Read the SDF Canine Candidate Evaluation Process in full
Characteristics of a Search Dog Candidate
It takes a very special dog to meet the demands of the SDF training program, and to eventually join the ranks of the nation’s top search dogs. These characteristics are essential:
Bold, energetic, athletic!
We are looking for intensity, focus and perseverance. A dog that not only wants to work, but needs to work! These dogs are usually very challenging in a family home.
Extreme toy drive!
We need dogs with an obsessive, visceral response to a toy, and an insatiable desire to chase, hunt and possess it!
Well-socialized, confident and personable
Our dogs approach strangers (human or canine) with a neutral or curious, yet agreeable attitude. They cannot be aggressive or fearful. On the job, they encounter many distractions while they search for survivors: other people, animals, food, trash, and loud noises. And through it all, they remain intensely focused on the job at hand.
A Disaster Search Dog must be athletic and show no hesitation hunting on unstable surfaces. Disaster sites will contain extremely challenging footing and the dog must be agile and confident to do the job. This skill is genetic not taught. We find the best way to test a dog’s innate comfort level is to have them hunt for their toy on either concrete rubble or wood piles.
Can ignore loud or sudden noises
A dog that is able to ignore all other noises at a search site and focus on the search is a must. Sirens will be blaring, large machinery such as bulldozers will be operating, and other rescue operations will be going on at the same time that the dog will be searching. A Search Dog must be confident enough to remain on task!
Loves to search!
SDF is looking for canines that will continue to hunt for the toy that has been hidden for them—regardless of whether they find it! During our evaluation, we will test the potential canine candidate by tossing a toy several times into tall debris, and waiting to see if they maintain focus and the desire to find it for a minimum of one minute. This will help us to determine the strength of the dog’s drive and give us an idea if they would be successful in this line of work.
We usually find the traits we’re looking for in the hunting and herding breeds. These include Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Border Collies. A mix of these breeds is just fine too!
The dog must have strong endurance and the capacity to withstand temperature extremes.
Hip and elbow x-rays, which we pay for, are required to verify they are strong and sound, able to work confidently and without injury on uneven surfaces over time.
From Pup to Certification…
A dog must be at least one year of age before it is determined whether they will have the necessary traits to be a Disaster Search Dog. Puppies may display some of these traits, but not consistently, and there is just no way to determine how strong these drives will be when they are mature. Our screening program is geared towards a dog between one and two years of age. Upon passing our screening, the dogs complete approximately nine months of training at SDF’s National Training Center in Santa Paula, CA. Next, it’s time to be paired with their new handlers during our two-week Handler’s Course. Then, after a period of months of bonding and training with their handler under our direct supervision, they are ready for certification testing. Once a team is certified, they still must continually train to maintain the focus, fitness and skills necessary to be a Disaster Search Dog Team.
For a survivor buried under rubble, a Search Dog’s nose and training is their best chance of staying alive. We find that identifying canines with the characteristics listed above gives SDF the greatest chance of recruiting a dog that will graduate from our training program, and gain the advanced skills needed for the most challenging search and rescue operations. When disaster strikes, these dogs—and their highly skilled human partners—will be ready to respond immediately, and make sure everything possible is done to save lives.