Working With SAR Dogs

Working with a Search Dog Team in the Wilderness / Urban Environment

by Mary-Ann Warren, Training Director/Dog Handler, Search & Rescue Dog Association of Alberta

Since  not many ground searchers or search managers have worked with SAR dogs, this document is meant for you! A search dog team is defined as “one dog with one handler”. How a search dog is worked, and how successful it will be, is very much dependent on the environmental conditions at the time of the search incident. Most search dog teams in Alberta are deployed as air-scenting dogs. These dogs are trained to pick up human scent from air currents. Depending on environmental conditions, the scent may be picked up as far away as one km or more. The air-scenting dog does not require a scent article from the lost person. Some search dogs are trained to track a lost person’s scent left by their foot impressions, also called ‘Tracking’. Civilian dog teams are rarely used as tracking dogs in the province of Alberta.

About the Search Dog Teams:

  • The dog handlers are to have met the minimum standard for GSAR in the Province of Alberta.
  • Dog handlers are trained to recognize and interpret how their dogs work and what their dog is scenting.
  • Dog handlers will communicate how they will work a search segment. Dog teams don’t always physically cover the entire search area. Depending on wind and scent conditions, the team may “miss” large areas of the search zone (example — only searching the bottom and top of a gulley, but not the sides).
  • At times the search dog teams are relocated from one-search segment to another at any given time as dictated by Command.
  • Dog handlers are trained in clue awareness.
  • Dog handlers will dependent on conditions, and dogs ranging capabilities usually move through areas quicker than the ground SAR teams.
  • Dog handlers are independent; they carry their dogs and own needs in their packs.
  • Dog handlers don’t use sound signals, Field Techs should expect to be working quietly most of the time. You can talk to the handler, but you won’t be yelling or whistling to try and get the subject’s attention, unless the dog is stopped.
  • Dog handlers may take breaks at intervals in the field, to give the dog a chance to rest and be re-motivated if needed. At times during a long search, the handler may ask the Field Tech to hide so that the dog has a “live find” during or after the search, then play with the dog as it’s reward.

About the Dogs:

  • A search dog should be approachable.
  • An “alert” is a trained response the dog will give when it has located the lost person and or clue. The handler should identify what their dog’s alert is.
  • The dogs are trained to alert on people as well as articles (clues) with human scent on them.
  • The dogs should not distract on other searchers, or Field Tech. However they may identify to the handler when other people are in the area.
  • The dog may alert on other search teams in the area. It is what they are trained to do…indicate where the human scents are located. Their handler will check out whatever the dog alerts on. Just wait until the handler arrives at your location and provides instructions to continue.
  • The dogs should not distract on animal activity in the area. However dogs are animals and may identify to the handler when there are critters around.
  • Dogs are not 100%; they do there best based on their trained capabilities and environmental conditions during any given incident.

As a Field Tech working with a SAR dog team you may expect the following duties:

The Field Tech working with a dog team handles the communications with the command base and other SAR teams. This frees up the handler to concentrate on their dog. Field Techs are free to question the handlers at any time.
Wind and environment play a huge role in how the dog is worked. The dog handler will communicate how they will be working the dog. Preferable, the handler will want to work the dog using the wind direction to their advantage. Whether it is in a type I, II, III search, the dog handler will give direction to their support on what heading they will want to go. Keep in mind that the direction of their search pattern may change at any time.
If communicated by the handler, the Field Tech may be expected to take notes. The notes may contain time started/ended search, search segment and location of clues. Dog handler search reports differ from those that GSAR write out at the end of a search. Dog handlers document, environment conditions, how the dog was worked etc.
First Aid
Field Techs may at times need to aid in performing first aid functions for the victim, the handler, support person or even the dog.
Another set of eyes
The dog handler may communicate to the support how their dog reacts when it is on the scent and how the dog alerts when it has located someone. Since handlers are trained to be clue aware as well they also are visually searching. If the Field Tech sees the dog react to something they need to communicate this to the handler since the handler could have missed it.

By working together as a team and eliminating the time it takes to explain how to work together, more time may be given in searching for that potential survivor