by Justin McLean

Use of Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs

The use of trained wilderness search dogs dramatically increases the chances of finding a lost/injured victim.  The olfactory bulb in dogs is forty times the size of humans. Therefore trained search dogs will use scent, sound, and visual clues to find a victim or just as important, confirm that a difficult search area (i.e. tall brush) does not contain the missing person.

In canine work, wilderness search is the bread-and-butter of the various types of searches.  Wilderness searching provides a good foundation for dogs in a natural environment that is relatively free of distractions and dangers.  Once a dog and handler are trained in wilderness search, they can train in subspecialties of canine search such as water, avalanche, disaster, or human remains detection.  (note: There are no national standards so different regions/teams have different standards.)

Training SAR dogs

Numerous breeds of dogs can be used for canine search and rescue.  In the US, the most common breeds used in SAR are German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers.  The dog just has to be big enough to get over large obstacles and small enough to fit into a helicopter.  Typically, training starts with puppies, but it is possible to train a young dog.   The training usually takes from one and a half to two years.

An important part of training is to establish a strong bond early on between handler and dog.  The first step in training a search dog is called a “run away” wherein the dog is held while the handler runs from the dog.  Once the dog is released he will chase/find the handler.  Shortly thereafter, the handler holds the dog and someone else runs away.  With every “find” there must be an exciting play session with the dog (without food).  This will build the prey and play drive.

Those drives will be how the handler manipulates the dog throughout its training.  With each practice problem a single new element (i.e. increased distance, nighttime, or wind direction) is added to the run-away and with each find there is a “big party” awaiting the dog as a reward.   Eventually, the dog will be well adept to all sorts of terrain, conditions, scent age, and working hours.  The dog and handler team must pass a number of tests in order to become certified.

Air-scent vs. trailing/tracking dogs

Wilderness search dogs typically certify as trailing dogs or an airscenting dogs.  A trailing dog follows the general path of the lost person and necessarily needs a last scene point.  Airscenting dogs use the wind in order to try and pick up the scent of the lost person and will “quarter” until they have reached the scent origin.  In essence, trailing dogs have their noses down and airscent dogs have their noses up.

At the beginning of a search, a dog will be given a scent article and will discriminate it from all other smells in the search area.  If an article is not available then the air-scenting dog will find every human that is in his search area.  A trailing dog works on leash.  An air-scent dog works off leash and will range in front of the handler.  If the dog picks up the correct smell he will zig-zag back and forth from one edge of the scent cone to the other edge until he can narrow in on the source (quartering).  Once the dog has found the victim he will give a trained “alert” (jumping on the handler, sitting, barking, etc.).  The dog will run back and forth between the victim and the handler until she has led the handler to the victim.

Wilderness medicine and scene preservation

Dog teams are often the first to reach a victim.  Therefore, it is critical that a dog handler be comfortable with a victim for potentially an extended period of time.  Dog teams (anyone out searching with the dog) should usually include a medically competent member.  Proper wilderness first-aid kits should always accompany a dog team.  Additionally, dog handlers need to have strong backcountry skills because searches can last days.  Dog teams are often put in the high probability areas, sometimes via helicopter or some other mechanized transport like snowmobiles or four-wheelers.  In addition to human medicine a dog handler needs to be familiar with canine first-aid and carry appropriate medical supplies.  In instances were a victim might be armed or dangerous, police officers will accompany search teams into the field.  Finally, it is not uncommon to find a recently deceased body or even human remains.  Special training in crime scene preservation should be required for all dog handlers.

For more information on search and rescue dogs in Colorado visit: