Search and rescue dog

Search and rescue dog

The use of dogs in search and rescue (SAR) is a valuable component in responding to law enforcement requests for missing people. Dedicated handlers and hard working, well-trained dogs are required in search efforts to be effective in their task.

Search and rescue (SAR) dogs detect human scent. Although exactly whatthis means to the dog is not known, it may include skin rafts (scent-carrying skin cells that drop off living humans at a rate of about 40,000 cells per minute) [] , evaporated perspiration, respiratory gases, or decomposition gases released by bacterial action on human skin or tissues.

Search and rescue dogs are typically worked by a small team on foot, but can be worked from horseback.



Search and rescue dogs can be generally classified as airscenting, or trailing. Airscenting dogs primarily use airborne human scent to home in on subjects, whereas trailing dogs rely on scent of the specific subject. Airscenting dogs typically work off-lead, are non-scent discriminating (eg, locate scent from any human as opposed to a specific person), and cover large areas of terrain. These dogs are trained to follow diffused or wind-borne scent back to its source, return to the handler and indicate contact with the subject, and then lead the handler back to the subject. Handler technique, terrain, environment (vegetation), and atmospheric conditions (wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, and sky conditions) determine the area covered by airscenting dogs, although a typical search area may be 40-160 acres and scent sources can be detected from a distance of 1/4 mile or more. Although other breeds can be trained for airscenting, the prototypical airscenting dog is a herding (eg, German or Belgian shepherds, Border Collies) or sporting (eg, Golden or Labrador retrievers) breed that has a reputation for working closely and in coordination with a human handler. Trailing dogs are scent discriminating and require a scent article from the subject, work on-lead or off lead to follow the subject's path. Tracking dogs follow ground disturbance using non-human scent (eg, crushed vegetation, disturbed earth) in following the subject's movements as in sporting type events such as AKC Tracking and Schutzhund Tracking. The effectiveness of tracking dogs is highly dependent upon the terrain (some surfaces, such as grass, retain scent better than others, such as pavement), the age of the trail (fresher is easier to follow), the path (the dog is most likely to lose the trail if there are sharp turns or changes in direction), and the number of contaminating paths that cross the subject's path. The bloodhound is the prototypical Trailing dog, although herding and sporting breeds are often successfully trained for either trailing or tracking with trailing being the optimum. In addition to these types of dogs, some teams cross train dogs in both trailing and air-scent and use them as scent specific "area search dogs". Typically these dogs are worked in an area an air scent dog would work but are capable of ignoring other search teams and other people in or near the assigned search area. When deployed this way, these dogs work with a scent article as does a trailing dog.Specific applications for SAR dogs include wilderness, disaster, cadaver, avalanche, and drowning search and rescue or recovery.

In wilderness SAR applications, airscenting dogs can be deployed to high-probability areas (places where the subject may be or where the subject's scent may collect, such as in drainages in the early morning) whereas tracking/trailing dogs can be deployed from the subject's last known point (LKP) or the site of a discovered clue. Handlers must be capable of bush navigation, wilderness survival techniques, and be self-sufficient. The dogs must be capable of working for 4-8 hours without distraction (eg, by wildlife).

Disaster dogs are used to locate victims of catastrophic or mass-casualty events (eg, earthquakes, landslides, building collapses, aviation incidents). Many disaster dogs in the US are trained to meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency K9 standards for domestic or international deployment; advanced agility and off-lead training are prerequisites reflecting the nature of these dogs' application. Disaster dogs rely primarily on airscent, and may be limited in mass-casualty events by their inability to differentiate between survivors and recently-deceased victims.

"Human Remains Detection (HRD) or cadaver dogs" are used to locate the remains of deceased victims. Depending on the nature of the search, these dogs may work off-lead (eg, to search a large area for buried remains) or on-lead (to recover clues from a crime scene). Airscenting and tracking/trailing dogs are often cross-trained as cadaver dogs, although the scent the dog detects is clearly of a different nature than that detected for live or recently-deceased subjects. Cadaver dogs can locate entire bodies (including those buried or submerged), decomposed bodies, body fragments (including blood, tissues, hair, and bones), or skeletal remains; the capability of the dog is dependent upon its training.

