Choosing and Raising a Puppy for Search and Rescue

By Jan Harkner-Abbs

Raising a puppy for any sport or service work is a very difficult task, yet at the same time it is extremely rewarding if you are able to get to your dog’s first title or certification. It takes a great deal of patience, training skill and dedication to get through the first two years. To assist you in starting with a pup, this article will touch on a few main points of choosing and raising a puppy for search and rescue work.

Puppy vs. Adult

Because of the gamble a dog owner may take when purchasing a dog, a decision will need to be made whether to purchase a young pup who has a chance of developing problems or an adult dog that has been proven in health and temperament. There are pros and cons to both. When raising a puppy, the pros are that you know what that particular puppy has experienced and you will have completed all of the training the way you prefer it to be. You won’t have to figure out what the dog has learned while in another’s care or possibly correct previous poor training. The bond created is very strong, and it’s a great feeling to watch the puppy grow and learn from you specifically. Raising a pup can be fun, but will it turn out with good health? This is the greatest worry. Will you place a couple of years of training on the dog only to find out at two years, the dog is dysplastic or has some other health problem?

Purchasing an adult dog can eliminate the worry of health problems. An older dog is also set with its temperament, and you will better be able to evaluate the animal to know if it will match not only your personality but also will match the needs of search and rescue. The greatest negative aspect is the unknown of the subtle experiences when the dog was not in your care. This could leave you with training problems that may take longer to solve. If you’ve never raised a puppy before and this is your first training experience, a dog between one or two years of age may be the right choice for you.

Know what you’re getting

I can’t say enough about researching the lines when you are purchasing a puppy. Puppies purchased without being researched lead to heartbreak. This doesn’t mean that a pup from a seemingly good line will not turn out to be a poor prospect also, but the more you know, the less chance you’ll have of running into problems later. If possible, try to observe and meet the parents of the litter you’re observing. Are the parents stable? No matter how well you are able to train a dog in search and rescue, if the dog doesn’t have the stability to handle a variety of situations, it will never be able to be used as a SAR dog. Generally, dogs with schutzhund and/or search and rescue background have a good chance of working out for you. Try to stay with proven working lines and breeders who have certified or titled their dogs. What do the parents look like? Search and rescue is not conducive to extremely large dogs. Are the parents and other dogs observed from the line structurally sound? Were you able to check out prior litters to research health, temperament and size? How does the mother respond to you? Is she easily approachable, sociable? You need to have a puppy that is driven for people. Since they spend so much time with the mother, they will share many of her behavioral traits. Be sure these match up with what is needed in SAR.


Search and rescue is very demanding of the dog physically. Having a structurally sound dog is very important in keeping stress levels low in an already stressful situation. It also destroys the dog’s ability to endure long searches. There are many opinions on being able to achieve both solid working ability and structure. Since we are performing a service, our priority should be on all of these points. The drive and temperament the dog has for working has to be very strong. We look at the structure and get the best possible. You need to draw the line in this area also. You can accept minor faults but keep your standards as high as possible. Your main concern here should be whether the dog would hold up to the physical demands of the work. There are structurally sound dogs with very good drives out there. In this type of work you can’t have one without the other. It may not be the best there is but it has to at least be at an average to above-average level. The strength in drive, temperament, health and structure must be there. You can’t create it and will experience much frustration and disappointment trying.


Temperament is critical in SAR work. The puppy must grow up to be very sound in temperament. The puppy will need to be confident, outgoing and inquisitive and must have a drive for people. If you have a dog that continuously avoids people and various situations, this is not the dog for search and rescue. Puppies go through various psychological stages and may exhibit minor avoidance behaviors at times. What the potential owner needs to observe is that the pup recovers quickly to unpleasant experiences and goes on to play and reinvestigate. If the pup doesn’t recover and remains visibly upset, chances are that it will have a difficult time accepting unpredictable situations in SAR. Be sure you give the puppy time to develop, and socialize it well. If the temperament is in question, take the pup for an evaluation to an experienced SAR person who has raised puppies through training. Also take the time to learn the psychological stages of development in order to understand the puppy. Part of purchasing the puppy is giving it time to grow up. It’s the chance we take. Many handlers get rid of the pup before really allowing it to mature. This can be as much of a mistake as choosing a poor prospect to begin with.


