t was time to start a new puppy for Search and Rescue: my German Shepherd was at retirement age and our family wanted to “downsize” from the larger breed. The springer was a top choice because of its family loving personality and work drive. I sought a dog that was a combination of bench and field lines - so I could get good working drive without being overly birdy.
I chose Hershey at seven weeks after a battery of temperament tests singled her out from the litter as extremely sociable and having a high play drive. She started her training at eight weeks starting with small hide and seek exercises plus agility. Everything at this age is taught as a game with rewards and praise but no discipline.
To qualify as a Search dog, she had to pass a series of sign offs and tests. Obedience and sociability are as important as the search skills. A ten minute down stay with distractions, loading and riding on a helicopter, being hoisted up and down from the helicopter are several of the requirements. The search skills vary with the type of search we are doing. For area search, the dog is trained to find a person in an open area and return to the handler to "alert" or tell the handler of its find and then return to the person. Hershey’s alert is to jump up on my leg on the find. We use the same alert for forensic search and she will bark for water search.
The testing process for wilderness or area search is finding two subjects on 160 acres in four hours or less. We use human decomposition scent, hair and blood for forensic and water work. People lose approximately 40,000 skin cells per minute; these cells combined with bacteria are called “scurf.” This is what makes each person’s scent unique - and what the dog is looking for in a live person search.
"The most fascinating part of search and rescue is the dog’s ability to locate even trace amounts of scent in conditions that seem impossible."
Hershey certified in HRD (human remains detection) on her first birthday. I was a very proud mama! She certified in water search at 15 months of age and she finished her wilderness certification at 18 months of age. She is the first English springer spaniel in CARDA (the California Rescue Dog Association).
The most fascinating part of search and rescue is the dog’s ability to locate even trace amounts of scent in conditions that seem impossible. On our most recent search, she was able to differentiate between old cow bones and human in a pile.
We have done mainly water searches. Hershey has located a drowned person under 100 feet of water. I was lucky enough to have a live person find with my first dog. The man had Alzheimer’s and walked away from his home. That find made all the training hours we put in worthwhile!
I have been in Search and Rescue since 1992. I had been training Guide Dog puppies and realized a search dog would enable me to work my own dog and get out in the wilderness - my other passion besides dogs! I have been a professional dog trainer for almost twenty years. However, that is not a requirement for SAR work.
Handlers must learn as much as the dog in areas of scent theory, wilderness survival, medical aid, search technique and more. CARDA is a division of the California Office of Emergency Services and there are approximately 95 teams statewide. Most teams are also affiliated with the county Sheriff units. Hershey and I are with the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue. We are on call throughout the state of California, but usually search in the Sierra foothill region.
We train an average of 4-6 hours per week, re-test yearly and when we aren’t working, Hershey is found roughhousing with my four year old son, on my middle son’s bed or laying with the cat. She also accompanies me to dog obedience class as a distraction to the dogs I am teaching in class. She is a wonderful family pet and even though she is my working companion, she is everybody’s dog in our family not a one-person dog as many working breeds are. My goal with the next springer in our family will be to dual train her to hunt and search.