Picking the Right Dog for the Job
Essay Preview: Picking the Right Dog for the Job
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“It has always been my belief that a man should do his best, regardless of how much he receives for his services, or the number of people he may be serving or the class of the people served.” – Napoleon Hill
Ask any SAR Dog handler and I think they will agree that we as handlers have an obligation to field a dog that is properly trained and that can do the job required. There many great dogs in SAR, but unfortunately there are also a large number of “SAR Dogs” that simply cannot do the job.
When I started my career as a canine handler I had a couple of mixed breed pet dogs. Even in my ignorant state I realized that the Vizsla mix that ran after the birds instead of the humans was not going to work. The other dog, a little flat coated retriever mix, seemed to show some promise – she was a little skittish, but no one said anything so hey I had myself a search dog. Much to my dismay today I was one of the ignorant, but well meaning. I was fortunate that at a weekend training seminar an experienced handler took one look at my “SAR” dog and said “this dog would not be in our program”. Once I got over the shock I of course wanted to know why?
Just what are the characteristics of a good SAR dog? First the dog needs to be healthy and of an appropriate size to do the job. Very small and giant breeds are generally not suitable for SAR work due to the athletic ability needed to navigate environments encountered in the field. Beyond the physical traits they need the nerve strength and confidence to work in a variety of environments and the obsessive focus on the toy or reward. So how do we determine if the dog has what it takes?
Five months after the incident referenced above I had a yellow lab puppy and soon began to see the difference having the right dog makes. Although I picked out my puppy he was tested by two other handlers on two days using the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test. Details can be found at www.volhard.com. A similar test the PAWS Working Dog Evaluation can be found at
We all want this (insert picture 1) to turn into this (insert picture 2), but puppy testing is not foolproof and when you start a puppy there is always a risk that the dog will not mature into a suitable SAR dog. Perhaps our mistake is relying on one or two tests. In her book Understanding Puppy Testing, Suzanne Clothier states that Dr. Ian Dunbar recommends five tests with each test given by a different evaluator in a different location.
The yellow lab puppy mentioned above matured into a good area search dog, but was injured at a search so I decided to start another puppy. I used the same method of selection, but made the huge mistake of doing the selection in one test that I did