Search and Rescue in the Autism Assistance Dog

moose rear view“When a child with Autism disappears their life is in danger, and an adult looking for them may begin their search in the wrong direction;  Autism Assistance Dog trained in search and rescue never takes the wrong path and quickly leads the adult to the missing child”!


I read this on a website promoting “Search and Rescue” (SAR) for Autism assistance dogs.  Sounds like a great idea right?  We should put this lifesaving skill on every assistance dog we train!  Right?   Often we receive requests to put search and rescue skills on our Autism assistance dogs.  No, we do not put SAR on our assistance dogs.  Not only do we not train our assistance dogs in SAR,  we also passionately disagree that it a service that is even offered to the ASD assistance dog community.


Buy why not?  We are both FEMA K9 Search Specialists , we have both trained multiple dogs in Search and Rescue, if anyone should be able to put this lifesaving training on a assistance dog, why not us?


First, lets start with the dog.  Our personal search and rescue dogs are very high energy dogs. Our search dogs want to do one thing, and one thing only, to search for people.  They are not great house dogs, they are not great pets.  When we take our dogs out, they have one thing on their mind “When is it time to work”?   These dogs are independent, and learn to ignore us when we are stressed to keep focus on the search.


Our Autism assistance dogs are very low energy dogs.  We look for a dog who really wants to provide comfort when stressed, they are trained to want to lay with and next to a person who is having a hard time coping.  They are trained to not want to think independently, instead to look for cues from their handler as how to respond when presented with stress.


Most importantly, what is going to happen on that dreadful day that we need to ask our Autism assistance dog to search for our missing child?  Every moment your child is missing, your search area increases.  It is imperative that you spend the first moments calling 911 and getting law enforcement mobilized.  At this point you are understandably very anxious and concerned. You grab your child’s Autism assistance dog, and tell him to “Find Billy”.  First, your dog will be in conflict.  You are emotional, and the dogs first trained skill is to provide comfort when he senses anxiety. Your dog may preform a trained behavior, perhaps lean on you, a behavior that has normally been rewarded.  Instead of rewarding that behavior,  you are giving a command to “search.” a command that most likely was  trained in a happy environment, a game of hide and seek in the house and yard.  But now everything to your dog is different.  Stress, anger, adrenaline.  Your dog has never been exposed to this kind of stress and search reliability is sure to be affected.


Search is a trained skill, our search dogs are trained weekly, there skills are maintained to the highest levels. We train like we search, we put ourself in stressful situations, we make sure we train for search at night, in the rain, and in areas that cause us to be stressed.  Even with all this training, we know that our dogs are still not infallible. A search and rescue specialist will never guarantee that a trained SAR dog will find your missing child.  But some organizations are assuring you that Your Autism assistance dog will always find your missing child?


Sometimes if something sounds too good to be true, it might be.