Take the time to socialize your puppy. This builds confidence in many situations and allows the puppy to be a puppy. Many handlers are in a great hurry to get the puppy working before they have taken the time to give the puppy what is needed most-social skills. Take your puppy with you wherever you are able. Allow the puppy to experience children, adults, situations and objects. Your puppy can experience other animals but be very cautious of this as he can be injured or killed easily. Never trust the person who tells you that their dog is great with puppies. These are the first to tear into your puppy and create a problem. Experience older dogs from a distance. Be on guard but don’t be nervous as your puppy will sense this and also become nervous in the situation. The puppy should have fun without great expectations. He should remember the experience as being joyful and safe. Public etiquette is essential on the part of the handler. Be sure your dog is clean and well groomed. Don’t place yourself or your puppy into a situation that is inappropriate. Going into inappropriate situations can be devastating for the puppy as well. Think before you act. Inappropriate situations serve to only make SAR dogs and handlers look bad in general. Many have worked hard to gain public access, and we don’t want this access destroyed.

Drive building

Now that you have your puppy and have built a strong bond with it, it’s time to begin building drive for the work. It is important that your focus be on drive building rather than obedience. Once you have a strong foundation in drive work, you can then begin obedience. Just as in the schutzhund work, we want to build the various drives and teach the dog that he can work independently and with confidence. If we begin with too much obedience, the dog remains focused on the handler and later has difficulty working independently. This occurs because he has waited for the handler to tell him what to do in every situation and corrected him for being independent. In SAR work, as in protection work in schutzhund, the dog must be able to initiate his own drive and work for himself. SAR handlers are not always in the picture to give the dog direction, and many of the dogs are usually worked off leash. If the dog has too much obedience too early, the dog will have difficulty keeping the majority of the focus on the victim. He will worry about where his handler is and whether or not he is getting to far away. When the worry begins, the drives decrease, and he could easily miss or leave a victim. Your goal is to build the drives as strong as possible and teach the dog that he can work independently with your trust and confidence.


New handlers often confuse the terms, obedience and manners. Manners are needed in young puppies; obedience is needed in the mature working dog. What is the difference? Manners allow the handler to live comfortably with the dog. Obedience allows the handler to specifically control the dog using a variety of skills in any given situation. Here are some comparisons. Walking on a loose leash without being dragged in every direction is having manners. Heeling with good attention is obedience. Having the puppy stand to be petted without jumping up and face biting or chasing long hair is manners. Having the dog complete an off-leash stand exercise with multiple distractions is obedience. Expecting the leashed puppy to relax on the floor near you while you sit on the sofa is manners. Expecting the dog complete an out of sight down-stay in another room is obedience. Being able to comfortably keep your dog with you off the working field is as important as presenting a good picture on the working field.

Puppies need to have expectations of manners when they are young. Expecting manners will not damage a well-bred puppy. You will not destroy the drive for the work. What manners will do is help the puppy to channel his drives into correct behaviors. He will learn to think and control behaviors rather than become a hyperactive, non-thinking animal. Manners must be taught. Don’t turn your puppy loose and expect him to learn this on his own. You must help him understand what is expected. If you can’t supervise your puppy, use the crate or place him in a safe situation with something appropriate to do. Remember that he is a puppy. Develop manners while at the same time leaving the drive and spirit.


Obedience again is started after the puppy is showing good drive in simple search work for the handler. The use of a combination of motivational work and correction works well. The puppies are taught using motivation and high drive. Later on, correction can be used on the mature dog as needed. Food works well in teaching phase, and if done correctly, not much use of correction is needed later on. The dogs are so motivated to work that it’s difficult to hold them back. Keep your sessions short and focused. Have a definite plan. Then when you do go out to work, get it done swiftly, in high drive and get off the training field. Never let your dog go down in drive during a training session on the field. Obedience needed by most search dogs includes sit, down, recall and drop on recall. They also use a go out (voraus) and drop on go out for safety, directional work, heeling, and a “leave it” command. Obedience will depend on the type of search work you are doing. You may need more or less.

