How Search-and-rescue Dogs Work

By: Julia Layton & Sarah Gleim  | 
search and rescue dog
A 2-year-old search dog named Oreo is resting after searching in the pile of rubble from the 12-story apartment building collapse in Surfside, Florida, with her handler Moises Soffer. Because she is small, Oreo can go into voids where people can't go. GIANRIGO MARLETTA/AFP via Getty Images

After a beachfront condo building in Miami partially collapsed June 24, 2021, several residents living in the 12-story high-rise were trapped and immediately rescued. However, more than 150 (as of this update) were missing and unaccounted for. Search-and-rescue teams of 10 to 12 entered what was left of the building searching for survivors, many of them with highly trained search-and-rescue (SAR) dogs qualified to detect the scent of humans who might be buried in the debris.

Because time is of the essence in rescue operations like the one in Miami, search and rescue dogs are valuable tools for finding anyone who could be trapped alive in the rubble. "The dogs save us a tremendous amount of time," Aide Barbat told CBS News June 24. Barbat is with CA Task Force 8, one of 28 urban search and rescue teams in the United States. "A 10,000 square-foot building can be searched in 10 minutes."

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So what exactly is the job of a search-and-rescue dog and its handler? And how are these dogs trained to find human scents and let their handlers know where it is?

Search-and-rescue Dog Basics

SAR dog training
Handlers of the 46th dog training unit practice getting a search-and-rescue dog across a pond at the Noginsk Rescue Centre of the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry. Gavriil Grigorov/TASS/via Getty Images

Experts estimate that a single search-and-rescue dog can search the same area as approximately 50 people on foot — and in far less time. How? First it's partly due to their keen sense of smell. Dogs have 220 million scent receptors, compared to humans' 5 million. But they're also fast.

Time is always an issue in search and rescue. In an avalanche, for instance, statistics show that more than 90 percent of people buried in snow can be rescued alive if they're dug out within 15 minutes. However, after 45 minutes, only about 20 to 30 percent are still alive, and after two hours almost no one buried by an avalanche is found alive. That means SAR dogs are invaluable in locating people alive when time is critical.

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SAR dogs can do a lot of amazing things, including rappel down mountainsides with their handlers, locate a human being within a 1640-foot (500-meter) radius, find a dead body under water, climb ladders and walk across an unstable beam in a collapsed building, but it's all toward a single end: Finding human scent. This may be in the form of a living person, a dead body, a human tooth or an article of clothing. SAR dogs find missing persons, search disaster areas for survivors and bodies, and locate evidence at crime scenes, all by focusing on the smell of a human being.

This all might sound difficult to you, but to a SAR dogs, it's a breeze. Human beings are smelly creatures — they constantly shed dead skin cells called rafts, which contain bacteria and smell, well, distinctly human. While it's impossible to know for sure, most experts believe that SAR dogs are smelling these rafts, which form a "scent cone" that the dogs can easily pinpoint when they're performing a search. Everyone's skin cells smell unique, which is how a SAR dog can smell an item of clothing and search specifically for the last person who wore it.

While some dogs exhibit a stronger desire to scent than others, every canine out there has a powerful sense of smell. SAR dogs may be purebreds or mutts. Some handlers have a breed of choice, but any medium-to-large dog in good physical health, with decent intelligence, good listening skills, a non-aggressive personality and a strong play/prey drive (an intense, enduring desire to retrieve a toy) can potentially go into search and rescue.

SAR dogs need to be big enough to successfully navigate treacherous terrain and push debris out of the way and yet small enough to transport easily. German shepherds are a popular SAR breed; they're typically smart, obedient and agile, and their double-layered coat insulates against severe weather conditions. Hunting and herding dogs like Labrador and golden retrievers and border collies tend to be good at SAR work, too, because they have a very strong prey drive. Many people consider bloodhounds to be the best breed for tracking. Their giant ears and facial folds collect and concentrate scent particles right at their nostrils, making their sense of smell extremely powerful and discerning.

This brings us to a distinction between types of SAR dogs: Some dogs track, while other dogs search.

