Search and Rescue

by Chris Peyton


I am writing this to show another side to the Black & Tan Coonhound. Not only is he an excellent hunter and loyal pet but I hope to show that he also can be an excellent SAR dog. I am the owner of a 17-month-old male Black & Tan called Boomer. We have been training for SAR (search and rescue) since he was about ten months. It starts with small puppy games and progresses tremendously from there. Many people along the way tried to discourage me from attempting this. They felt that only a German Shepherd or a Labrador would be sensible for this type of work. I had a different opinion, and I believe I was right. The Black & Tan has all the skills needed to be an excellent SAR dog. He is agile, has great stamina, excellent scenting ability, and is a perfect size for disaster work. Disaster is the area in which we are specializing.

There are basically two categories of SAR dogs; disaster and wilderness. The wilderness dog is used in remote areas to air scent his way to a lost victim, then he generally returns to the handler and refinds the victim. A disaster K-9 is trained to locate victims that may have been buried when a structure collapses upon them, such as an earthquake, tornado, or terrorist act. The disaster K-9 maneuvers over the delicate surface created by the collapsed or imploded structure seeking out the strongest source of live human scent. When he finds this source he is trained to give a bark alert. He should continue to bark until his handler can make his way to the point where the alert was made. The point is then marked and extrication can begin to access the victim. Getting to this stage in a dogs career can take a few years to perfect.

Exiting from a rubble pile after training.

Boomer has excellent drive and is always eager to learn. His attention span is much better than when he was a young puppy. He still has moments when he becomes distracted, but that should improve with time. He is very loving towards all people, especially children. He enjoys finding people in our training sessions, because he knows that he gets to play with someone in the end. That is how we motivate him to search. In the early stages of training he meets the victim and plays with the victim until he is very excited, at that point the victim runs away and hides while Boomer watches. When the victim has hidden himself, Boomer is given his search command and released from the leash. The victim has most likely lay down in some brush, or darted behind a tree. Simple finds at first, gradually moving farther away and hiding in a more difficult spot. The victims will also be buried in debris to simulate the situation found in a collapsed structure. Upon finding the victim, who will remain passive, Boomer will bark for about 30 seconds and then the victim will reward him with lots of praise and a nibble of hot dog. Some dogs will do the same thing for a favorite toy, however Boomer has never really fallen in love with any toy for very long. He does love hot dogs though. But mostly he works to find the victim because he loves people. Eventually the hot dogs will be completely phased out. In a real disaster his reward will come from me after the search is completed.
We have also introduced him to cadaver. By cadaver I am referring to the smell of a deceased victim. There are dogs that are trained to specifically seek out cadaver only. I feel that it is important that all SAR dogs be exposed to the smell of cadaver early on in their training. Unfortunately, a large percentage of searches become body recovery exercises after a period of time has passed. We as handlers need to know how our dogs will handle the smell of death. Some dogs will alert on it as if it were a live find, others will ignore it, and still others will become very depressed and show repulsion towards it. In mass casualty incidents where the dogs may search for several days without a live find they may start to shut down. By this I mean they will become withdrawn and not want to work. To resolve this, live victims can be hidden just as they were in training to allow the dogs to make a live find.
I hope this has given everyone a new appreciation for the many talents of the Black & Tan Coonhound. He is much more than just a hunter, he has the ability to save lives and provide closure for families who have lost loved ones in a disaster.

Training on a Barkbox
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Page updated 01 December 1999