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Overview of K9 Search and Rescue

Search Dog Sony with Ready Pack

Search and Rescue Dogs: Intro & Overview

Search and Rescue Dogs work with their handlers, team, and emergency personnel to find and recover people or human remains. Utilizing scent, these highly trained dogs can cover and clear vast amounts of hostile terrain quickly, thoroughly, and effectively. They work on a grid, with the dog covering the entire grid side to side. When the dog encounters the presence of the target scent it is trained for, it alerts its handler to the precise location of the scent. If no scent is located within the grid, the team moves to the next grid, and begins to methodically clear again. When working search and rescue dogs, there are fewer questions — there is either scent, or there isn’t.

A well trained scent dog can detect less than half a teaspoon of substance added to an Olympic-sized swimming pool. They can smell one single rotten apple out of two million barrels of good apples. Functionally, they can pick up the scent of something diluted one or two parts to a trillion. They can smell things buried as deep as 12 meters underground, and up to 25 meters underwater, even in minute amounts. They can pick up the scent of target odor at well over 500 meters away, and follow it to its source.

Search and Rescue Dogs can work in any environment, and oftentimes can reduce danger to the human teammates by entering and clearing areas that would be difficult or impossible for a human to enter. They can work in blazing deserts, alpine and mountain environments, sub-freezing conditions, and everything in between. They work in natural and urban disasters, and have been cited by major organizations as having the efficiency of over 20 human searchers in disaster situations and more than double that in wilderness searches.

Search and Rescue Dogs: Types of SAR K9s

There are over a dozen kinds of search and rescue dogs, but at the end of the day, the dogs are only looking for one of two scents: the scent of a living human, or the scent of human remains. The second physiological death occurs in the body, the body begins producing a distinct cadaver scent, which some dogs can detect in amounts so small scientific instruments can no longer pick up on. The various distinctions of search and rescue dogs more define the environment and situations the dog has been trained to deploy in, not the ability of the dog to indicate human scent.

Dogs who indicate or follow the scent of a living human are called live find dogs, and dogs who alert to the presence of human remains in any amount are called human remains detection dogs, or, more colloquially, cadaver dogs. Either type of dog can be trained to work in any environment or mix of environments — wilderness, urban, disaster, aquatic, etc. A dog who specializes in urban disaster live find, for example, will be thoroughly trained to work a rubble pile and to alert to the presence of living humans under the rubble. A wilderness HRD dog will be trained to cover vast swathes of land and to alert to the presence of human remains. However, a single type of dog (live find or HRD) can be trained to work a variety of environments, and they usually are.

Any search dog team can receive additional, technical training to expand the environments they can work in. As an example, rappelling and technical rope rescue work allows teams to access mountainous or disaster environments. Confined space rescue training allows the teams to enter tight urban locations or cave systems. A search and rescue dog can accompany its trained handler anywhere the handler can access, and they can be deployed in any many a human can be — from a helicopter, ATV, etc.

Aquatic search and rescue dogs take two forms, both again dealing with either living or deceased people. Aquatic rescue dogs are trained to deploy from a boat or helicopter into unsafe or inhospitable water conditions and to go to and haul back an individual in need of rescue. These dogs are large, powerful dogs with natural insulation to frigid conditions. Water dogs who are trained in HRD will alert rescuers to the scent of human remains in or under the water.

Specialty search and rescue dogs include avalanche and arson dogs, both of whom are trained to locate individuals or human remains in specialty environments, i.e. — all snow, or the remnants of a fire. 90% of avalanche victims are alive 30 min post, but after 35 minutes, that percentage drops to 30%. A trained avalanche dog can quickly pinpoint human scent under the snow, thereby increasing the chances of survival.

Search and Rescue Dogs: Effectiveness & Capabilities

Most search dogs are “air scent” (or area search) dogs, meaning they pick up the presence of their target odor via air particles. All humans constantly emit microscopic particles bearing human scent. By the millions, these particles become airborne and can be carried by the wind for considerable distances. Airborne scent is concentrated near its source, follows the air currents, and becomes more dilute the further it travels.

An air scenting SAR dog is specially trained to locate the scent of any human in a specific area and close in on the source of the scent and can do so from hundreds of meters away, in heavy bush or in the dark. Search and rescue dogs are not restricted to following the missing person’s track and can search long after the track is obliterated, zeroing in on where the person is now, regardless of how they got there. Dogs can access terrain humans cannot, and they naturally move more quickly. In extreme environments, a well-conditioned dog can easily cover more ground than 50 human searchers. This is particularly true in mountain and vast wilderness environments.

Dog teams can deploy quickly and independently of other search resources, and can be a highly effective first response. Search and rescue dogs and their handlers are adept at working at night and can be deployed while other resources are being marshaled or are regrouping. They are routinely deployed at night when time is critical (eg. missing child, known injury). Air scenting search dogs can be used in almost any weather. Although strong winds, snow or heavy rain may destroy all traces or a subject’s track, the subject is still emitting scent, even if deceased. Wind helps rather than hinders the dog’s ability to detect scent, even months or years after the subject’s death. Light rain will rehydrate scent emitting particles that may have dried up during the day.

An air scent search and rescue dog can find the scent of a living human for days after the human has moved from the immediate environment, and can continue to zero in on the scent source’s location from the instant scent is picked up, regardless of how much time or distance has passed. When it comes to scenting human remains, time is almost not relevant. If there is any degree of source material, even in microscopic amounts, a well trained search dog will tell you it’s there.

Tracking dogs aren’t commonly used in wilderness search and rescue, although they’re useful when there’s a known point of origin. These dogs place their nose directly into a pocket of scent left by the person they’re seeking, and they follow each pocket of scent left by each footstep as the person moved. They will take you from point A to point B, following the same path the person took. Tracking conditions vary widely, but many tracking dogs can follow a trail that’s aged as much as a week. Live find dogs can be cross trained to track.

Search Dogs can work in any environment, temperatures, or climates. For dogs who are not acclimatized to high elevation, they require the same period of adjustment as human searchers — approximately 24 hours — in order to prevent elevation sickness.

Search and Rescue Dogs: Requirements

Deploying a search dog team requires preparation and understanding of how the team works. The team will generally work away from other searchers, as the dog is trained to alert to the presence of human scent. They require a navigator to accompany the team, as the handler will be watching the dog for alerts to scent, not the map. The team will always deploy as a K9-handler pair.

The handler carries the dogs’ gear in field, and will bring the gear necessary to deployments. If a search will last longer than 3 days, additional food will need to be procured for the dog, per team specifications. At least one additional officer is assigned to act as Safety Officer and to manage logistics at or near Incident Command for the search.

The team will require an additional square meter of space in or around the assigned sleeping area for a kennel. Many handlers will store gear on top of the kennel, which reduces the team’s footprint. They will need a designated space to relieve their animal. The dog will either eat with the team, on the ground, or in its kennel. Water requirements are the same as a human searcher — 3 to 5 liters a day, with more in extreme environments.

While the search and rescue industry has many tools and skill-sets available to them, there is no replacement for the skills and abilities of properly trained and handled search and rescue dogs. The Rescue Cooperative is very proud of our K-9 rescuers, and the human handlers who lead them.


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