The mission of the search and rescue dog and handler is to find lost people, alive or deceased. The dog and handler function as a team, and spend a great deal of time training together to prepare. Search and rescue handlers sometimes function as volunteers. In other cases they are part of professional Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), police or other governmental agencies.
It is essential for a good search and rescue teams to have high standards of qualifications. The scent changes quickly with time and is damaged when people and animals move around and over it. A poorly qualified team reaching the scene first and working it improperly reduces the chances that a qualified team coming after them will be able to find the lost person.
SDA offers Search and Rescue titles which will help handlers and team leaders determine whether you dog has the “knack” for search and rescue work.
Search Areas and Techniques
Search and rescue dogs work in many different situations, and terrains. The dogs have 2 major techniques for finding lost people:
- Ground Tracking
- Air Scenting
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 environment.
Some SAR dogs (Search and Rescue Dogs) are specially trained for disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, and explosions that create rubbles. These dogs are skilled at searching difficult and shifting terrain.
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.
Volunteers and their dogs put in many hours of travel for practice and certification testing.
Each volunteer must spend considerable time learning survival and first aid skills in the areas that they are trained to search.
The volunteer will have considerable expense, even if donations are available to provide some help.
- The handler and dog need special equipment, and it must be the right equipment in good, safe condition.
- Because SAR dogs commonly experience injuries, the handler is likely to incur veterinary expenses.
- He may incur expense for his own medical treatment if he, himself, is injured.
- He will lose time from work (for not only the mission but also for any injuries he suffers).
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 won’t be only the handler’s time and money, but also donations of time by other volunteers, the time of professionals, and money from various sources. It’s 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 piles.
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 qualified teams. 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 were qualified.
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 won’t 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 don’t 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 won’t 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 contact us. We will be determining qualifications of each canine through Service Dogs of America.