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Swiss Search Dogs



Dogs have served man in a myriad ways over the centuries. They have become valuable partners in the man/ dog relationship and countless people owe their lives to the dog’s scenting capacity. It is this natural scenting skill that has been most exploited to serve mankind. As a predator, the dog in his wild state (e.g. wolf), uses his nose to hunt, locate and track down prey in order to survive. By observing the behaviour of wild canids, specific training has been developed that utilises the dog’s scenting ability and so they have come into their own as trackers, police dogs tracking down criminals, drug detection dogs and search and rescue dogs to name just a few.

'People hide in such odd places' - Afra Tight spaces are no problem - Olga

Search and rescue dogs have a long history and records show that avalanche dogs for instance were used by monks on the St Bernhard Pass, Switzerland as early as the 1500s. This is the birthplace of the St Bernhard Dog breed, the most famous of them being Barry who in the years 1800 to 1812 rescued 40 persons from certain death in the deep winter snows of the pass.

The modern search and rescue dog has many functions such as area search – searching for persons missing in the wilderness (either air scenting off-lead or tracking on a long lead), water search, avalanche search, cadaver search – searching for bodies and body parts, and disaster search – locating victims buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings, e.g. earthquakes.

Despite our high tech world today, particularly in disaster search, the dog’s nose has yet to be surpassed by any technical device. The well trained disaster search dog tested to a high standard is an indispensable specialist search resource capable of locating the human scent of victims emanating from deep within the rubble. Without a trained dog to indicate the human scent of a victim, it is very difficult for rescue personnel to know where to start excavating and precious time may well be lost in trying to find victims.

'If I work hard enough, I'll get to that victim yet.' - Afra 'I know you are in there somewhere' - Jochen


Whilst Europe and later America, has a long history of utilising dogs in searches, this form of dog work is fairly new to Australia. The Australian Swiss Search Dog Association Inc (ASSDA) was founded in 1995 for the purpose of training, testing and making available search dog teams to user agencies such as the police and the fire brigades.

In the early years, ASSDA focused on training and testing its teams to search for persons missing in the bush. Several winters were also spent at Falls Creek training teams to search for persons buried under snow or lost in snow conditions. During the last five years the focus has been, and will continue to be, on training teams to search for victims buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings.

To ensure a high standard in training and testing, ASSDA became a partner organisation of REDOG , Switzerland. REDOG trainers and assessors regularly visit Australia holding extensive and intensive workshops as well as testing those teams that have reached the requisite standard. In addition, ASSDA instructors also regularly fly to Switzerland to attend REDOG seminars, workshops and courses there. Most recently, in September/October 2005, three ASSDA members travelled to Switzerland to attend the Canine Disaster Search Assessor’s course as well as the Equipe Leader course.

ASSDA has members in four states, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and ACT.

Having fun abseiling - Achim and Elke ASSDA's first three internationally qualified disaster search dog teams


The German Shepherd Dog is well known to be the best all round working dog breed successfully fulfilling many functions. Certainly, the well bred and well trained German Shepherd distinguishes himself as a search and rescue dog and this breed predominates in our Victorian group. However, the Golden Retrievers, Labradors and Border Collies are amongst the most popular and successful breeds as search dogs with many other breeds also represented. Even the humble cross breed can be very suitable.

The main criteria for a search dog is a very high play/ prey drive, a good, strong bark, a capacity to play with other people, and a sound and stable temperament. The dog should not be easily frightened and if it does get a fright, it should be able to recover quickly. In addition, the dog must be capable of negotiating unstable terrain confidently. It must also be able to work independently and away from the handler and yet remain obedient, the reason being that the rubble may be too unstable for a person to enter but sufficiently safe for the dog. Dog and handler must be able to work as a TEAM regardless of the conditions. In fact, the more difficult the conditions, the more critical it is that the two can work as a team to remain effective.

ASSDA teams at the Labyrinth 2003 exercise Tunnel search can be such dirty work - Zelda and Thombie


Our dogs are first and foremost companions and always remain with their handler. Search and rescue is an activity the handler wants to take part in as a volunteer, but in partnership with his dog. So in search and rescue, we always talk of the TEAM, dog/ handler and it is the team that is trained and tested. Should an operational search dog be sold, it is no longer operational. The new owner would have to undergo training and testing with the dog to demonstrate that they too are now a team. Therefore, no search and rescue titles appear on a dog’s pedigree.

Training takes a minimum of three years and so a high degree of commitment and a capacity to stay for the long haul are handler requirements. In addition, handlers must be able to go into tight, dark places without panicking, be able to play victim by being ‘buried’ for lengthy periods, be able to interact with other members’ dogs effectively and have the capacity and desire to increase their kynological knowledge. In addition, the SAR dog handler should see himself as an unpaid professional.

We use motivational training and drive building to train our dogs. They want to search because we make it such fun for them. On finding the ‘victim’, their reward is either a piece of food from the victim or the victim plays tug-of-war with the dog with their favourite toy.

Dogs are taught basic obedience such as heeling on and off-lead, the recall, the send-away with an emergency stop and the ‘stay’ exercises. The dogs learn to negotiate a diverse range of obstacles slowly and carefully, they are taught detaching – being able to leave the handler to designated places, the alert - barking and digging at the scent source to tell the handler that he has detected human scent, and to search a rubble pile independently for the scent of buried victims. Dogs need to develop both mental and physical endurance.


Although canine search work is very time consuming and rigorous, the rewards are great. Once a handler has taken his or her dog to the required level successfully, the bond that has developed between them surpasses almost any other relationship one can have with a dog. By training their dog to successfully search in any of the modalities mentioned, the handler experiences the essence of what man’s best friend has to offer - trust, loyalty, companionship and cooperation.


Basic alert training - Afra Team work - Peter and Olga

Elke Effler
Australian Swiss Search Dog Association Inc.

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