Understanding SAR Dogs

by Michelle L. Limoges, SAR Dog Handler, Search & Rescue Dog Association of Alberta

Scent rafting on the wind holds little significance to humans unless you happen to be in the vicinity of a McDonalds Restaurant; but to a dog, especially one trained to locate lost humans, this same scent is as informative as a road-side billboard is to humans.

Everyone agrees that the function search and rescue dogs perform is extraordinary but little information seems to be available about what they actually do, and how they do it. No one ever talks about the remarkable teamwork that exists between the dog and its human partner. So I thought you might like to read about the general premise used in SAR dog training and to have a look at wilderness and disaster search techniques to give you some idea of what SAR dogs do.

The Search and Rescue Dog Association of Alberta is the province’s original SAR Dog organization (founded and registered in 1989), consistently training and deploying teams primarily in cooperation with the Edmonton Police Service and serving other agencies when requested. SARDAA offers its self-sufficient, volunteer services in areas such as urban search, cadaver and water search and in disaster search applications.

A SAR dog’s abilities are often misunderstood or underestimated, a fact that seems to originate with a lack of appreciation for the absolutely astounding scenting capabilities of a dog! A SAR dog handler will tell you repeatedly how amazed they are themselves at their dog’s ability to locate the scent of their ‘subject’ in the most unorthodox circumstances!

Our search and rescue (SAR) dogs are carefully motivated to locate human scent moving around on air currents and to follow it to its source – the subject. I use the word “motivated” because we don’t train a dog to use its nose – it already knows how to do that – we just motivate the dog to use it, and to use it on command. After that’s accomplished, we have the difficult task of teaching the handler to be able to read the dog accurately and to trust the dog’s ability.

SAR dogs are used in a variety of circumstances – urban and wilderness settings to locate missing persons, in situations following a disaster such as a hurricane, and following avalanches and drownings. SAR dogs are also used for cadaver search and evidence search.

In training and subsequently working a SAR dog there is a method to our madness! We don’t just take the dog out, let it run around and hope for the best! In the initial stages of any search, there are a number of important considerations: if there is a structure to be searched details must be obtained about its condition, on wilderness searches the terrain must be studied, wind direction and speed are important, time of day, weather conditions, the presence of hazardous materials, details about the subject, etc. All of these elements affect our approach to the search and must be carefully reviewed. Using this information, our objective is to direct the dog through the assigned search area and to help the dog work its way first to the scent, then into the scent cone and finally to locate the reason of its search – the subject.

Our SAR dogs are an important asset in locating lost persons. These missing persons may be lost in a wilderness situation or they may be subjects of a disaster where they are covered by debris. ‘Probability of Detection’ formulas are widely used and those formulas determine how many ground searchers are needed to search a given area in order to accomplish a particular percentage of probability of finding the subject. In searches where dogs are used, the probability of detection goes up dramatically using just the one dog and its handler. In other words, the likelihood of finding the subject increases, along with the likelihood of finding them faster.

In a wilderness search where a person is missing in a general area with no known particular “place last seen” (PLS), the search area is commonly divided up into sectors and then each sector is covered by working the dog back and forth across the area, and into the wind, if that’s at all possible. That’s the ideal situation but often this simple approach isn’t workable and that’s where the experience and resourcefulness of the dog/handler team become very important. Should a situation exist where a person’s track could be located, of course tracking skills are employed.

The dog and its handler work as a team; the dog has the nose and the human contributes other talents. Another thing to remember is that in many cases, the dog/handler team do not find the subject. In these cases, there is one thing we can be pretty sure of and that is that the subject is likely not in the area searched!

Water search is another area where dogs have proven valuable. Contrary to a popular myth, dogs can in fact detect human scent quite well through water. The dog and handler work from a boat or from the shore, again using the wind to their advantage if possible. Water search can be considered a specialized aspect of wilderness profile training. It takes extra work of course to show the dogs what’s expected but most dogs who are already trained in air scenting pick up this new training quickly.

The work of the SAR dogs on disaster sites is probably the best known because of the media coverage it’s afforded. Many lives have been saved by the efforts of these dogs and their handlers. Disaster search is a gruelling and exacting task spanning long hours and performed under extremely difficult conditions. It’s hard to do justice to the intricacies of disaster search in a few paragraphs but the following will give you some appreciation of what’s involved.

Disaster search techniques and skills are quite different in many ways from wilderness searches. The dog still has the same objective and the search is conducted sector by sector, but the process is slower and in smaller spaces – the footing and conditions can be treacherous and the dog must adapt well to these situations. The dog must respond immediately to direction from its handler since conditions can deteriorate quickly on a disaster site. The dog must be trained to indicate the discovery of human scent by barking, or at least scratching and whining, in the direction of the person located. The dogs can, and do, efficiently indicate persons buried many feet down under debris even in situations where a fire has taken place or where chemicals are present. The dogs indicate both living and deceased persons. A dog’s indications vary with the intensity of scent and the handler must be familiar with his or her dog’s “level of indication” in order to work with the dog effectively. Disaster search is very difficult in the sense that the subject cannot necessarily be seen or heard at all and a handler must trust the dog to indicate the scent. The onus then is on the handler to accurately read the dog’s indication of that scent.

The training of SAR dogs is a lengthy process initially, followed by a life-long commitment, to build and maintain a level of confidence and experience necessary to keep the SAR team “Mission-Ready”. The dog’s skill level must be very high and the handler must be proficient in a number of areas, such as map and compass reading, rappel, radio communication, wilderness survival, emergency site management, basic rescue skills, search management and First Aid / CPR for both humans and canines.

If this description of SAR dogs has instilled a greater appreciation for the skills and dedication involved in this activity, then I’ve accomplished my goal of helping you know more about SAR dogs and their function.