Cackleberry Castle: SAR K9 Candidate Selection, puppy or young adult?

Kasie McGee


Which is the “right” way to go? Excluding the experience of the handler as a trainer, it all really depends. I have seen some young adult/older puppy candidates from the pound become remarkable search dogs with their partners, and I have seen more wholly inappropriate choices waste the time of the larger group attempting to help train both the handler and the dog. Since SAR is mostly a volunteer pursuit, though done passionately in most cases, there is little organized criteria explicitly stated on what the selection criteria should be. And most “dog trainers” have no actual idea of what the job of a search dog IS, so they are less help than one could expect. For clarity purposes, I am going to separate the information, and in this article deal solely with the selection of a puppy. The follow-up article will discuss the slightly different criteria for an older puppy/young adult candidate.

The very first thing to do is to articulate YOUR expectations of running a search dog. I am going to assume for the purposes of this article that you have already joined and become an active fielding member of a SAR team. So why the dog team? First, SAR stands for Search and Rescue (sometimes recovery, especially in mountain states). Dogs stand squarely in the search portion of these purposes. Do you enjoy puzzles, are you good at detail work? Do you notice things that others do not? These are a few of the characteristics of a good searcher. Yes, the dog brings scent detection to the team, but the handler-dog dynamic requires the human end of the lead to provide some aptitudes, too. If you are envisioning showing up to the missing person first and Saving The Day™️, best you find another “job” on the team.

Are you willing to be humiliated by the dog on a daily basis? Are you willing to accept that you have much to learn before understanding training a dog to be your partner? Are you willing to ask questions, find a credible mentor, and take constructive criticism? Are you willing to become at the very least a First Responder (or EMT)? To learning man-tracking, weather patterns and microclimates? To own your mistakes (often interpreted as the DOG’S) so that you and your K9 partner can grow as a team? To look at your K9 partner and understand his/her ACTUAL foibles, failings and strengths? Your own? If so, welcome to the world of K9 SAR.

In order to start the journey of finding the Perfect™️ partner, first you must determine what the job is that you as a team will most likely be doing. On our team, we have both a large urban component and vast wilderness areas, some with fairly rugged terrain and weather to navigate. Our missions can be divvied up pretty neatly between these two response areas. Urban searches are often at-risk youth (autism, suicidal, cognitively impaired, etc.), or dementia walk aways in the more elderly population. These are pretty generalized statements; there are sometimes other issues, sometimes criminal cases, etc. If you approach EVERY search as potentially a criminal case, this will drive better record keeping, and a better mindset that avoids common mistakes when conducting a K9-assisted search. Search tactics are a totally different topic, and only touched on here to provide a realistic concept of what the finished dog should be able to do. Many of the team’s dogs are cross-trained in complementary disciplines, in order for our relatively small numbers to be able to respond in both search environments.

Once you have identified what jobs your local K9 teams are most often called to do, you can start to think about your needs in a canine partner. If you are in a large urban area, where you will be doing predominately walk-aways and other urban searches, consider Bloodhounds or Labs or other hunting dogs bred specifically FOR hunting. Bloodhounds are the supreme trailing breed, having been bred for centuries for this exact purpose. They are structured to comfortably move along with their head down, the ears waft scent up to the nostrils, and the wrinkles hold moisture to increase scent detection. There are some downsides to Bloodhounds as a partner, however. They drool. A lot. I literally mop ceilings, the television, walls, etc. Yesterday, I scrubbed it off a lampshade. They are not particularly good at staying alive, and the healthy ones do not live all that long anyway, relatively speaking. They are BIG dogs, so your equipment will be bigger, and everything will weigh a ton. Not a Subaru-fitting breed. Maybe a Jeep, but….You will put in the usual 2 years of training for that solid partner, but that dog’s working life will be shorter. You will be seeking a new puppy sooner that some other breeds. I have also seen Coonhounds fielded in SAR, more towards the East where they are more common. My only caveat is that while yes they ARE a scent hound, they are bred to work in packs, and to air scent their prey. A hound that has to be worked on lead that wants to air scent instead of trail is simply impractical and potentially dangerous to both partners. I have had to wash out a couple myself – they were half coon, half bloodhound, and BOTH decided air scenting was the way to go. Some DO trail, but the majority do not, and their structure reflects that, as they tend to be taller, more square dogs, so traveling with their head down on a trail is physically difficult.

