Always on duty – how to become a rescue dog

07. October 2020 — von Jasmin Radel

When you think of rescue dogs, the glorified image of the faithful St. Bernard strolling towards the incident scene with his wooden keg may come to mind. Or maybe of Lassie, who is able to tell with three loud barks who had an accident, when, where and how. But what does the workplace of a rescue dog really look like? Who will teach him all of his knowledge? And above all how? And do you actually have to carry a small wooden barrel with schnapps around your dog’s neck for all walks of life.

Jasmin from Inuvet got to the bottom of all these questions and interviewed Gabi Piskol from the rescue dog team of Biberach (BRH).

Gabi, go ahead, tell me what exactly are you doing now for the BRH and its local club?

Gabi: I primarily take care of the training of our two- and four-legged members. I’m also responsible for the so-called “platoon management” during the missions across teams.

Does that mean that there are several teams going to one location?

Gabi: That depends on how big the mission is and what help is requested from adjacent teams. We don’t only search through a meadow, but often cover entire 50,000 m² areas and more.

Tell me more, who are you as the rescue dog team of the Biberach district?

Gabi: We belong to the umbrella organisation Bundersverbandes Rettungshunde, the Federal Association of Rescue Dogs. You can think of it in the same way as with Maltese or the Red Cross, every district has its own sub-association. Our association has 35 active members at the moment between the ages of 17 and 72 working with various fields of activities. Our association as 26 certified dogs in the area and 10 certified dogs in reserve.

What are the missions or areas you work in?

Gabi: In general, we only look for missing people in non-criminal contexts, for example someone who has disappeared and never returned home or who may have got lost. This can be children, elderly, patients in a clinic, or suicidal people but also victims of accidents. So if someone is missing from a traffic accident for example, they may have run away from the accident scene in a state of shock and got lost. In the worst case, they’re confused, hurt and in a panic. For this kind of search, we have the local dog search department with us. These are the dogs that search the area with their dog handlers and look for the missing people. There are also special rubble search dogs that are trained to locate buried people and to find their way through areas that are hard to access. We also have so-called “mantrailers” that use odour samples (clothing) to search for the individual smell of a person and sniff out the direction in which the missing person has gone.

That sounds very interesting. But who is even allowed to take part in a rescue dog team? Do you have to have a specific “rescue background”?

Gabi: No. Anyone who wants to get involved is allowed to participate. You don’t need any special training in advance or a specific career. But you have to be aware that this kind of training for a dog and their owner is not just a hobby, it’s very time-consuming and takes a lot of discipline. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s not an entertainment programme to do on the side. It’s a professional job. You need mental and physical fitness and a knack for dealing with people and animals. It’s good if you have a social background. For example, I used to be active in the ambulance service. This is of course not a must, but the topic of “people in need” shouldn’t be completely foreign to you.

Does the dog have to have specific qualifications? A companion dog certification or something?

Gabi: No, not necessarily that either. It is important that the dog is willing to work with their human. A familiar closeness and bond between dog and owner is a prerequisite so that a solid and safe team can grow from this bond.

Is every dog breed suitable for becoming a rescue dog?

Gabi: The best way to train is by working with breeds such as sheep dogs, herding dogs or hunting dogs. So any breeds that were bred to work with humans.

And what would that look like with a dachshund? Are they also hunting dogs?

Gabi: Dachshunds are great if they don’t have any health problems. We even have one on the team. This breed does a good job in mantrailing and can get to where a bigger dog wouldn’t be able to get, even through debris.

What traits in a dog are required?

Gabi: They have to be eager to work first of all, that is, if you have a ball, stick or something like that in your hand, your dog should show interest in it and especially in connection with you. Being friendly and empathetic is also a basic requirement. The joy of playing is also important for reward purposes.

How old does a dog have to be to start training?

Gabi: Training actually starts quite early, when the dog is 8-12 weeks old. From then on, in addition to obedience in everyday life and getting to know the environment, you start giving the dog small exercises. The dog learns through play that people are great and that it is absolutely worthwhile to track them down. However, the learning always has to be age-appropriate and you shouldn’t overwhelm little ones. Slowly this builds up into training to become a service dog, right up to the preliminary qualifications for rescue dogs. Once these stages of training are completed, a dog can be admitted to the main rescue dog test from the age of 18 months.

And how old does the dog handler have to be?

Gabi: You can start training as soon as the young person and their dog have this certain bond of trust, want to do the job together and have parents who support it. However, you can only be deployed as a dog handler if you’re of legal age.

How old can a dog be as a rescue dog? Is there a maximum age limit?

Gabi: As long as they are physically and mentally fit and their olfactory (smell) performance continues to meet the test requirements, the dog can be assigned. A dog’s olfactory performance starts to decline from the age of 10. However, since this makes up an important part of the job, it’s checked over and over again every year after the dog first passes the exam. With us, if a dog retires from active duty, they don’t belong on the sidelines. We offer special training courses for senior members so that they still have something to do and don’t have to suddenly stop doing what has been their “job” for years.

What does the rescue dog test look like and when can a dog do it?

Gabi: Basically there is no final exam as such, like at school. Rather, there’s a few smaller tests that continue to qualify the dog and their human, and even advance them to further qualifications. A team – that is, a handler and their dog – is given a search area of approx. 25,000 to 30,000 m² after having passed the companion dog and preliminary rescue dog tests. The judge hides on to three people in the area. The team now has to search the area within 25 minutes and find all the people as best they can. Every dog from the age of 18 months is tested every year with differences in terms of the people that need to be found and the nature of the search area. Once the team has been thoroughly tested, a so-called deployment test follows, where the search area is approx. 100,000 m².

