Trail Runners: Helpful Tips For SAR Dog Training

For over five years, I’ve been running trails for Stasia as she trains search and rescue dogs – I’ve seen dog-handler teams who are simply trying to learn a new skill together, while we have also worked with others who are being trained and deployed with active SAR teams. In that time, I’ve traipsed through several feet of snow, braved the driving rain, and survived the howling wind. I’ve also spent my fair share of summer afternoons trying to find a shady spot in the woods as I try to shield myself from the intense heat of the North Carolina sunshine.

I must have run hundreds of trails as part of our training exercises. I’m a better trail runner now than I was five years ago. Of course, trail running is hardly rocket science – but it plays a pivotal role in the development of successful SAR teams. Unlike other forms of dog training – where success is mostly driven by the dog, the handler and the trainer – SAR training has a fourth party involved. As that fourth party, the trail runner can help (or hinder) the progress that the dog is able to make.

During my latest stint in the woods this past weekend, I thought it may be worthwhile to take a moment to unpack some of my experience regarding trail running. This is useful for any volunteers who are planning to offer their time to SAR trainers like Stasia, or for SAR handlers who want to make the most of their training endeavors and ensure their trail runners are helping their dog’s development.

Why does this matter?

Training a dog for Search and Rescue is usually a long process. From the initial hot trails, you are slowly building up the dog’s ability, until they are capable of running a cold trail that has aged for well in excess of one hour, and over a distance that can span a mile or more. This means that the training program takes months rather than weeks, and refresher training should be maintained for as long as the dog is actively involved in SAR activities.

The trail runner plays a vital role in ensuring that the training process goes smoothly. Every trail is designed to improve the dog’s search capabilities. Expert SAR trainers will systematically increase the distance, duration and complexity of problems that the SAR dog has to solve. The trail runner’s job is to understand the objective of the training session and facilitate the problem-solving scenario. Failing to understand the importance of their role can result in the training process taking longer than expected, or in some cases, even act as a detriment to the progress of the dog.

Tips to improve your trail running

Whether you’re an experienced trail runner, or you’re just getting started, there are some fundamental principles you should understand before you run a trail for a SAR dog. Many of these principles are listed below.

Understand the goal of the session

When running trails, the person hiding for the dog should be very clear on the objective of the training session. What distance should this trail cover? How long will it need to age for? How many turns should it encompass? What surfaces (asphalt, grass, gravel, etc.) should the trail cover? Where is the likely end point? The trail layer should not set off to hide for a SAR dog without knowing the answers to all of these questions.

Follow instructions

Your trainer and/or the SAR handler will have a reason for the trail they are asking you to run. For example, if they want the dog to improve on asphalt, the trainer may ask you to lay a trail that is predominantly on paths or roads. If you disregard this instruction and criss-cross over grass and through woodland, the trail is not helping to improve the dog’s ability in its problem area. Make sure you are clear and ask for clarification if you are unsure on any aspect of the trail you are about to run.

Dress appropriately

As someone who was unfamiliar with the North Carolinian terrain five years ago, I ran a couple of my early trails in shorts and a t-shirt. After several nasty scratches from briars that left my legs looking like I’d been overdoing it at the acupuncturist, I quickly realized that covering up with long sleeves and long pants was the order of the day. Remember, as trails increase in duration, you’ll be hiding in place for longer and longer – sometimes in excess of an hour. In the winter, bring appropriate clothing like hats and scarves to keep you warm.

Use your discretion

When you’re at nature’s behest, there are times when a planned trail may become impassable – or even impossible. Floods, landslides and broken bridges are three of the obstacles I’ve encountered over the years. Be sensible – in real-life deployment scenarios, a team of experts would use their discretion to decide if the mission was safe to continue. Never do anything that could compromise the safety of you, other people, or the dog.

Don’t turn back on yourself - and find a good hiding spot

At least in the early stages of SAR training, never turn back on yourself. This will create a severe headache when the dog tries to find you, as they may head off-track following your original trail (as time goes by, turning back on yourself may become a useful training scenario for the dog to solve). 

When you actually reach your final destination, make sure you aren’t clearly visible so that the dog has to actually track you, as opposed to seeing you hiding in plain sight (unless your trainer specifies otherwise – in some instances, this may be required of you).

Be ready with your reinforcer

When you’re hiding – particularly as the dog becomes more adept, and trails become longer – it can seem to take an age for the K9 to actually reach you. As the trail runner, keep your eyes and ears alert for any sign that the dog may be approaching – rustling leaves/foliage and trainer/handler communication are two common ways I know that the dog is almost there. Make sure you are ready with the dog’s reward (typically high-value treats, or a tug toy) to pay them when they find you – this motivator keeps them engaged for future SAR work.

Clearly communicate with the trainer

Keeping clear lines of communication during the trail is very important. You can let them know of anything to be wary of during the trail, and confirm that you reached your endpoint as planned. They can also let you know when they are setting off alongside the handler and dog to find you. Using a location tracking app like Mantrailing can also help you record your training efforts and see how closely the dog followed the original trail.

Enjoy the experience

Personally, running trails is something I look forward to every week. It’s something to be enjoyed! Firstly, it’s always great to be outside, experiencing and exploring the world around us (rain or shine). On longer trails, it’s also refreshing to have some solitary time away from the hustle and bustle of daily life to just sit, relax, and wait to be found. Finally, I know that the ‘work’ I’m doing (if you can define walking + hiding as work!) is rewarding as it is helping to bring along the skills of a SAR dog, many of whom go on to be deployed and help to locate missing people in our communities.

sar trailing tips

In conclusion

Running trails for SAR dogs is an incredibly valuable use of your time. It is something that benefits everybody involved – you, the trainer, the handler, and the dog. I would recommend trail running to anyone who is looking to offer their time for a worthwhile, rewarding endeavor. 

Even more importantly, these training activities could contribute towards that dog finding a missing person at some point in the future. It is amazing to know that your time and effort – for something that is relatively simple – could make such a difference to a parent whose child has disappeared, or to a family whose elderly relative with dementia has gone missing.

Interested in learning more about trail running? Email us at with your questions. We’d love to hear from you!

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