Training Obsession

Understandably, new handlers with their first dog are excited about training and want to train constantly. They want everything perfect and want everything done before the dog is a year old. Try not to worry yourselves to death over whether you are ruining your dog or not. A good dog can recover from mistakes, and with your first dog in search and rescue, accept that you will make mistakes! We all do.

It is exciting to have your dog mission ready, but you must realize that you have two basic choices. The first is that you can push the dog to extremes to finish him at a very young age. The consequence is a burned-out animal that will be working for only a few years. Pushing the dog too fast does nothing more than burn him out, and you find yourself starting over again with a pup much sooner. The second choice is taking your time with your puppy to produce a solid foundation while allowing the pup to mature. This will give you a dog that will be your partner for many years to come.

As a schoolteacher, I witness this frequently. Parents are always trying to push their 2 or 3 year old child to read when they are not mentally mature enough and don’t need to be reading until they are in their first full years of school. By that time the frustration for some is so great, they are already burned out on reading and hate it. Babies need to be babies like puppies need to be puppies. For the puppy, it is the same. Pushing them beyond what they are ready for only creates excess stress. Psychologically and physically, they are destroyed from the stress, and you’re left with nothing. Take your time with your puppy in order to have a solid working partner for many years. Resist the urge to get the dog finished quickly or compete with others. The handler who finishes the dog quickly is not necessarily the best trainer. Good trainers read, judge and understand their dogs’ needs.

House or Kennel?

The question of raising the pup in the house or kennel is common. I have done it both ways and have been successful both ways. There are pros and cons to both situations depending on how the dog is raised. If they spend too much time in either place, it can create problems. I really don’t believe that either situation will cause training problems as long as the dog is housed correctly, is safe and is trained enough to avoid destructive or neurotic behaviors occurring from boredom. It all depends on what the dog needs to keep the drive up. Some dogs can be with the handler constantly and still be driven to work; others need the social deprivation of a kennel to come out in high drive. This is an issue that is extremely difficult to address due to the fact that every situation is different. Myself, I raise my dogs to tolerate both conditions plus living in a crate on the road. I watch my dogs daily to see what I may need to do to get the level of drive that I need for the work. Ideally, you will have a dog that you can turn on and off as needed without a great deal of work. In search and rescue, the dog must be able to live in the hotel, tent, crate, strange kennel or whatever situation you encounter. The only consistency is that you will be with the dog. Most SAR dog handlers will not separate from their dogs. They keep their dogs with them in all situations. For this reason, you need to be able to have a dog that is well socialized, obedient and tolerates a variety of situations during work and living conditions. Again, you need a high drive dog that can be turned on and off as needed multiple times during a search.


Our goal is to raise a working dog that is strong in a variety of areas and easy to live with. They must be social, obedient and tolerant of any situation. The key to raising a puppy through the first titles and certification is having patience and enough sense to ask questions of those who have done it. You must have a great deal of patience with a puppy and realize that they don’t have the knowledge and understanding to be “good.” They must be guided just as you would guide a child from infancy to adulthood. If you are not sure how to do this, get help from an experienced person. A good breeder will assist you in raising your pup through the first couple of years. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions as they will have seen similar behaviors in other pups that they have raised and be able to give you suggestions on how to deal with it. Raising a puppy for search and rescue work is exciting. You will create a working partner that means the world to you and you want your partner around for as long as possible. There’s a lot to do so take your time and do it right!

Jan Harkner-Abbs has been involved in Schutzhund since 1983 and in Search and Rescue since 1993. She has trained her retired Schutzhund dogs for SAR work, and has certified them in wilderness area search and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) urban disaster work. She is a member of Northern IN SAR, IN Task-Force-1 and is a Firefighter/EMT for the Rome City, IN Fire Department. Jan is a member Michiana Working Dog Assoc. in the Mid-Eastern Region. For more information Jan can be contacted at:

8188 N 175 E
Wawaka, IN 46794
Call: 219-761-2027 or email to:

This article has been republished with the consent of the United Schutzhund Clubs of America who originally published this article in its bi-monthly magazine. For more information on Schutzhund or membership with the United Schutzhund Clubs of America please visit their website

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