Search and Rescue Dog Facts


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As we continue to celebrate our 20th anniversary, we’re highlighting our most popular posts from throughout the years. This post was originally posted in 2000, but still rings true today. Our fascination with search and rescue dogs has never wavered, and these facts give some great insight into what these intelligent dogs are actually used for. Check out this interview Ranny Green did with Mary P. Klinck DVM, DACVB who is a veterinary behaviorist for more information on our own dogs behavior.

When someone is reported lost or overdue, volunteer search and rescue (SAR) dog teams are available to respond, day or night, to help in the search effort. SAR dogs can find:

  • Children lost in the wilderness, parks or hidden in shrubbery around houses
  • Old people who have wandered away from homes and hospital
  • Hikers and hunters lost in the woods
  • Victims of drowning accidents
  • Victims of avalanche, earthquake, flood, explosion, fire, train wrecks, plane crashes, tornadoes and other disasters
  • Evidence of crime and the bodies of homicide victims

Volunteer SAR dog units search under the direction of law enforcement and emergency services agencies, at no cost to the agency. Units will not respond to requests by private individuals, and will not respond to known criminal searches that may present a threat to dog or handler.

All humans, alive or dead, constantly emit microscopic particles bearing human scent. Millions of these are airborne and are carried by the wind for considerable distances. The air scenting SAR dog is trained to locate the scent of any human in a specific search area. The dog is not restricted to the missing person’s track and can search long after the track is obliterated. Many air scenting search dogs are also trained in trailing/scent discrimination.

Upon arrival at the search site, dog handlers work directly for their unit’s operations leader, who reports to the search boss or incident commander of the local agency. Many units provide their own base camp operation, with trained radio operators, SAR dog advisors, and other support personnel.

After initial hasty searches of trails and paths, each dog/handler team is usually assigned a segment of the search area to cover systematically. Handlers work their dogs downwind of the section assigned to them or cover the area in a way that provides dogs with the best scenting coverage. Handlers map the area they have covered and report their POD (probability of detection) to the plans section or operations leader upon completing their assignments.

Search dogs can work in areas where other searchers have been, and they can work with other search resources, such as mantrackers. Using scent articles, they can discriminate for the missing person in heavily populated areas. They can work day or night, in most kinds of weather, and are especially effective where human sight is most limited — in the dark, in dense woods or heavy brush, in debris (as found in earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes) and under water.

SAR dog handlers must enjoy working with dogs and being in the outdoors in all kinds of weather. They must be physically fit and able to respond to emergencies. They must become proficient in land navigation, map and compass, radio communications, wilderness survival, and first aid. (Most units require a minimum of Advanced First Aid with CPR.)

Requirements for the SAR dog include trainability, agility, endurance, and the ability to get along with other dogs and people. A search dog is a valued member of his handler’s family, and he regards people as his friends. SAR dogs are usually the larger working and sporting breeds of dogs. German Shepherds, Dobermans, Rottweilers, Golden Retrievers, Giant Schnauzers, and Labradors are among the breeds found on SAR unit rosters.
Most handlers prefer to begin training a young puppy. However, an older dog may be suitable if the dog has already developed a good working relationship with his owner. Dogs trained for police service, protection, security, Schutzhund, and the like, can be used in SAR work, as long as they are trained not to bite except on command, and are nonaggressive during searches and when finding a person. There is no place in lost person search for an overly aggressive dog.

It normally takes a year of training — at least twice a week — before a dog/handler team is mission-ready. All units evaluate a candidate team’s search proficiency before fielding them on actual missions.

At present, there are over 150 air scenting search dog units around the country, from Alaska to Georgia and from Maine to California. New units are continually being formed. While specific training methods and operating procedures may vary from unit to unit, the basic concept of searching with air scenting dogs is quite uniform (based on the pioneering work of Bill Syrotuck).
Such uniformity enables SAR-responsible agencies to know what to expect when they request search dogs, and to know how to best deploy them in the field. It also enables teams from different units to work together on large-scale searches.

Source: The National Association for Search and Rescue,

Originally posted on January 1, 2000. All Rights Reserved.


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