I have seen many very successful Lab team partners, as also Pointers. Many Border Collies (which I also have), and Spaniel varieties, too (Brittanys, Springer, etc.). IF you can find hunting lines, NOT show lines). Small Muensterlanders are a non-AKC recognized breed (at this time) that make good SAR dogs as well. The hunting and herding breeds are good in both urban and wilderness settings, depending on that individual dog’s inclinations and aptitudes.

Dogs derived from the Spitz breeds (Husky, Malamutes, Finnish Spitz, etc.) have been selected for generations for an ability to 1) work independently, 2) run for long distances, 3) pulling (draft tasks) and hunting down game. These characteristics make them HIGHLY unsuitable for SAR applications, as they are not terribly interested in a close team situation.

Okay, you have decided on a breed, you have found a mentor, and located a breeder with the right breeding goals for your needs. Oh, that last? Do not discount that. There are LOTS of Labrador breeders for example, but few actually are selecting for working ability, and that is absolutely a necessity to set yourself up for success. Whatever breed you decide on, make sure the breeder you work with is experienced, especially if you are NOT, and that your mentor is part of the discussion on selection. Most likely, the breeder will NOT be local, so this communication is going to be key to matching you and the dog appropriately, and why having your mentor be part of the conversation, as he/she will actually have a better objective view of the sort of dog you will most likely be successful with. 

If you are in an area or situation that you are lacking a local mentor, find one recommended by knowledgeable, experienced SAR folk if possible, someone that can help even from afar if necessary. In this case, ATTEND SAR conferences, preferably BEFORE acquiring a dog, and network. You want to ultimately be successful with your dog, and getting the tools in place before the puppy will maximize the likelihood of your success.

If you are going to go to the breeder to pick up your puppy, listen and listen well: when you look at those adorable balls of fun bombing around in their enclosure, looking stupidly adorable, keep your spouse and children in the car, close YOUR eyes, and listen to the breeder! You are there to get a purpose-bred, work partner, not a cutesy family pet. I have seen more inappropriate matches made at selection because the kid/GF/spouse fell in love with that one instead of the recommended one…it is ironically better sometimes to simply accept what the breeder sends you, as they are too far away for YOU to mess it up. I have seen someone choose “too much” dog for their skill level, too. Where I might make a right go of the dog, but the person with it has no experience, and therefore no timing, little if any ability to read the dog in time to make good training reactions. Not to be sexist, but men are more likely than women to overestimate their ability to train a dog. That said, women will more likely baby the dog far longer than necessary. Again a generalization. I have also seen the opposite tendencies, and this is where LISTENING to your wise mentor and acting on the advice whether you like it or not is important.

The characteristics you are looking for in a puppy are high play drive, curiosity, boldness, and a strong interest in people. The puppy that is the last to fall asleep after a play session, and often the first to get going again; that puppy has drive and energy. This will be needed in a working partner, but is often no joy to live with. Just remember the PURPOSE for the dog; not a pet, but a working partner. Loud noises can startle the puppy, but should not terrify it. They can jump, and turn to see what made it, even approach to see what it was, but should not run from it. Some search scenes are in busy noisy places, and your puppy will need to be solid enough and confidant enough to tolerate loud or sudden sounds. It should happily approach new people in any situation. As it gets older, it may become more selective, choosing to ignore new people; this is fair, but a youngster should have no reservations yet. A puppy that is far more interested in sniffing EVERYTHING is critical. You cannot ask a dog that likes to LOOK to provide you feedback on what he SMELLS, because he is not really paying that much attention to detail with that sense. Look for the “sniffy” puppy.