In the winter of 1997 through to the spring of 1998 Dr. Deb Komar of the University of Alberta, Canada conducted a study 'The use of cadaver dogs in cases of advanced decomposition: A field study in adverse recovery scenarios and animal vs human scent discrimination'. Dr. Komar worked with cadaver dog teams from the RCMP Civilian Search Dog Program, a provincial umbrella organization of which at that time all Alberta search dog teams belong to. This study showed the accuracy rates of cadaver dogs in moderate to adverse winter weather conditions. Also in the study it showed the dogs capabilites to discriminate between animal and human remains. It indicated that an accuracy rate of near 100% can be achieved through careful and directed training. Her work has been published in the Journal of Forensic Anthropology.

Avalanche dogs work similarly to airscenting, disaster, or cadaver dogs, and must be able to rapidly transition from a wilderness SAR-airscenting scenario to a disaster scenario focused on pinpointing the subject's location.


Training is a life-long, time-consuming, and comprehensive process for both the dog and the handler. For the dog, training is best begun early in life (upon acquisition of a suitable puppy, 8-10 weeks) for deployment of the dog in 12-18 months and retirement, depending on the breed and individual dog, at 5-10 years. Obedience training is essential for the dog's safety, order at staging areas, and to maintain professionalism in the audience of law enforcement and the public. Socialization and handler-canine bonding are especially important for airscenting dogs. Basic agility training is necessary, and advanced training may pay off unexpectedly. Scent training should be initiated early using a variety of methods (see definitive works by Bulanda 1994 and ARDA 1991) and is often best accomplished by working with an experienced, well-established local training group that has a track record of working with local or state law enforcement. For puppies, expect to train obedience, socialization, and agility daily 2-5 times for 10 up to 60 minutes, and scent training 3-7 times per week for 5-30 minutes. As the dog's abilities improve, daily obedience training continues, with impromptu or planned agility and socialization sessions. Scent training frequency decreases (3-5 times/week) but duration increases (20-60 minutes per session). Search-ready dogs need once-weekly training sessions (4-8 hours) along with frequent focus sessions (5-60 minutes, 3 or more times per week). Training outside the dog's primary focus (eg, teaching an airscenting dog scent discrimination, cadaver, or avalanche techniques) should be done cautiously and only once the dog reliably performs in his primary training area. Usually training starts as a game played with puppies [] , starting with simple reward-based training (i.e. puppy is given a treat or allowed to play with a toy upon showing a simple skill such as retrieving the toy and bringing it back to the trainer) and expanding outward to "games" with more specific job skills (i.e. a well-loved toy is scented with the desired scent to find; when puppy finds the toy, he/she is allowed to play with the toy; later, scent and toy are separated so that puppy will search for the scent and is rewarded with the toy afterward). The "games" technique is particularly effective with dogs bred for retrieval (such as hunting and sporting breeds) but has also been successful with working and herding dog breeds. A more commonly used approach is to base training on herding, prey/pursuit, and pack instincts: initial training for puppies usually involves run-away games where the handler runs from the puppy and hides a short distance away. Basic instincts drive the puppy to locate the subject, initially by sight but with the association of human scent. To advance this training, the subject hides further away or longer times pass between departure of the subject and release of the dog. The dog is forced to rely increasingly on scent to locate the subject. Eventually, the dog can be transitioned to search without seeing the subject depart by simply giving the command used when he's released during basic runaway training. During all stages, finding the subject is reinforced by multiple means (praise, play, or food treats).