And what exactly is tested during this? What does the team have to be able to do safely by then?

Gabi: A lot of nose work, but also dexterity. This is similar to agility, but it is done slower and in a more controlled manner. The dog must, for example, independently assess or balance a seesaw, or be able to walk safely on uncomfortable surfaces such as rubble. Steering a dog from a distance is also practiced: the dog is sent to two different destinations one after the other and directed from one to another from afar.

That really is real work for a dog.

Gabi: Not just for the dog. The dog owner must also pass tests in orientation, addiction tactics, first aid for humans and dogs, emergency radio and finally the general principles and statutes of the association.

Are there more women or men in dog management?

Gabi (laughs): Certainly more women.


Gabi: Most women have a better hand with dogs. In terms of technical location and guidance of course it’s different. Here men are more in their element.

What does a training week look like?

Gabi: We meet twice a week and you train everything from subordination to dexterity, nose work and manageability. Communicating finds is also important, because if the dog can’t tell the handler that they found someone, the best search will do no good. There are three special forms of communication for this: barking, bringsel alerting and free reference. The latter is tracking down the person and then returning to the dog handler to show them that they found someone, for example by jumping.

And where do you train on all of this?

Gabi: Obedience and equipment work are trained with the dogs in the dog park. Searching space can be everywhere in the woods and fields. Mantrailing, that is the search for people based on the individual smell of a person, can also be carried out anywhere, in the country as well as in the city.

Do you go to a training camp with special requirements and challenges as well?

Gabi: The BRH has three special training centres (North Rhine-Wesphalia, Schleswig-Holestein and Baden-Württemberg) that offer a special environment in terms of landscape or rough terrain. You can go there for a full training or partake individually with your dog in the training events and seminars.

And who is being specially trained there?

Gabi: With young dogs, for example, you train to move safely and confidently on shake surfaces. Duty dogs also get challenges that are especially adapted to the level of training and the team.

How do you give the dogs their rewards? Is it like with drug detection dogs, who get their toys as soon as they report a find?

Gabi: Of course, every find must bring a reward. But what that is exactly each team decides for themselves. This can for example be a ball, a food dummy or a boiled egg. At the end of a mission there is a final reward, which signals that the job is done and it’s time to go home.

When are you called to a mission?

Gabi: Whenever there is a search for a person whose disappearance isn’t to do with a crime. A search for rubble can also take place if there’s been a gas explosion or a building has collapsed.

And what does a rescue dog team look like then? Is it similar to a fire brigade? Does everyone leash their dog and start running?

Gabi (laughs): No, quite the opposite. The alert or request for a rescue dog team comes from the police or a neighbouring team if there’s a need for a larger area in another district. For each location there is a meeting point where everyone comes together. The dogs always first stay in the car until the handlers have been briefed and the situation discussed, each team has got an area and everyone gets the picture. And then the search starts. Without panic or rush, but with a plan and a steady hand on the leash.

What does your equipment include?

Gabi: For the dog handlers, depending on the situation and the weather, the appropriate footwear, trousers and fluorescent red vest. The dog equipment for the area search dogs includes a so-called identification blanket or a marked harness, a long leash and their particular reward. A first aid kit for dogs and humans, drinks for dogs and humans, small energy supplies such as muesli bars for the dog handlers, a GPS device for orientation, a compass, protective goggles for thick undergrowth, a radio, a flashlight and lights for the dog are also very important – and of course the good old cell phone.

What should you never forget to bring?

Gabi: The dog, of course. No, joking aside, you should always have a cell phone, full operational clothing, water and a treat for your dog.

What has been your toughest assignment so far?

Gabi: So the toughest in terms of taking the greatest effort was the missing person case of Maria Bögerl (ögerl) It lasted for three whole days with the full, active participation of dog and dog handler. We also needed all the different teams. The mantrailers who looked for odour samples from the missing person and the area search dogs who generally track down a person who’s a “victim”.

What is it exactly, do you save or do you rescue?

Gabi: Neither, we search and find and do the first aid until the rescue service arrives. Unless there is a dead body. Then we have to cordon off the area, alert the police, and hand the situation over to them.

How often are you called in?

Gabi: On average from once to four times a month.

Do you ever get called abroad? To skiing or climbing areas?

Gabi: No, not in this season especially. The BRH has its own squad for missions abroad. These are specially trained dogs with completely different equipment. These teams structure and organise themselves completely independently

Are there any funny anecdotes you can tell me?

Gabi: I was once assigned to an area to search for missing people, where my dog actually found two people. They just didn’t really want to be found, as they’d snuck away in a lovers’ tryst. So I just stood there, embarrassed of course, because the dog doesn’t know that what it’s found is not what we were looking for. But I still have to give him a minute of success with praise and pats. And that minute can be quite long (laughs).

Finally, an extremely important question: Where does the cliché of the St. Bernard with a schnapps barrel come from? Has that ever been something like that for rescue dogs?

Gabi: What that St. Bernard has is actually for missing hikers. Whether there was schnapps, brandy, rum or something else in the barrel isn’t known though.

*An exciting interview on an even more exciting topic and we would like to thank Gabi Piskol for all the detailed information about her and Ayleen’s job with the rescue dog team. *

About Gabi

Gabi Piskol is 45, comes from Bellenberg (Bavaria) and has worked for the Federal Association of Rescue Dogs (Bundesverband Rettungshunde), BRH, with her dog for over 25 years now. She has been a member since 1995 and is one of the people responsible for training dogs and owners. With her Australian Shepherd Ayleen, she is active in the district during several season. Gabi’s and Ayleen’s specialities are biological localisation (localising the area through an area search), rubble search and mantrailing.