In these times of GPS, cell phones and tracking and locating devices controlled by satellites orbiting the planet it may be hard to believe that Search and Rescue dogs are still the best option in many areas. If you are a dog lover or someone that has had the opportunity to work with or observe these amazing dogs in action you will have no doubt about the unique set of skills that makes them ideal for the job.
One of the major benefits of using Search and Rescue (SAR) dog is that they can go anywhere that a human can go, and even places a human could not. They can get into smaller spaces than a person and they are not afraid of heights, depths, rugged climbs, digging through rubble or even scaling walls and fences to find their target. SAR dogs are used by the military, police forces, private search agencies and even private citizens to help find lost hikers, skiers, children, criminals or anyone at anytime that has become lost or goes missing.
SAR dogs are found all over the world. Some of the first Search and Rescue dogs ever developed as a breed are the St. Bernard dogs, named for St. Bernard de Menthon. He was the Monk credited with established a hospice for travelers in the 11th century in one of the most dangerous areas of the Alps. The dogs continued to be bred by the monks at the hospice and became as well known as the monks in helping travelers over the Alpine passes between Switzerland and Italy. From the early 17th century the monks and their loyal dogs helped lost travelers with the dogs seeming to develop a super sense about weather conditions, avalanches and finding lost people in incredibly challenging weather conditions. Often in early paintings these massive, gentle dogs are portrayed with the wooden brandy barrels around their necks, which were rumored to be used to revive stranded travelers suffering from hypothermia.
The most well known of the St. Bernard SAR dogs was Barry, who is reported to have saved at least 40 and perhaps as many as 100 human lives during his years as a working rescue dog. Barry had a fairly long life, working from the early 1800's to 1814. His body was preserved and is on display in the Natural History Museum in Berne, Switzerland.
Modern Search And Rescue Dogs
From its early beginnings, search and rescue training has advanced to a true science. Modern search and rescue programs can include up to two years of very intense training for dogs and their handlers. Most of the SAR dogs are selected when they are still puppies and begin training shortly after weaning. Of course they are not doing the intense search and rescue training at this tender age but rather they are being tested for natural scent abilities, intelligence and aptitude for the training. Hundreds of puppies are considered for the training programs but only a few meet all the rigorous criteria. There is always a long waiting list for the puppies that are not accepted since they are so well trained and such well socialized dogs.
Almost any breed of dog can be a SAR dog, provided they have the necessary skills and are at least a medium breed size. There is no prerequisite that a professional, trained SAR dog even be a purebred and many are rescue puppies from shelters that are mixed breed dogs. Some of the most common breeds used as SAR dogs include:
Australian Cattle Dogs
SAR dogs are trained to climb, dig, work scent trails, solve basic problems such as getting into buildings, getting through obstructions and climbing ladders and balancing on narrow surface areas. These dogs are ideally suited to these types of activities due to their natural abilities as well as very focused and ongoing training.
SAR dogs are paired with their handlers as quickly as possible and often live with their handlers. If they do live in kennels they are trained for several hours a day, including a lot of time on socialization with people and other animals. This means that they don't become frightened or aggressive when confronted with strange situations or unusual events out in the field.
Part of the training for many SAR dogs is to learn how to swim and even to located people in water for rescue. Scent and trailing is a big part of SAR training and dogs and their handlers are constantly working through drills and mock rescues to keep all the skills fresh in the dog's and handler's repertoires. Different breeds of search and rescue dogs will make up a team, usually with several handlers and their dogs considered one team. Some dogs will use air scent techniques to find a trail, while others will use ground scents. Air scenting dogs typically work off lead and will use a pattern to traverse the search area, checking the wind and air for any scent of the target. Trailing dogs such as Bloodhounds will focus on where a known trail starts, then follow the scent by smelling where the person touched the ground or low vegetation. Typically ground scenting or trailing dogs are worked on leash but some also can work off leash.
One of the key factors that most trainers and handlers look for in a search and rescue dog is a puppy that loves to play. In reality the dogs don't understand what they are doing is life and death work, they are just excited about finding a target object as part of a game. In a search operation the target just happens to be a person. Some very specialized SAR dogs, known as cadaver dogs, are trained to find dead bodies rather than live individuals. These bodies may be buried in a natural disaster or be victims of a crime. They may be on land or they may even be located under water. This is a different type of training, however it is just as important for military, police and private search agencies.