The unsung hero’s of many disasters, search and rescue dogs and their handlers search for the victims be they be lost, injured or deceased. We all are familiar with the pictures of SAR (search and rescue) dogs working the sight of a collapsed building or heading out into the wilderness to do the job only they can do. We as humans find it hard to fathom the dog’s ability to sense the tiny molecules that make up smells. It is estimated that some dog’s sense of smell is many thousands of times better than any human being. What is even more amazing is that the dog can discriminate between the molecules in the environment to the degree they can tell the direction to the victim or route they have traveled. Well trained search and rescue dogs do all this and more.
SAR or Search and rescue dogs are classified in two categories. Air scent dogs are used to cover large areas and basically search for any person that is located upwind of them. People shed skin cells that both drop to the ground and are carried in the air. These airborne cells are the ones the air scent dogs home in on. The dogs work off leash and are allowed to range downwind of the area that has been selected for search. Air scent dogs do well in areas where the ground has been contaminated with the scent of other people including family members. Clearing the area of all people for a short time will clear the air and allow the dog to work the air to locate the victim. The dog will at first work back and forth across the scent cone produced by the victim until it narrow to the victim’s location. Air scenting dogs can also be used to find drowning victims by placing the dog in a boat again downwind. A person that has drowned continues to give off scent in terms of gas molecules and cells that rises to the surface of the water and are carried by the wind. The boat operator watches the dog carefully for an indication of direction. Many good air scent search and rescue dogs will literally point the way with their muzzles. Once the point of origin for the scent molecules is reached the dog will indicate by barking. If the location is passed frequently the dog will move to the back of the boat in an effort to stay within the scent cone. In the same manner air scent dogs are used to find cadavers or even bodies buried in shallow graves. Again this work can only be done by a SAR dog.
Trailing dogs use the scent molecules left on the ground. They are able to discriminate old cells from newer ones thereby allowing them to know what direction the victim has traveled. Trailing dogs need a piece of the victims clothing or some other personal effect to imprint on. Once this is accomplished then the dog will placed on a lead and taken to an area that searchers are relative certain the victim was once located. Once the tracking dog hits the scent trail they quickly begin to follow the trail to the victim. Trailing and tracking search and rescue dogs are best used to find lost victims.
Training a search and rescue dog requires at least a one year commitment. It is normally begun with basic obedience training and at the same time the dog is tested for agility and stamina. This is followed by socialization training to make sure the dog is comfortable with people, strange surrounding and other animals. This is important since during any search and rescue mission there are numerous distractions that can interfere with the performance of the SAR dog. The final stage of training is called the search and indication stage. It begins with the handler placing the search vest and harness on the dog. This tells the dog it is time to go to work. A toy is first thrown and retrieved to get the dog interested. Every time the dog retrieves the toy it is taken away from the dog until it barks which is called an indication. Praise and play follows each successful exercise. Then the toy is hidden and used to play hide and seek with. This makes the dog use its nose to find the hidden toy and once found the toy is taken away until the indication bark is made. Again this is followed by praise and play. The dog loves this play time and does not mind the work. Training is done at least twice a day for approximately 45 minutes. When the training is over the vest is removed to let the dog know that work is over. The next step in training requires the help of another trainer or assistant. The assistant is introduced to the dog and begins playing with it using the hide and seek toy. After the socialization is completed the toy is hidden by the associate and again the dog must use its nose to find the toy. Then the toy and the assistant begin to hide together. After that stage is completed the dog is encouraged to find the assistant when he does not possess the toy. When the dog finds the assistant and a good indication is made then the handler uses the toy to praise and play with the dog. Eventually more people are introduced into the search scenario until the dog readily indicates on anyone. When this stage is reached the search and rescue dog has completed basic training. Continued reinforcement training will be required as long as the dog remains a qualified search and rescue dog.
Just about any breed of dog that stands at least 15 inches at the shoulder and has the proper personality can be trained to be a SAR dog. If the handler and the dog are well bonded then training will be a labor of love for both. Handlers are generally expected to purchase all their gear themselves. This is normally done during the training phases and should not be a burden when spread over a year long period. There are many local and national search dog organizations that we help you in your search and rescue dog training and certification. You and your SAR dog will become one of the most important part of the countries disaster first responder teams. Saving lives and giving comfort to families will be your greatest reward. Training and owning a search and rescue dog will give you a great deal of satisfaction.