Unlocking Success: The Power of Rewards in Search and rescue (SAR) Dog Sports Training

Welcome back to Hounds and Helis, where every month, we dive into the exciting world of Search and Rescue (SAR) Dog Sports. In this edition, we're shining a spotlight on a crucial element of training - rewards.

As SAR dog sports experts, this is one of our most commonly asked questions and as always we want to let you in on the theory behind the practise. We want to share some of our dog sports training tips with you, so you can get the most from your training sessions. 

As Kevin Kocher aptly put it, ''rewards are the root of all evil!'' Let's explore why rewards are so vital and how they play a pivotal role in enhancing your dog's performance (whether you are training for operational SAR or sport).

So Why Do Rewards Matter In Dog Training?

At Hounds and Helis, we understand that rewards are more than just treats or toys; they are the key to motivation for your furry teammate. Whether it's Air Scent, Mantrailing, or Cadaver search, the right rewards can make the training experience practical, fun, and incredibly rewarding for both you and your dog. The reward is they ‘why’ your dog works. The dog does enjoy the trail but the reason you dog bypasses distraction and overcomes challenges on the trail is all down to the reward.

Let's Start With Food

We always kick off with food as a reward for its convenience and ease of use. From fish paste to liver pate and squeezy cheese to wet dog food, the options are endless. To up the value of your food reward:

  • Opt for high-value treats. These specific treats should ONLY be given at training. 
  • Change it up regularly to maintain excitement. If your dog isn’t sure which high value reward is coming next, their curiosity is going to skyrocket!
  • Avoid feeding your dog a full meal before training to enhance motivation. Dogs aren’t designed to work with a full belly. If you’re working them in the morning, have their last meal as the evening meal. Hunger is the best sauce. You can always feed them as soon as training is over.
  • Gradually introduce new, rich foods to avoid digestive issues.
  • Turn the reward into a playful chase, letting your dog engage with both misper (missing person) and the food.

What About Toys As Rewards?

Toys are another powerful reward but introducing them requires careful consideration. Only introduce dog toys to your dogs reward when they are comfortable finding different mispers (missing persons) in different environments. Before incorporating toys into your SAR dog's training, ask these questions:

  1. Will my dog play with this toy enthusiastically? If they don’t, can it be called a ‘reward’?
  2. What does my dog enjoy doing with this specific toy? Chase it, Tug it, Retrieve it, Squeak it...
  3. Will they let go of the toy when asked? You will need it back eventually!

However, caution is key. Ensure that your mispers understand how your dog likes to play. Show them and coach them on interaction and play styles before hitting the trail. Avoid introducing a new toy for the first time during a trail or a search; build value in that toy with your dog first by understanding your dog's preferences.

Combining Rewards - Food and Toys

Maximize your rewards by combining food and toys strategically. Start with a small high-value food reward at the end of the first trail, followed by a more extensive food play session during the intensity trail. Finally, introduce the toy reward once the food is enjoyed. Celebrate your dog's achievements with enthusiasm and make them feel like the superstars they are.

So Where Do You Go From Here?

So now that Hounds and Helis have unveiled the importance of rewards in SAR dog sports training, what do you do next? Why not try what you have learned so far with your dog?

Or for a more in-depth discussion on the theory behind rewards in dog training whether it be for sport or SAR techniques, check out our Wednesday Webinar coming on  Wednesday, 31 January '24   7:30pm - 8:30pm. Hear directly from an industry expert everything you need to know when it comes to rewards. You will also get access to the recording to rewatch or if you can't attend the live events.

Book your spot here.

Wednesday Webinar outlining the theory behind rewards for training dogs for sport or SAR

Stay tuned for hands-on training sessions throughout the month in various locations, where you can join us on drop-in sessions with your dogs to put the theory into practise (please note: you must have attended an Intro Workshop to Mantrailing or Airscent to attend these sessions (book an Intro session here).

Need personalized assistance?

Book an online follow-up call with our founder and head instructor Éadaoin - info@houndsandhelis.ie.

Remember, the journey to success is paved with the right rewards, creating an unbreakable bond between you and your SAR dog. Happy training!




Mantrailing Instructor Eadaoin O Gorman

Hounds and Helis was born from a deep passion & respect for dogs. Founder Éadaoin has worked extensively with dogs as a Puppy Foster Care Supervisor for the AADI and an Operational Search and Rescue Dog Handler Éadaoin is a qualified Mantrailing Instructor and runs regular workshops and seminars specialising in Mantrailing, Airscent and Cadaver Training. 

Follow Éadaoin  and her canine adventures on Instagram and Facebook.

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