How Search-and-rescue Dogs Work

By: Julia Layton  | 

SAR Dog Standards

Photo courtesy Emergency Service Detail

The only national standards for SAR teams are the FEMA-certification standards for urban disaster work, which are very difficult to meet. In "The Art of Heroism," Wilma Melville, president and founder of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation and part of a FEMA SAR unit in California, explains, "Wilderness searching is atmosphere-friendly to dogs. But in urban SAR, they're working in unnatural surroundings, amid rubble, pipes, 'tippy' things." Fewer than 100 dog/handler teams in the country are FEMA certified. Local SAR organizations have their own standards for "mission ready" qualification, typically based on guidelines developed by organizations like the American Rescue Dog Association and the National Association for Search and Rescue.

K-9 Search and Rescue Team, Inc., located in Dolores, Colorado, defines three basic skill levels. To become operational with this group, a SAR dog must pass each level of testing.


Level I: Basic Obedience

Level one addresses basic commands and temperament. To pass this skill set, the dog must be comfortable with non-threatening strangers and other dogs, pay attention to the handler while walking on a loose leash, walk through a crowd and amidst distractions without losing focus and obey basic commands like "sit," "down," "heel," "stay" and "come."

Test: While the handler is walking with the dog on a loose leash, they encounter one visual and one auditory distraction, such as a jogger running in front of the dog and a door slamming shut. The dog can be slightly startled, but he must not panic, bark or try to run away.

Level II: Canine Professionalism

Level two tests what K-9 Search and Rescue calls "canine professionalism." The dog consistently obeys basic commands and command combinations and shows no distress when separated from the handler. Passing this level means the dog can work effectively with another handler if necessary.

Test: The handler leaves her dog in a group of search dogs under the care of another handler. She puts her dog in a "sit" or "down" position and tells the dog to "wait." The handler then walks at least 30 feet away, where the dog cannot see her. Several different handlers then rotate into the caretaker position, watching over all of the dogs. This goes on for at least 15 minutes. Each dog must remain in the "sit" or "down" position without any additional command until his handler returns.

SAR dog and handler rappelling
SAR dog and handler rappelling

Level III: Physical and Mental Ability

Levels one and two test for the obedience that is necessary in a search situation. Level three addresses the physical and mental rigors of the work. Can the dog handle SAR conditions and expectations?

To pass this level, the dog must navigate a tunnel, climb an A-frame with a minimum 45-degree incline on each side, get into a tractor bucket with his handler and be lifted at least 10 feet without trying to jump out, and sit in cart pulled by an ATV or snowmobile without trying to jump out. He also travels in a boat without trying to jump out, confidently approaches a running helicopter and accepts being lifted into the air while wearing a harness.


The K-9 Search and Rescue Team has additional standards for tracking dogs: Level III is wilderness tracking, Level II is suburban tracking and Level I is urban tracking. The urban tracking qualification involves the following test:

A person (the target) lays a 1/2-mile to 1-mile track (moves from one point to another) in a highly populated, high-traffic area of a city. The target crosses at least two intersections, makes at least three right-angle turns, goes down two blocks of alleys and leaves a scent article in the alley. Once the target lays the track, another person crosses that track in at least one place, adding another scent trail to throw the dog off. Thirty minutes after the target is at his end position, the handler places the dog on the scent trail. The dog must complete the trail (find the target) in no more than the time it took for target to lay the track. The dog faces distractions throughout the test, including loose dogs and cats, other SAR teams and heavy machinery in operation, and confronts obstacles, including barbed fences and brick walls the dog must find a way around (or over) in order to stay on the trail.

A dog and his handler have to train hard to pass the qualification standards of search-and-rescue work. The training starts when the handler identifies the ultimate reward for the dog. This is usually pretty easy to figure out.