Find People -> Lost

Search and Rescue Dogs

By: Rodrigo Trigosso

Despite all the technological and scientific advances, such as GPS, satellite images and robots, dogs are still one of the best tools of any search and rescue (SAR) team.

While the victim of a disaster undergoes an almost eternal nightmare hoping that somebody finds him, SAR dogs are... just playing a fun game. These game-obsessed dogs live to play the "fetch the human" game. Their reward is a funny tug'o war game. Being alive is the victim's reward.

SAR dogs are capable to save hundreds of human lives because of their powerful sense of smell, their exceptional hearing, a rigorous training and the amazing bond between them and their handlers.

However, not everything is joy in the world of SAR dogs. Although these canine specialists are trained by means of games and rewards, they could be retired before time because of physical fatigue and damages caused during their noble task.

In tragic situations, like the one happened on September 11, 2001, both the dogs and their guides got to undergo emotional problems because they were unable to find people alive. In the middle of death and desolation, dogs do not only feel bad because there's no reward, but they feel the pain, frustration and sadness of their guides and other members of the rescue team.

There are other situations, nevertheless, when the goal does not consist in finding people alive, but people who have passed away. These are the right situations to use cadaver dogs; dogs trained to find human remains. Although these dogs can't bring back a son to his mother, their work helps to solve crimes and to give honorable burials to those who had the misfortune to perish in a disaster.

SAR dog characteristics

Although any healthy dog has well developed senses of smell and hearing, a SAR dog must fulfill some additional requirements.

SAR dogs must be agile and resistant enough to deal with typical difficulties of search and rescue activities. That's why toy breeds are not common choices for such tasks.

On the other hand, these dogs must not be so big that its size makes the rescue task even more difficult. A very big dog can become an additional difficulty when the team has to rappel down mountainsides or while traveling in small helicopters and boats.

That's the reason why giant breeds are uncommon in SAR teams. Nevertheless, the exception to this rule occurs when the dogs are required to pull people out of water. In this case, giant breeds like the Newfoundland are very useful.

In addition, SAR dogs must be exceptionally motivated to search during long time periods under the most unfavorable conditions. Therefore, dogs with high prey drive are preferred because they get obsessed with the "fetch the human" game.

Last, but not least, SAR dogs must be perfectly socialized to people and other animals. In addition, they must be accustomed to work (or play) under stressful situations such as among crowds of people, when other animals are present, while there are strange and loud sounds, etc.

Summarizing, any dog can be used for search and rescue if the previous requirements are fulfilled and the dog has received specialized training.

SAR dog specialties

Current SAR dogs can be classified in different groups according to their specialties. The two main groups are tracking dogs and air scent dogs.

Tracking dogs follow a victim's path from point A to point B. These dogs need a starting search point and an article with the victim's scent on it. They are used to find lost people.

Air scent dogs don't follow a victim's path. Instead, they smell the air seeking for human scent. These dogs are used to find people buried under rubble, people buried by landslides, people buried by avalanches, corpses of drowned people, evidence in crime scenes, etc.

Rodrigo Trigosso is a biologist and professional dog trainer. His website at provides objective and reliable information on dog training and behavior.

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