Search & Rescue

Everyone knows Search & Rescue dogs. Most people think of the “original” SAR dog, the Saint Bernard, that burly, lovable fur ball frequently shown with his tongue hanging out and a cask of brandy under his chin, who braved blizzards in the European Alps to find the wayward travelers who had gotten lost or buried in the snow.

My Search Dog can find people!

There is something fundamentally cool about training a dog to find people. Have you ever watched a Bloodhound track someone? Or a police dog find the bad guy? Have you ever witnessed a dog retrieve a child who was drowning? Or watched a dog dig through the rubble after an earthquake?

Search and Rescue dogs are modern day heroes. They have bragging rights that no other K9 can come close to, because they can do something that very few dogs can do—save human lives. Any dog can chase a ball, and any dog can bite. Any dog can be trained in agility and obedience. But can your dog find someone buried in the snow? Buried under rubble? Track a child for miles through town and into the wilderness?

Best Kinds of Dogs to do Search & Rescue
Any dog can use their nose, but not all dogs have the drive, focus, intelligence, and self-discipline to do Search and Rescue. Is it specific to a breed? No, but some breeds are known for having a strong prey and hunt drive, as well as a body type that is suitable to the different disciplines. You will commonly see from the herding group (e.g., German or Belgian Shepherd Dogs, Border Collies) or the sporting group(e.g., German Shorthaired pointers, Golden Retrievers, Labrador retrievers.) working successfully in SAR. Does your dog like a toy so much he’ll do anything to find it and get you to play with him? Is he strong and athletic without health issues? He might be a great search and rescue candidate!
Best Kinds of People to do Search & Rescue
We all love our dogs, but participating in Search and Rescue requires a large commitment. Actually, it’s more than that. It requires a particular lifestyle. Dog training is continuous. There is no break, no time off. And there is also a lot of ongoing training required for the Handler. Do you have the time and the resources to train in K9 SAR? Are you willing to work every day with your dog? Do you have access to other people who will train with you and hide for the dog? Are you okay with the prospect of being the one to find the missing person, regardless of their condition? These are all things you should seriously consider before embarking on this path.
Consider Your Dog, Consider Your Goals, and Consider Your Situation
K9 Search and Rescue is a team effort. Both you and your dog need to want to do it. Your dog needs to be excited every time you put that harness on him. He needs to love the game. Consider for a moment what your circumstances are. Do you live high up in the snowy mountains or in a rural area? Then you may want to train your dog for Avalanche or Wilderness Area SAR. Are you more interested in working scent specific to a missing individual? Or do you live in an urban area? Then you might consider training your dog in tracking or trailing. Do you want to deploy to disaster areas after a tornado or earthquake? Then consider training your dog for rubble.

The use of dogs in search and rescue (SAR) is a valuable component in wilderness tracking, natural disasters, mass casualty events, and in locating missing people. Dedicated handlers and well-trained dogs are required for the use of dogs to be effective in search efforts. Search and rescue dogs are typically worked, by a small team on foot, but can be worked from horseback.

Search and rescue dogs detect human scent. Although the exact processes are still researched, it may include skin rafts (scent-carrying skin cells that drop off living humans at a rate of about 40,000 cells per minute), evaporated perspiration, respiratory gases, or decomposition gases released by bacterial action on human skin or tissues.

From their training and experience, search and rescue dogs can be classified broadly as either air scenting dogs or trailing (and tracking) dogs. They also can be classified according to whether they scent discriminate, and under what conditions they can work. Scent discriminating dogs have proven their ability to alert only on the scent of an individual person, after being given a sample of that person’s scent. Non-scent discriminating dogs alert on or follow any scent of a given type, such as any human scent or any cadaver scent. SAR dogs can be trained specifically for rubble searches, for water searches, and for avalanche searches.


Air-scenting dogs primarily use airborne human scent to home in on subjects, whereas trailing dogs rely on scent of the specific subject. Air-scenting dogs typically work off-lead, are usually, though not always, non-scent-discriminating (e.g., locate scent from any human as opposed to a specific person), and cover large areas of terrain. These dogs are trained to follow diffused or wind-borne scent back to its source, then to indicate their find (for example, by sitting with the lost party and barking until the handler arrives, or by returning to the handler and indicating contact with the subject, and then lead the handler back to the subject). Handler technique, terrain, environment (vegetation), and atmospheric conditions (wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, and sky conditions) determine the area covered by air-scenting dogs, although a typical search area may be 40–160 acres and scent sources can be detected from a distance of 1/4 mile or more.
Tracking dogs will typically work on lead and will mostly have their nose to the track following ground disturbance. A good tracking dog will be able to work through a variety of terrain as well as successfully maneuver turns and “double backs” that a subject might take.
A trailing dog is scent specific, can also have his/her head up using some of the air scent techniques to find the subject. Trailing dogs will work on and off lead, and trailing dogs will venture off the actual path that a subject took should a scent pool be discovered. This is not to be considered an error by the dog, as they are following a specific scent and working through all other human scents to get to the source. It is a common misperception that only German Shepherd Doberman Pinscher and the old Bloodhounds do this type of work.

All dogs are capable of tracking and trailing; larger, sport, hound, working and herding breeds tend to be used more often simply for their adaptability in various terrain.

In addition to these types of dogs, some teams cross train dogs in both trailing and air scenting and use them as scent specific “area searches”. Typically these dogs are worked in an area that an air scent dog would work, but are capable of ignoring other search teams and other people in or near the assigned search area. When deployed this way, these air scenting dogs require a scent article as does a trailing dog.