jacketThe use of dogs in search and rescue (SAR) is a valuable component in wilderness tracking, natural disasters, mass casualty events, and in locating missing people.

Dedicated handlers and well-trained dogs are required for the use of dogs to be effective in search efforts.  

Thank you Dr Cindy Atwood for her assistance in developing this topic.



The late night darkness wraps around you like a cloak, you adjust the light beam from your headlamp and check the compass bearings. You and your teammate are nearing the edge of your assigned sector. Just as you pause to set over for your next grid pass your partner’s flashing light and bell take off on a different trajectory. Moments later you hear your partner’s joyous Bark! Bark! Bark! And she comes full throttle back to face you and fling both paws with unceremonious impact against your chest.  You rush after your furry companion as she leads you to the sleepy child. She has found him!found

This is a scenario from a successful canine search and rescue team mission.  These are most often all volunteer non-profit organizations which provide trained handlers and search and rescue dogs to assist law enforcement officials, including Game wardens, state and local police departments, marine patrol and the coast guard, among others, in locating lost or missing persons.

The requirements for becoming an active member of a canine SAR unit vary from state to state and region to region. In my state of Maine the organization is known as Maine Search and Rescue Dogs or MESARD and since its founding in 1983 it has gained the respect of other K9 SAR groups across the country for its strict certification requirements.

Hopefully, a person interested in joining a SAR team has done some homework and has aquainted themselves with at least the basic requirements. You need to be in good physical condition, love the outdoors (especially at night as this is when the dog teams really shine) have a job or employer flexible enough to let you attend monthly team trainings as well as other training seminars and to allow you to go dashing off at a moments notice (and for you to be willing to leave your warm bed in the middle of a snow storm), be willing and able to spend a significant amount of your own money for equipment, training and travel expences, be unphased by the likely possibility of being the first and sole individual to come upon a deceased or severely injured person or one of unsound mind, and, of course, love and be familiar with training dogs. In the case of my own organization here in Maine, those people who still feel they’d like to join the team are asked to fill out an application and then may be invited (sans dog) to a monthly team training (actually in our state we have Northern and Southern trainings so applicants need to come to at least 2 trainings) to meet the team members and participate in a day of SAR exercises. Within a 6 week period of time the team will vote to accept the applicant or not. Once accepted as a member the training begins. Handler training will include first aide, CPR, land navigation, radio communications, wilderness survival, crime scene preservation, the national Incident Command System, ground search techniques and search organization. We must pass a MASAR (Maine Association of Search and Rescue) approved BASAR (basic search and rescue) course so we’re tested in virtually every aspect. Once you pass BASAR you are ground searcher certified and allowed to participate as a ground searcher in full MASAR search call-outs. To begin participating with a MESARD team you can take the flanker certification test and then be welcomed as an integral part of the canine team acting as a second pair of eyes, assisting with navigation and radio comm.

After all of that we finally get to the DOGS! There are some teams which are very selective of their dogs  even to the point of dictating which breed or breeds you may train. In MESARD we are looking for dogs of sound health, mind and conformation with a strong hunt drive and a desire to be rewarded with food, or ideally, play and praise.  Large breeds tend to be frowned upon because of their frequently “laid-back” nature, decreased drive when compared to other breeds and physical issues. Certainly, not all Leonbergers will make good SAR dogs. When I first applied to the team with my first female, who was 3 at the time (and who certainly had the drive and athletisism) I was told I would need to start a new puppy because my leo was not likely to live long enough after the 2 to 3 years it was likely to take to certify her to justify all the time and expence to train her. When I approached them with my male pup they were still quite skeptical but saw enough in us to allow me to train and certify him in tracking/trailing rather than air scent. 

Once you’ve acquired your puppy the first year is not unlike the first year of any well-rounded pup. This is the time to build that bond which will be so important when you must rely upon one another in the field. Socialization (and more socialization), obedience classes, and SAR games are essential  all the while watching for where your individual dog’s aptitudes and preferences lie.

There are several disciplines within SAR from which to choose. In general, though we have dogs on our team proficient in severel disciplines, it is recommended to stick with only 1 or 2. The Airscent dog works away from its handler off leash. They can cover large areas searching for human scent. Once they find human scent they are trained to follow the scent cone to its source, the person. Usually airscent dogs are not scent specific; they do not need a scent article from the lost person to find someone. If the person the dog finds is not the one lost they are simply rewarded and asked to keep searching. To become airscent certified in MESARD the handler and dog must pass five certification exams which are field mock searches designed to test the teams proficiency. These include a 40 acre day search, a 40 acre night search, a heavy brush search, a 160 acre search and a search with only human remains scent (HRD) to assure that the dog will alert if the lost person is deceased.