SAR Specialties

collapsed apartment building Mahad, India
An air-scent dog works alongside rescuers in the rubble of a collapsed five-story apartment building in Mahad, India in August 2020, searching for survivors. PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP via Getty Images

Not all SAR dogs perform the same type of searches. Some dogs are tracking (or trailing) dogs, and others are air-scent (or area-search) dogs. The types overlap, but the distinction between the two guides are the training process and how the dog participates in missions.

Tracking dogs work with their noses to the ground. They can follow a trail of human scent — typically heavy skin particles that fall quickly to the ground or onto bushes — through any type of terrain. These dogs are not searching, they're following. Tracking dogs need a "last seen" starting point, an article with the person's scent on it to work from and an uncontaminated trail.

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For a tracking dog, time is an issue. If a child disappears from a school playground or an inmate escapes from a prison, a tracking dog can be called in to follow the person's scent immediately after the disappearance, before other search groups and law-enforcement personnel contaminate the scent trail.

Air-scent dogs, on the other hand, work with their noses focused toward the air. They pick up human scent anywhere in the vicinity; they don't need a "last seen" starting point. Whereas tracking dogs follow a particular scent trail, air-scent dogs pick up a smell carried in air currents and seek out its origin — the point of greatest concentration.

Air-scent dogs might be called in to find a missing hiker located somewhere in a national park, an avalanche victim buried beneath the snow or people trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building. Air-scent dogs specialize in other types of searches, including:

  • Cadaver: These dogs search specifically for the scent of human remains and are trained to detect the smell of human decomposition gasses in addition to skin rafts. Cadaver dogs can locate something as small as a human tooth or a single drop of blood.
  • Water: Water rescue dogs search for drowning victims. When a body is under water, skin particles and gases rise to the surface, so dogs can smell a body even if it's completely immersed. Due to the movement of water currents, dogs can seldom pinpoint the exact location of the body. Instead more than one SAR team searches an area and divers use each dog's alert point, along with water-current analysis, to estimate the most likely location of the body.
  • Avalanche: These highly trained dogs search for human scent after someone has been buried beneath the snow.
  • Urban disaster: The most difficult SAR specialty, urban disaster dogs search for human survivors in the rubble of collapsed buildings. They must navigate dangerous, unstable terrain. More than 300 urban rescue dog/handler teams responded to the collapse of the World Trade Centers on Sept. 11, 2001.
  • Wilderness: These dogs detect human scent in search of people lost in the wild.
  • Evidence/article: Dogs highly trained to find items that have human scent on them.

In urban disasters, where people are trapped beneath precarious piles of debris, a dog's strength, confidence and agility are key. Even more important, though, is obedience: An out-of-control dog is a liability in search situations. This is where SAR standards come in.

FEMA SAR Team Credentials

FEMA SAR dog and trainer
A FEMA-certified Urban Search and Rescue officer is seen here petting his SAR dog at the Bow-Wow Palooza Interfaith Blessing of the Animals at Miami's Temple Israel. It's extremely hard to become a FEMA-certified SAR officer. Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

On average, a SAR handler spends about 1,000 hours becoming field ready. They learn how to properly train a dog to find and alert, and train themselves in land navigation, weather patterns, radio communications, map and compass skills, wilderness survival and advanced first aid including CPR.

The only national U.S. credentials for SAR handlers are through Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It's part of the FEMA Emergency Responder Credentialing System for urban disaster work, and breaks down the job titles into the most commonly requested SAR personnel. As of March 2020, there were 284 canine search teams that specialized in searching for survivors, and 90 teams that specialized in searching for human remains.

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Local SAR organizations also have their own standards for "mission ready" qualification, typically based on guidelines developed by organizations like the American Rescue Dog Association, Search and Rescue Dog of the United States and the National Association for Search and Rescue.

FEMA does set out baseline criteria that represent the minimum requirement for SAR personnel to participate in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Integration Center's National Emergency Responder Credentialing System. The categories include:

  • education
  • training
  • experience
  • physical/medical Fitness
  • certification
  • licensing

Every SAR job has specific criteria for every category listed above. For example, to become a disaster collapsed structure canine search manager, one must first meet all prerequisites, then pass all levels of education, training, physical fitness and medical testing, and certifications. As the jobs advance, so do the FEMA requirements. The objective is to provide a uniform process to determine the current skill levels of SAR personnel in the program.

