’m aware – in the UK. And they’ve been very successful in finding human remains in archaeological sites. They just need to be trained what to look for, which is the scent of very, very old human bones.

There are some tried and tested ways of training dogs to search for human remains, so the challenge for us will be obtaining the scent of remains that are sufficiently old. We’ll also need to better understand the context in which archaeologists work, so that we can actually help them in their endeavours, rather than just get in the way.

What about Molly?

Don’t worry, Molly’s not missing out. She still gets plenty of attention and comes along on all of our walks, some of our runs and most of our adventures into new terrain. She even comes along to some of Ozzy’s training sessions, where she gets to hide with the assistant on the understanding that she stays very quiet and doesn’t bark, howl or try to run to meet Ozzy. (This took a bit of practice, but she got the hang of it eventually.)

I also do regular play and training sessions with just Molly, focusing on general obedience (Molly has an excellent ‘stay’), frisbee chasing, and other things that she enjoys. And she always tags along whenever we go out and about, whether that’s hiking in the Mendip Hills, paddleboarding in South Devon or having a leisurely lunch in a country pub somewhere.

Read more > The kit we use