How Search-and-rescue Dogs Work

By: Julia Layton  | 

SAR Dogs at Work

A SAR team searches an urban disaster site.
A SAR team searches an urban disaster site.

SAR teams are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Dogs often accompany their handler 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 bombed 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 of the search. If the search is for a drowning victim, the handler and dog arrive by boat at the area of interest.


Once at the scene, the dog's obedience is fully tested. Distractions are everywhere -- people and dogs searching, hysterical family members, 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 advisors. 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-blown alert, everyone mobilizes. In a water search, divers hit the water; in an avalanche search, every available hand digs in the snow; in a wilderness search, people might work to pry rocks out of the way of a cave opening to find what may be the missing hiker. While this is going on or immediately afterward, the dog and his handler are 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 dead, and the family is present, 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.


Typically, a dog retires when he can no longer handle the physical rigors of the work. Charles Melvin, Team Leader for the K-9 Search and Rescue Team, reports that his team's dogs usually retire when they're eight to 10 years old. In "The Art of Heroism," Anthony Fernandez, who serves with his dog Aspen in the Metropolitan Dade County Fire Rescue Department, explains that "SAR is a young dog's game. It can be stressful." Urban disaster work in particular is hard on both the dog and the handler. Some SAR dogs retired early after the World Trade Center attack due to extreme stress and health problems from searching at Ground Zero. A dog might retire from disaster work and go into a more laid-back specialty such as wilderness search, or he might retire from the job completely.

When a SAR dog retires, he usually lives out his retirement with his handler. If the 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, including information that can help you and your dog get started in this line of work, check out the links below.

Originally Published: Dec 16, 2005

Search and Rescue Dogs FAQ

How do search and rescue dogs work?
The job of a search and rescue dog has two components: Find the origin of a human scent and let the handler know where it is.
What is the best breed of dog for search and rescue?
German shepherds are a popular search and rescue breed. Hunting and herding dogs like Labrador and golden retrievers and border collies tend to be good at search and rescue work.
Is a search and rescue dog a service animal?
A service animal is typically trained to assist those with disabilities while a search and rescue dog is trained to help locate missing people in dire situations.
How do I get my dog certified for search and rescue?
Most SAR dogs live and train with their handler, and it takes about 600 hours of training for a dog to be field ready. The training uses a reward system to teach the dogs how to complete a task. The training starts out with very simple tasks and gets progressively more complex as the dog completes each level. Dogs have a natural inclination to locate scents -- SAR training involves letting a dog know which scent you'd like her to locate and where this scent might be. Each time the dog completes a task, she gets her reward.
What dogs are best for search and rescue?
Dogs that are obedient, attentive, have a friendly temperament, and possess a strong desire to please often make for the best search and rescue dogs.

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More Great Links


  • "The Art of Heroism." careerswithanimals/1.41.10.txt
  • "Avalanche Training Overview."
  • K-9 Search and Rescue Team, Inc.
  • "SAR Dog Fact Sheet." NASAR.
  • "Search and Rescue Dogs." Working Dogs.
  • "What do Search Dogs Do?" National Search and Rescue Dog Association.