Search and Rescue Dogs perform incredible feats. Using their nose, they help their human handlers pinpoint the lost and missing, regardless of environment. Most people think of disaster search dogs or wilderness search dogs when thinking of search and rescue dogs, but search dogs also work in water, as do rescue dogs. Many think of “search and rescue” as a single thing, but SAR dogs can be trained for searching, for rescuing, or for both.
When it comes to water and aquatic environments, there’s a distinct difference between searching and rescuing. In a nutshell, water search dogs sweep lakes, ponds, rivers, and the surrounding terrain for human scent. Most water search dogs serve as human remain detection K9s but some also work the scent of live humans in the water, like divers or free swimmers.
In contrast, water rescue dogs help people who are in trouble in the water, like struggling swimmers or boaters who became trapped in a storm. They swim out to those people and via varying means, bring them back to their handler. The handler is usually part of a rescue team. Depending on the environment, the human team members often remain in a helicopter or sturdy boat while the dog performs the rescue.
Search Dogs Find Human Scent
Water Search Dogs are also known as Water Recovery Dogs or Water Recovery K9s. These specialized search and rescue dogs alert to human scent in the water. Typically, they’re trained to alert to the scent of human remains. Water Search Dogs help police find victims of drowning or to locate other bodies in the water. After hurricanes or massive floods, Water Rescue Dogs assist rescue teams with locating those missing as a result of the disaster so their family can get closure.
Water Search Dogs often start out as Human Remains Detection Dogs and then they add water to their environmental skill set. Human scent is human scent, but the dog has to learn that it can be under water. Most of these search and rescue dogs work from a boat. Sometimes, for smaller bodies of water, they’ll search along the shoreline or under bridges.
The same breeds that excel with land-based search and rescue often perform water searches, too. Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs, and various herding breeds, like Border Collies, regularly cross train for water searches or recovery work.
Rescue Dogs Help People in Distress
In contrast to Water Search Dogs, Water Rescue Dogs usually assist those who are still alive. They perform lifesaving skills like hauling a struggling swimmer to shore, towing boats, or delivering lifejackets or rescue harnesses. In stormy or hazardous conditions, it’s often unsafe for a human rescue swimmer to enter the water during a rescue scenario. However, a well-trained Water Rescue Dog can slice through the water and return safely with the person in tow. Once the dog is close enough with the distressed person, the human rescue team takes over to secure both the person needing rescued and the dog.
Water Rescue Dogs are usually Newfoundlands or another large, powerful breed capable of withstanding dangerous conditions and hazardous conditions. Water Rescue Dogs must be fearless and possess excellent endurance. They must take direction well, even at a distance, and be capable of performing their job independently to the best of their ability. These incredible rescue workers often wear a specialized harness that provides extra floatation. The harness usually has handles or attachments for tow lines or rescue gear.
The dog launches out of a helicopter or boat and swims out to the person in distress. Sometimes, they tow a rope, harness, or life jacket with them for the person to grab or put on. Once they get to the person, the person grabs onto the harness or rescue gear and the dog returns to their handler.