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What Makes a Good Search and Rescue Dog?

The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation is on a mission. They are rescuing dogs, training them to save lives, and sending them out to work with firefighters and other emergency workers. This is the search dog pledge: no one is left behind.

Most candidates for the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation come from shelters and breed-specific rescue groups. Dogs who are adopted by the SDF are guaranteed a lifetime of care — whether or not they work out as search and rescue dogs. Dogs that don’t complete the program are placed in loving forever homes. Active search dogs that retire often live the rest of their lives with their handlers.

A search and rescue dog has certain characteristics, including:

  • High energy. A dog that may be “too energetic” for a family home may be perfect as a search and rescue dog.
  • Agility. A search and rescue dog has to be able to navigate the unsteady terrain of a disaster site — collapsed buildings, uneven ground, and more.
  • A strong sense of smell. A dog’s nose is the best tool for finding survivors in the wreckage after a disaster.
  • Fearlessness. A search and rescue dog will be working under noisy conditions. Sirens, heavy machinery, and other frightening noises are all part of a day’s work.
  • Age. Ideal search and rescue dog candidates are between the ages of ten and eighteen months. Old enough to already be well-socialized and have some basic training down; young enough to have lots of energy to dedicate to the task.
  • High prey drive. A tenacious dog who won’t give up when someone is in trouble can be a great search and rescue dog.

Some breeds tend to make good search and rescue dogs. Hunting and herding breeds are often great at rescue work! Think of Labrador and golden retrievers, German shepherds, and border collies. That doesn’t mean other breeds might not be right for the job, too.