Search and rescue (SAR) dogs are used primarily to locate missing persons such as lost or missing children, lost hikers, avalanche victims, people trapped under debris during some sort of disaster, and even suspects in criminal investigations. SAR dogs locate numerous missing persons every year.
Traits of a Search and Rescue dogs SAR
The German Shepherd Dog is well suited to perform the tasks required of a good SAR dog. The typical SAR dog or search and rescue dogs are highly intelligent, making the dog perfect for obedience work. A SAR dog must have a strong play drive, which means they are very focused on chasing and recovering play toys. They are anxious to please their owner and have an intense ability to focus on tasks. Another characteristic required of a SAR dog is that the dog is non-aggressive, especially with other dogs and with strangers. Finally, the dog must show strong ability in at least one of these areas: tracking or trailing, air scenting, human remains detection, and/or disaster recovery.
Tracking vs. Trailing
Each person gives off an individual scent that can be detected by a trained canine.
Tracking dogs are trained to specifically follow the path a missing person took by keeping their head to the ground to follow the scent left behind by the missing person. This type of SAR dog must remain focused on the specific path taken by the individual.
Trailing dogs are trained to follow the scent of the person but they do not keep their heads to the ground; they often deviate from the exact path the missing person took because they are also using air scenting techniques. Both of these dogs must be started from a location where the missing person was last seen and often are given a scent article to follow.
Air scenting dogs are able to follow the scent of a person by using air currents. They do not have to begin at the location where the person was last seen: Instead, they can work from the general area where the person is believed to be located and follow the scent back to the person’s location. Human beings shed thousands of skin cells each minute. Air scenting dogs can actually detect the skin cells that are carried on air currents in order to track back to where the missing person is located.
Deceased human beings give off an individual scent that can be tracked by a SAR dog. Cadaver dogs are also trained to detect the gases given off by a corpse. Some dogs can even detect the scent of human remains that are underwater.
Disaster recovery dogs are trained to handle the chaos of a natural or man-made disaster scene. They must work in perilous conditions and on a variety of terrain. Disaster recovery dogs are essential to locate people trapped under collapsed buildings or in debris. These dogs are not searching for a particular human being, but are following clues and scents to locate anyone trapped under the debris.
SAR Dogs Training
A typical SAR dog requires at least 600 hours of training. The SAR dog must go through basic obedience training, and then go through the advanced training required for the SAR dog. One of the first things the handler must do is figure out which reward works best for that particular dog. For example, if the dog loves to play tug-of-war, the handler can use this play as a reward.
How Play Reward Works
In training a dog to air scent, the initial work is done with the handler and an assistant. The assistant restrains the dog while the handler hides somewhere nearby, often within sight of the dog. When the dog is released and ordered to ‘find it’, the dog will instinctively run to the handler. The handler then rewards the dog with a boisterous game of tug-of-war. The dog is then returned to the assistant while the handler hides again. This is done over and over again while gradually complicating the handler’s location (covering the handler with debris, hiding the handler out of the line of sight, etc.) The dog learns that whenever he located the missing person, he gets to play his favorite game. This engages the dog’s play drive, making the task of finding a missing person into an intensely enjoyable game.
The National Association of Search and Rescue
Becoming involved with search and rescue works on a local level can be a rewarding experience for both the dog and the handler. Anyone interested in search and rescue dogs should begin by visiting www.nasar.org (The National Association of Search and Rescue) for more information.