Tracking/trailing dogs are usually, though not always, worked on lead. They are given a specific scent and asked to follow the scent trail of that specific person. Tracking dogs are taught to follow foot step to footstep whereas trailing dogs are encouraged to follow the scent “cloud” of a person and thus possibly short cut the track to find the lost person more quickly. Certification for the basic tracking/trailing dog require passing 4 certification tests; A simple relatively uncontaminated trail at least .5 mi long and aged at least 1 hr; the same sort of scenario done at night; a contaminated start, usually done by asking the track layer to leave the place where the team is mustered for training and aged at least 4 hrs; and a “search for the trail” where the team is given a scent article up to 1/4 mi from where a track crosses a roadside or trail and the dog must find and follow the track to the track layer. Articles are left to be found on the tracks.  leash example

HRD dogs are trained to alert on human remains. There are sub-disciplines depending on the amount and source of scent that a dog will alert on (full body, body parts, skeletal remains, buried remains, etc). The basic certification includes a “pretest” similar to the test for airscent certification and then a more advanced test.

Article dogs are certified to find clues or evidence. To certify a dog must find at least 3 ot of 5 hidden scent articles in a 50 yd X 50 Yd area.

Water search dogs test in 2 sub-disciplines, shoreline and boat. For the former they must indicate on HRD scent placed in at least 2 feet of water, 6 to 10 feet from the shoreline. For the boat test, there may be a diver or more usually a submerged scent pump (HRD) out in a lake or pond. The handler must direct the boat driver where to take the boat using wind and current conditions and alerts from their dog as to where the scent “is” and where it is not so as to zero in on the most likely area to recover the “body”.

Many of these tests have time limits. Most of the disciplines have advanced categories as well.

Training and fielding a SAR dog takes a lot of time, effort, money and discipline and team work. We are most often called out in the middle of the night in all kinds of weather. You go to the area you are assigned and most often your job is to search for clues and to help (in our case, the Game Wardens) know where the person is Not located so they can narrow in on where the person Is located. There are people on our team who have been on it almost since its inception with excellent dogs who have not yet been the dog team to find the lost person.  There is no pay. But for those of us with a passion for our dogs and the outdoors and a desire to Help, the rewards are huge.

Starting as a puppy, the games we play involve, not surprisingly, searching for things. We might just use their favorite ball/toy and after getting them more or less addicted to it start hiding it in easy places in the house and yard, or throwing it to an area just out of sight of the pup so he/she will have to do a bit of searching to find it. Gradually these games are increased in difficulty, either by increasing the distance the pup needs to go to Find It! or by increasing the time between hiding of the toy and release of the pup. The goal is teaching the puppy how to use his/her nose rather than their eyes to find things.

OntheTrailThe same sort of games can be played on walks in the woods with ourselves as the “toy”. You need to be watchful of when the puppy is not paying attention to you and duck quietly behind a tree or rock. At first you want to kep it easy and even encourage the puppy, being careful not to make it so hard as to cause the pup to panic. We want them to always have Fun! Once they get the idea we make it more challanging until it is very difficult indeed, to escape the pup’s watchful eye. At that time we can start having a partner train the puppy with us. Again, we start simple and keep it exciting for the puppy. At first, the puppy gets to watch the “subject” run away a short distance and hide. Then the handler releases the puppy and both run full out to “find” the hidden subject at which point the favorite toy or treat appears and a grand party is had by all. In the case of the air scent dogs we want to start sending the subject away right into a good breeze so the pup/dog gets used to having that snootful of human odor to follow. When we start sending the subject out while the pup/dog can not see them that hunam scent in the nose becomes their guiding light. By this point the handler is hopefully getting a feel of his/her dog’s apptitudes and weakness and is deciding which venues they will want to concentrate in. The training for a tracking dog begins to vary from that of the airscent dog at this time. In all cases we want to establish a very strong drive to Find People and Ignore Distractions. The exercises are gradually made longer and more challanging, changing as many aspects of the search scenario which we are able to. Always interspersed with easier and stimulating finds to keep dog and handler’s motivation high. Practise, practise and more practise, we are never “done” training the SAR dogs. Once they are proficient the team requests their certification tests and once those are passed they are “mission ready”.

Search and Rescue is not for everybody or every dog but it really is a wondeful way to serve your state and commiunity and to build an incredible bond with your canine teammate.

As of Sept. 11, 2012 - The owners of Urban Search and Rescue dogs that are FEMA or state deployable can request a title. The dog must be AKC registered. The owner is required to also submit a copy of the certificate the dog received from FEMA or the State organization in order to verify the dog has been certified.  
Form:  http://images.akc.org/pdf/events/performance/Urban_Search_Rescue_Title_Form.pdf

A wonderful resource site maintained by an EMT/K-9 Handler with Thurmont K9 Search and Rescue Team, Thurmont, MD.