SAR Dog Training

dog climbing ladder
During SAR training, dogs can learn everything from how to climb ladders to how to safely scale precarious piles of debris. The Washington Post via Getty Images

It may seem like a dog obsessively focused on play would make a poor working dog, but for search-and-rescue work, this is actually an ideal trait. A dog that will chase a tennis ball for hours would probably walk through feet of snow, over a mountain and down a rocky embankment until his paws bleed to find it — and get someone to throw it for him again. For this SAR dog, locating the origin of a human scent would mean a game of "find the ball." This is the basis of SAR training: associating human scent with something the dog wants very badly.

The central jobs of a SAR dog are to find a human scent ("find it") and effectively alert his handler to its location. SAR training assures that a dog can complete these tasks in all conditions, regardless of weather or distractions. Depending on the dog's specialty area, his core training may also include the recall-find ("show me"), in which he finds a person, returns to his handler and then leads the handler back to the person, or victim loyalty, in which the dog stays with the person and alerts his handler by barking.

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Most SAR dogs live and train with their handler, and it takes about 600 hours of training for a dog to be field ready. Sometimes, SAR associations adopt dogs from shelters for the specific purpose of training them for search and rescue, and they'll train at a special facility and then be paired with a handler. Potential SAR dogs should also be obedient and attentive, have a friendly temperament (they're going to be working closely with strangers and other dogs in a search situation) and possess a strong desire to please.

Obedience and focus are crucial. A handler must be able to control their dog at all times and in all situations. But a SAR dog who can't think for itself is useless; air-scent dogs work off-leash, so the handler won't always be nearby to give commands. The ideal search dog can solve problems on his own but also always be aware of his handler.

The general approach to training a dog for search and rescue is no different from training a dog to complete any other task. The first step is to figure out which reward the dog will work for, and always immediately reward the dog when he does the right thing. In the course of training, handlers associate that reward with each thing they want the dog to do. The case of SAR dogs, it's locate human scent and alert the handler as fast as possible. The training starts out with very simple tasks and gets progressively more complex as the dog completes each level.

avalanche training
Mason the golden retriever is being trained as an avalanche search-and-rescue dog. Here he pulls on a tug held by ski patroller Matt Urich as handler Abby Seymour looks on during training at Copper Mountain in Colorado.
AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/Denver Post via Getty Images

Example: Avalanche Training

Training a dog to "find it" is more about directing a dog than teaching her. Dogs have a natural inclination to locate scents — SAR training involves letting a dog know which scent the handlers wants her to locate and where the scent might be. Each time the dog completes a task, she gets her reward. Let's say this particular dog works for games of tug-of-war with a stinky sock.

For avalanche training, the first step is simply to get the dog to search under the snow. The handler digs a hole in the snow, and a second person holds the dog while the handler makes a big show of running away and jumping into the hole while the dog watches. When the assistant releases the dog, she runs to find the handler. When she finds the handler, they play tug-of-war. This gets the dog interested in finding people.

The next step is to increase the amount of time the assistant holds the dog. This increases the level of memory and attention span required to find the handler. First, the assistant holds back the dog for, say, five seconds. The dog finds the handler and gets to play tug-of-war. Then the assistant holds the dog for 10 seconds, then one minute, then five minutes and so on. Each time the dog finds the handler, she is rewarded with her game of tug-of-war.

Now the handler adds another complication: An assistant covers the handler with a few inches of snow. This time, when dog runs to find the handler, she can't see him, but she can smell him. So she starts digging. When she finds him, she gets her stinky sock. Now the dog discovers that people can be beneath the snow and that human scent emanating from snow means that digging in that spot will reveal a person who might play with her. Then, the handler and assistant change places, and the handler manages the dog while the assistant hides. By this stage, the game is well established, and the dog knows what she needs to do to get her reward.

