Rescue Dogs

Often other teams, including mounted, are in wilderness areas - the dog should be able to work around any distractions. Here Tikki the Rescue Dog accompanies Vicki Wooters riding Osage, a therapeutic riding horse from Thorncroft Therapeutic Riding Center in Malvern, PA.
Photo courtesy of Search and Rescue Dogs of Pennsylvania

What kind of dog makes a good rescue dog? Actually, any dog could - maybe even your dog. Breed is usually not important; the training of the dog is what really counts. He needs to know his job and do it well, while at the same time be able to work kindly and obediently with handlers and other people, other dogs, and perhaps horses. Some situations require more than one SAR dog while others don't.

Search and rescue (SAR) dogs are often trained to do multiple tasks, and some specialize in just one. The need and situation determine which type of dog will be employed because SAR dogs are trained to sniff out scent not only on various terrains but also in air and in water. A rider, after becoming separated from his group or his horse, may find himself very grateful for this valuable service. The way home from the wilderness or back to the trailer can be elusive, especially without the homing instinct of the horse. Even stolen horses have been located thanks to dedicated sniffers!

Emergency callouts to SAR groups are typically initiated by calls from the local police and fire departments or park personnel. SAR groups are mostly volunteer-based, non-profit service organizations whose members - women as well as men - come from many different professions. They willingly volunteer to engage in hazardous activities under difficult conditions, knowing that they may be exposed to life-threatening situations. As a benefit to the public, these groups provide trained dogs and trained handlers for the search and rescue of victims that are lost, trapped or incapacitated, upon the request of any official agency, day or night, under all conditions where dogs can operate efficiently. SAR groups schedule regular meetings about training in search and rescue techniques. Some offer field exercises and training presentations a few times a month as well as business meetings. Interested parties are usually more than welcome to attend; no previous experience is necessary, just a willingness to learn.

SAR work requires a most reliable and willing canine partner, so training a SAR dog is a very time consuming and expensive process. In most cases, it takes 16 months to two years for a dog to become operational. Much of the young SAR dog's early training is geared towards building drive and enthusiasm, so it is important to make sure that their early 'search work' is a very happy and positive experience. These dogs will learn obedience and agility, and may be cross-trained for tracking, trailing, air-scenting, and water search - for wilderness, avalanche, disaster, article-evidence, and cadaver missions. They will also learn about transportation in boats, helicopters, snowmobiles, and other conveyances. Another vital part of the training program is learning to ignore distractions such as wildlife, livestock, other dogs, and human searchers. Handler experience and confidence are also significant factors, and confidence training for the dog is essential. If a dog is not confident, he won't work.

Once trained, dogs and handlers are put through rigorous and strict 'readiness evaluation' tests. There are separate evaluations for each type of work. Dog and handler are scrutinizingly assessed on such categories as agility, obedience, bark alert, direction and control, distraction, enthusiasm, response to a single command, rubble pile work, drop and wait, watch and wait for the next command, change of handler, aggression testing, and more. It is essential that these working dogs be under control at all times.

A Trailing dog is trained for scent discrimination - sniffing out the trail of a particular person. The dog is usually worked in a harness and on leash. He is given an uncontaminated article of clothing belonging to the missing person and is trained to follow that scent and no other for the job at hand. The trailing dog may track or air-scent, but he will go wherever he smells that particular scent. Through the wilderness or through city streets, the trailing dog is depended upon to stay on the scent until the missing person is found. A trailing dog can be the fastest way to find a missing person, providing there is a 'point last seen' and a well-scented article of clothing. He is expected to be able to trail at least 24 hours later, and contamination should not affect his work.

A Tracking dog is trained to follow the tracks or path of a certain person. By footsteps or by crushed vegetation, tracking dogs are able to follow a person's track that is a few hours old. The dog is usually worked in a harness and leash and is shown a starting area to find the track's starting point. Many tracking dogs are trained to follow 'the freshest scent', which is very effective for pursuing an escaped criminal, or if there is no available scent article. A dog that is trained to follow freshest scent, however, would have difficulty tracking in an area that has become contaminated.

An Air-scenting dog works with his handler to locate human victims within a given area. This team will find any and all humans in their area. The dog works off leash, perpendicular to the wind, to find airborne scent. This is non-scent discriminating, so any person in this area will be located. Air-scent teams work areas of high probability and areas surrounding where the victim was last seen. Air-scent dogs are very effective when there is no scent article, no point last seen, or if too much time has elapsed.

Wilderness dogs are trained to find a person within an area, without knowing the starting point of the track. Because the entire area must be searched, the wilderness dog zigzags a part of the area while his handler moves straight ahead. With this method, a few dog-handler-teams are able to search a large area in less time.

A Disaster dog is trained to find human scent in a very unnatural environment such as in collapsed buildings and areas affected by earthquakes and tornadoes. This is non-scent discriminating and might be the most difficult mission for a SAR dog, who is specifically trained on unstable footing, small confined spaces and other settings not usually found in nature. Although some disaster dogs have wilderness training, some do not.

A Cadaver dog has been trained to find dead human scent. This is non-scent discriminating and could be above ground only, or the dog could be trained for above ground and buried cadaver. Although many dogs have the potential to detect human scent whether dead or alive, the cadaver dog should have passed a specific evaluation that earns him the cadaver dog title.

A Water Recovery dog usually works from a boat and is trained to detect human scent that is in the water. Because of the current and general changes in the water it is quite difficult to pinpoint a body. A dog team can work from any accessible shoreline or from a boat. The scent that rises from the victim to the water surface is first carried by the various currents in the water and then air currents may take over. The knowledge and skill needed by handlers to search effectively and safely in the water environment make water search training mostly handler training, but the dog is an essential part of the team.

In any search, determining where a victim is NOT is positive information. This is particularly true in a water search of many miles of river or hundreds of acres of lake, bay or reservoir. Areas cleared by dog teams will narrow down the areas needing to be searched by divers.

A good handler knows his dog's body language, knows his own and his dog's limitations, and utilizes good handler safety practices - so as not to become part of the search problem. A good handler also knows when not to interfere with his working dog. Knowing as much as possible about the environment in which one is working is also is extremely helpful, because what one knows, understands, and respects one doesn't usually fear. This is important to both handler and dog.

Even in this technical age, nothing can beat a well-trained SAR dog when it comes to quickness and precision of search. SAR dog/handler teams can cut down search time to one-tenth. The dedication and determination of these dogs and their handlers make them the heroes that they are. Please support your regional SAR organization.

This article is dedicated to all those who lost their lives as a result of the September 11th New York tragedy, especially the rescue workers, and to all those Search and Rescue dog teams who are still searching.

Natural Horse Magazine thanks Vicki Wooters of Search & Rescue Dogs of Pennsylvania for her help in preparing this article.

For more information:
Search & Rescue Dogs of Pennsylvania
272 Iroquois Lane
Malvern, PA 19355

National Association for Search And Rescue
4500 Southgate Place, Suite 100
Chantilly, VA 20151-1714
FAX: 703-222-6283