For the handler (again, based on wilderness airscenting experience), wilderness orienteering and wilderness self-sufficiency/survival are essential training skills. Dog handling skills must also be learned during training (eg, recognizing working v distracted behaviors, differentiating between alerts and finds, and positioning the dog to maximize terrain coverage). Of primary importance is the handlers ability to understand what and how the dog is working at any point in time. To do this the handler will require detailed and intimate understanding of scent theory. Advanced emergency medical skills are usually not required but are advisable. The most rigorous studies of scent theory, lost person behavior, canine search technique, and incident command which can be found in hard-to-find publications by William (Bill) Syrotuck. Due to the level of physical exertion required at times, the top end sar organizations may require difficult physical standardized testing to be done. This insures that the handler is able to cope with the ever changing situations presented to them.

Airscenting dogs are trained to find (ie, follow human scent to its source, be it human or traces of a human), but this basic process has been elaborated and improved upon: dogs now are commonly also trained a recall/refind and indication. The entire process may begin with the command "Go find!", indicating that the dog is to search until the find is made. After the find, the dog can be trained to return to the handler (recall), perform a trained indication (often a "bark" coupled with some form of meaningful touching of the handler, such as a paw placed on the handler's leg or a "sit-stay" at the handler's feet), and return to the subject (refind, sometimes cued with the "Show me!" command). Once the handler is with the subject, the dog is released (and during training, rewarded). Dogs trained the recall/refind shuttle between the handler and the source until the handler and subject are within sight (this builds on the dog's natural pack instinct). This is of greatest use in situations where the dog may be ranging from the handler (wilderness airscenting) or the subject may be concealed or out of sight (eg, at night, hidden in brush), but is less useful for dogs trained for close-quarters searches (eg, cadaver and drowning dogs).

There are 2 schools of thought on recognizing when the dog has made a find, the "natural" or untrained indication vs the trained indication. With the natural indication, the handler must learn to recognize the dog's change in body language when s/he has made a find. For example, the dog may approach the handler and give specific look, or return to the handler in a very determined manner; each dog's natural indication is unique and often difficult for the handler to accurately describe to others. Although this method is touted as being accurate, instinctual, and natural, few new handlers are skilled enough to read their dog to make this a reliable method for training. During training, the handler must learn to recognize this behavior without cueing the dog (lest the dog learn to "indicate" only when the handler subconsciously prompts him to, a common mistake during the training process), and can complicate early training sessions if the handler (who is learning to read the dog) fails to appropriately reward a successful find because she failed to recognize the dog's natural indication. On scene, the handler must pay constant and close attention to the dog, which may be difficult or dangerous in commonly encountered search scenarios (eg, night, hazardous terrain, low-visibility, while navigating off-trail, when fatigued or distracted). Handlers using dogs trained to a natural indication risk missing finds outside of training scenarios, mistaking alerts for finds, or missing finds because a natural indication was not noticed or recognized. Using a natural indication (alert) vs a trained indication (alert) is not recommended

The trained indication involves an additional step in the search-find process; the dog is taught to perform a clearly recognizable behavior only upon finding the subject. For example, the dog may return to the handler and sit, perform a jump up, bark (either at the handler or near the subject), or grab a decoy or bringsel. Addition of this extra step during training is easily accomplished, has the benefit of being easily recognizable under any circumstance, and can be easily differentiated from an alert (see below). Often, training the dog to perform a specific behavior is easier and more reliable than training handlers to consistently and reliably read a dog's "natural" indication. The trained indication has the further advantage that, when a distant find has been made, the dog can be taught to repeatedly shuttle between the subject and handler using a refind-return-indicate-refind sequence. When using a trained indication, the behavior must be well-ingrained in the search-find-recall process that a fatigued dog does not skip it. Advanced dogs can be trained different indications depending upon the nature of the find: for example, a jump-up for a live airscent find and a sit for cadaver. A potential problem with this method is that poorly-trained dogs (or those who have been rushed through training) can become distracted before performing the alert.