Finally, distractions are added. The dog begins playing the "find it" game with people and dogs milling about the area and avalanche-search equipment, like poles and shovels, lying around. In a real avalanche search, distractions are everywhere, and the dog must be able to focus on the search despite the chaos.

Once a dog really gets the game of "find it," training her to alert to the find should be easy. In the case of avalanche searches, dogs usually dig at the area where they detect human scent. If a reward immediately follows a correct alert (meaning the dog is digging in the right place), the dog will continue to alert in that manner.

A field-ready SAR dog can focus on the task at hand — whatever his handler is commanding him to do — no matter what. The dog maintains vigilance and dedication to the search through all types of weather conditions and navigates treacherous terrain without losing confidence.

SAR Dogs at Work

cadaver dog
Cadaver dogs were instrumental in locating the remains of residents killed in the devastating the Camp Fire that ripped through Paradise, California, in 2018. More than 135,000 acres and 8,000 homes and businesses were destroyed, and at least 85 people were killed. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

SAR teams are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Dogs often accompany their handlers to work and on vacation in case a call comes in from law-enforcement authorities. Typically, a police unit alerts a SAR organization to a case, and the SAR organization then alerts its team members. The case might be a missing child, a group of hikers who never arrived at their camp site, a collapsed building, an earthquake, an escaped convict or a new tip in a crime that places a victim's body in a particular lake.

Once alerted to a call-out, the dog/handler team loads up its equipment, which may include severe-weather gear, ropes and harnesses, radios, compasses, maps, food, water and other items that come in handy on a search. If the call-out is for an avalanche search, transportation might involve a helicopter. If it's a wilderness search, the team usually drives to the base location and then hikes or rappels to the area. If the search is for a drowning victim, the handler and dog arrive by boat.

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Once at the scene, the dog's obedience is fully tested. Distractions are everywhere — people and dogs searching, reporters, flood lights, bullhorns. The SAR unit leader is in charge, reporting to the head law-enforcement authority or search authority at the scene. At a large search, a SAR group may set up a base camp complete with radio communications, rest areas and search advisers. The SAR leader gives each dog/handler team a location to clear. If the dog shows interest in a particular spot but does not do a full alert, the handler notes the location. If the dog gives a full alert, everyone mobilizes.

In a water search, divers hit the water; in an avalanche search, every available searcher digs in the snow; in a wilderness search, people might work to pry rocks out of the way of a cave opening to hunt for a possible missing hiker. While all of this is occurring, the dog and his handler may be off to the side playing tug-of-war (or whatever the dog's reward of choice is) so the dog knows he won the game.

Even if the missing person turns out to be deceased, the handler will discreetly play with the dog. As long as search-and-rescue remains a game, the dog will happily do his job until his handler decides it's time for retirement.

Yes, SAR dogs do retire, typically, they can no longer handle the physical rigors of the work — usually when they're 8 to 10 years old. Urban disaster work is hard on both the dogs and handlers.

When a SAR dog retires, he usually lives out his retirement with his handler. If his handler can't take care of him any longer, there are organizations that will find new adoptive homes for retired search dogs. In either case, the dog enjoys a life of fun, games and leisure, a much-deserved reward for a career of fun, games and public service.

For more information on search and rescue, check out the links on the next page.

Originally Published: Dec 16, 2005

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "The Art of Heroism." http://www.petfinder.com/journalindex.cgi?path=/public/petsandthecommunity/careerswithanimals/1.41.10.txt. Dec. 16, 2005.
  • "Avalanche Training Overview." Comdens.com. http://www.comdens.com/SAR/avitrn-overview.html. Dec. 16, 2005.
  • K-9 Search and Rescue Team, Inc. http://www.k9team.org/. Dec. 16, 2005.
  • "SAR Dog Fact Sheet." NASAR. http://www.nasar.org/nasar/sar_dog_fact_sheet.php. Dec. 16, 2005.
  • "Search and Rescue Dogs." Working Dogs. http://www.workingdogs.com/doc0163.htm. Dec. 16, 2005.
  • "What do Search Dogs Do?" National Search and Rescue Dog Association. Dec. 16, 2005.http://www.nsarda.org.uk/what_do.shtml
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