The K-9 units are often the first on
the scene and are most often trained to "track" by putting their
nose to the ground and following the footsteps of the missing person,
i.e. Ground tracking.
Most Search and Rescue dogs focus on
air scenting though. They are trained to pick up scents on the
wind and follow them back to their source. This is a much
quicker way of finding people, usually, because the dog is able to
more efficiently "beeline" to the missing person once the scent has
been located. If a person has been missing for 4 hours, the
ground tracking dogs will follow their steps which could take
another 4 hours to catch up to the missing person (if they happened
not to have wandered back over their previously traveled path).
The air scent dogs will take the most direct path back to missing
person after they pick up the "scent cone".
There are several different types of
Search and Rescue dogs. Ski resorts and other snowy locales often have avalanche dogs on
duty or on call. These search and rescue dogs are especially trained
to find people buried under snow. Their practice sessions include
burying volunteers in snow caves so the dogs can find them and be
rewarded. Handlers have to learn survival tactics for this
environment. You can not send out rescuers who will have to be
rescued! The same is true with wilderness terrain as well.
The handlers must know the appropriate survival skills for the
Some SAR dogs (Search and Rescue Dogs)
are specially trained for disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, and explosions
rubbles. These dogs are skilled at searching difficult and
Sadly, there is also a need for Search
and Rescue dogs specially trained to find lost
people who have died. Such dogs can locate bodies buried in the
ground, under water, or in other places that would be impossible to
adequately search without the help of the search and rescue team
trained in cadaver work. It is often sad for the
dogs, too. In fact, many of these dogs lose interest in their
"work" if not handled properly. Handlers must make sure the dogs know their work is
appreciated even in the absence of the jubilant response that
happens when a dog finds a missing person alive.
Volunteers who serve in search and rescue work make a strong
commitment that often affects their work and family lives.
They invest both time and money in keeping their training and certification testing
up to date.
and their dogs put in many hours of travel for practice and
Each volunteer must spend considerable time learning survival
and first aid skills in the areas that they are trained to
The volunteer will have considerable
expense, even if donations are available to provide some help.
Search and rescue handlers can endlessly discuss dog selection.
Most of the work is done off-leash, which leads to use of sporting
and herding breeds whose breeding predisposes them to do well in
off-leash training. Some of the working breeds excel as search and
rescue dogs, too. Search work can also be done with dogs on-lead,
sometimes the case with police K-9 units and with Bloodhounds.
The breed makes a difference in how the dog will be trained. It
also makes a difference in what the dog will be able to do and where
the dog will be able to work. The dog built to work at higher
temperatures may not be able to work for long periods in snow, and
vice versa. Though most search and rescue dogs are large, small ones
can get into tighter spaces. Such spaces are increasingly common in
disasters that involve collapsed buildings.
As with other dog work, the right match between dog and handler
is a large part of success. The specific dog also must be physically
and mentally sound and able to hold up long enough to justify the
time and money that will go into training. Note that it wonít be
only the handlerís time and money, but also donations of time by
other volunteers, the time of professionals, and money from various
sources. Itís also most humane to work with a dog who is put
together for the work, so the dog will enjoy it rather than
suffering physical or mental pain from it.
Search and rescue dogs and their handlers must be able to safely
and calmly travel to the search site. This may mean something as
dramatic as riding in a helicopter and being lowered over a cliff. When
around other people and dogs, both members of the team must be able
to conduct themselves courteously and safely.
The skills for searching include tracking, trailing, air scenting
(most dogs learn more than one style; all learn at least one), and
the ability to maneuver into position to do the job. Search and
rescue dogs need to be agile, and much of the training includes
working on obstacle equipment and real-life obstacles such as rubble
Search and rescue dogs cannot chase wildlife or stray dogs while
they are working. They must be steady to loud noises that would
scare many other dogs. This is partly a matter of training, partly a
matter of getting the dogs used to situations, and partly choosing a
dog with the right genetics. Fear of loud noises is to some extent
inherited, and temperament testing includes checking for this trait.
Needed: Qualified Teams
Disasters requiring search and rescue teams need more
Not only are more dogs and handlers needed, but more training, too.
Some of the responders have not been adequately prepared, and in
spite of doing their best, they may have made things harder for those who
With more "mission ready" teams, people have a better chance of
survival if found quickly. The situation also becomes less
dangerous for the search and rescue teams, because each team has a
better chance of getting adequate rest. This way the dog wonít be
completely ruined by the search. Handlers have to understand that
they need to be willing to make
this sacrifice. The sad thing is that often tragic loss could be
avoided if there were more qualified teams.
Search and rescue dogs and their handlers save not only the
people they find, but also the humans who would otherwise have had
to place themselves at much greater risk in the search. The dogs can
greatly narrow the search and turn the impossible into the possible.
Search and rescue teams who do the work to properly qualify
themselves and then answer the calls to go out on missions are true
heroes. What would we do without them?
If this work appeals to you, seek out people in your area who are
involved. You donít even have to have a dog to be of service in
search and rescue work. There are lots of ways to help, including
letting the dogs find you in practice sessions, setting up and
taking down obstacles and rubble piles, helping with communications,
and doing paperwork for the team. You definitely wonít be bored!
In Chattanooga, we are currently in
the process of attempting to put together a new Search and Rescue
team. If you think that you might be interested in joining our
team, please feel free to
We will be determining qualifications of each canine through
Dogs of America.