An "alert" by an airscenting dog is distinct from an "indication" (although for a dog that uses a natural indication, the 2 may not be distinguishable). Both involve being able to read the dog's behavior. Alerts are instances where an airscenting dog detects human scent but has not located the subject or source. Alerts can be recognized by a change in the dog's behavior--pointing, following a scent upwind, circling, or following scent up terrain or obstructions, for example. Recognizing an alert is essential for any experienced handler, as the location of alerts along with wind conditions, environmental conditions, and terrain can be used by the handler to alter the search strategy. Regardless of whether the dog is trained to perform an indication on find or whether the handler uses a natural indication on find, all handlers must be able to recognize an alert to effectively deploy their dog. Inexperienced handlers who use trained indications may have difficulty recognizing alerts, while handlers who rely on a natural indication may not be able to differentiate an alert from an indication (since the behaviors are essentially the same). Training techniques for search dogs is not written in stone. There are many different techniques for training a dog for this type of work. Anyone interested in training up a search dog should contact a reputable search dog organization and discuss training methods used.

ee also

*Search and rescue horse

External links

*Training organizations
** [ Minnesota Search and Rescue Dog Association (MinnSARDA)]
** [ The American Rescue Dog Association (ARDA)]
** [ National Association of Volunteer Search and Rescue Teams]
** [ Search Dog Association]
** [ German Shepherd Search and Rescue Dog Association]
** [ (USA) National Association of Search & Rescue]
** [ US SAR Dogs, Inc.]
** [ North American Search Dog Network]
** [ Paws of Life Foundation]
** [ Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States (SARDUS)]
** [ K9 Search and Rescue Certified Emergency Response Training]
** [ International Rescue Dog Organization]

*SAR dog teams
**United Kingdom
*** [ Search and Rescue Dog Association SARDA (Wales)]
*** [ Search and Rescue Dog Association SARDA (England)]
*** [ Search and Rescue Dog Association (SARDA) Southern Scotland]
*** [ Berkshire Search and Rescue Dogs (UK)]
*** [ Dorset Search Dogs (UK)]
*** [ (Ireland)
**North America
*** [ Search & Rescue Dog Association of Alberta]
*** [ Northern States Search Dog Network serving MN, WI, ND, SD, IA and beyond]
*** [ MN Area Search Dogs]
*** [ North Carolina K9 Emergency Response Team]
*** [ Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado]
*** [ Front Range Rescue Dogs, CO]
*** [ K-9 One Search and Rescue of Michigan]
*** [ Canadian Search Dog Association]
*** [ Kentucky Search and Rescue]
*** [ Iowa Search and Rescue]
*** [ Minnesota Search and Rescue Dog Association (MinnSARDA)]
*** [ K9 Search Services MN]
*** [ Rocky Mountain Rescue Dogs]
*** [ Texas Response Unit Search & Rescue]
*** [ People and Paws Search and Rescue, Inc.]
*** [ Argus Canine Search and Rescue, Indiana]
*** [ Southwest Search Dogs, San Diego, California]
*** [ Wilderness Finders Search Dog Teams, CA and NV]
*** [ Northstar Search and Rescue Dog Association, MN]
*** [ South Dakota Search and Rescue Dog Association]
*** [ Central Lakes Search and Rescue, Minnesota]
*** [ Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Association (ARDA-VA), Virginia] ***
*** [ King County Search Dogs(KCSD), Washington] ***
*** [ STAR 1 Search and Rescue, Iowa] ***
*** [ South Carolina Search and Rescue Dog Association, SC] ***
**South America
*** [ KSAR Aconcagua, Mendoza, Argentina]
*** [ The Finnish Association of Search and Rescue Dogs]

*** [ Himalaya Rescue Dog Squad Nepal]
*SAR dog stories
** [ Picture Gallery: The World Trade Center's Heroic Rescue Dogs] Photos of 9/11 rescue dogs in action
** [ Search and Rescue Dogs for Kids]

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