Look at structure, too. You want a dog that in general is slightly longer than he is tall, has GOOD and balanced angulation front and rear, and good tight “cat” feet with well-arched toes. A flat-footed dog will tire faster, as will a dog that has very straight joint angles. They have to work harder and so cannot work as long as their better-angled counter-parts. I know that there are some studies that say there is no difference to core body temperature in black versus non-black dogs; I have read them, and read the related ones that say there IS. In my personal experience, black dogs get hot faster and take more frequent breaks in hot weather. I try to avoid predominantly black dogs, unless there simply is no choice. Coat type and length is a concern, but oddly not as much as color itself. I have Border Collies, and mine have a TON of coat. Shaving them is a very bad idea, as it can permanently damage the guard hairs, and results in a dog that is HOTTER, not cooler. The hair actually insulates and provides cooling as well as warmth. It protects the skin from injury and sunburn. If you are researching a long haired breed, be sure you learn how to properly care for the coat to keep that dog in good working status. I use an undercoat rake to keep loose hair out, and in the summer shave the belly and inside the thighs ONLY to help the dog stay cool.

If you decide that a baby puppy is maybe not where you want to start, stay tuned to this “space” as next month we will discuss the selection criteria for an older puppy/young adult dog!

I know I spent a lot of time discussing the humans, and less time on the actual puppy choice, but that is where the root of the most common errors are: in the misunderstanding of the nature of the job and expectations of the type of work. I am going to assume dear readers, that if you have arrived to this point in my writing, that you want to become a successful handler/dog team, and I am trying to set you up to be just that, just like we do when training our dogs! Until next month, be safe out there!                                                                                                                        


Kasie McGee has been actively involved in K9 Search and Rescue since the early 90s. She has handled many Bloodhounds and multiple Border Collies at various levels, with dogs certified in human remains, trailing, articles and air scent work. She comes into SAR from the training the dog to do this job point of view. Many people come into it from military or law enforcement, and while her family is chock full of ALL those people, she herself did not serve. Her professional preparation include an MS in Animal Science involving environmental enrichment and learning theory, and an MS in Neuropathophysiology. She also holds Bachelors in Biology and in English, and her “day job” is teaching. For the past few years she has specialized in teaching Gifted students that also have disabilities, and most recently teaching middle school and high school science. She has owned and bred Border Collies since 1970, training them to work on the farm, and later in herding trials. She became interested in search work after reading Syrotuk’s work, challenged by the concept of training different tasks while still in a human-canine partnership. She sought out ANYONE local to her to help her learn more about this, and ended up working with law enforcement canine handlers with Bloodhounds. In her career in SAR, she has mentored many new handlers, guiding them through dog selection, training issues, learning objectives and skill maintenance.
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  1. Avatar Debora Ash on June 21, 2023 at 7:21 am

    Great article!!! Will be passing this information on to my team. Thank you!!
    Looking forward to the next installment 😋

  2. Kasie McGee Kasie McGee on June 21, 2023 at 8:04 pm

    Thanks for stopping by, and reading to the end! Hopefully someone finds something useful in this!

    Oh, and just an interface note: anything that looks like an umlauted (a) is actually supposed to be ™! Whaddya do., huh?

    • jchristi jchristi on June 22, 2023 at 6:33 am

      This has been corrected!

      • Kasie McGee Kasie McGee on June 22, 2023 at 6:39 am

        Yay, thanks!

  3. Avatar Sally Santeford on June 25, 2023 at 1:37 pm

    Loved the last paragraph “…lot time discussing humans…root of most common errors.” As for choice of puppy/adult – would add: start with what you have and learn handler skills before getting/or not getting a working dog. Breeder/mentor input is important, but puppy testing done properly is amazing, especially problem solving part. Looking forward to the next issue :>)

  4. Avatar DW on July 6, 2023 at 6:04 pm

    Great straightforward article to set a basis for the work partnership. Thanks for re-emphasizing over and over the “work partnership” aspect of this. I am a definate “dog person” who would want every dog to be my “SAR buddy”, even though I know thats not possible.
    I recently was pursuing the SAR K9 path but due to work commitments have had to shift into man tracking and other SAR skills which are critical as well. My work commitment will probably be a couple years in length, guess its time for me to work through my “blind spots” in my future partner choice.

    Looking forward to the next article!

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