Updated date:

Dogs That Save Lives: Facts About Search-and-Rescue Dogs

Amanda was raised with dogs and has kept dogs all her life. "Dogs aren't just pets," she says, "They're workmates, friends, and family."

Our heroic search-and-rescue dogs need specialist training

Our heroic search-and-rescue dogs need specialist training

The Amazing Skills of Search-and-Rescue Dogs

I was raised with dogs as a kid, and I've kept them all my life. Anyone who has enjoyed a long-term relationship with any canine will know and understand the liveliness of a dog's intelligence and the depth of his loyalty. But fewer people are aware of the astonishing skills and capacities specially trained search-and-rescue dogs demonstrate on a daily basis, risking their own lives to save ours.

Most people know about the lifesaving work of search-and-rescue dogs through shows they've seen on television. There are famous fictional dogs like Lassie and occasional documentaries about the real lives of these canine heroes. A dog's extraordinary intelligence, powerful sense of smell, and willingness to help make it the ideal animal for this kind of work. Few people understand the full range of skills these dogs are trained to use in rescue situations.

Keefer, a search-and-rescue dog, takes a breather during training.

Keefer, a search-and-rescue dog, takes a breather during training.

Specialized Dogs

Dogs are often portrayed as sniffing the air or familiarizing themselves with an individual's odor by sniffing an item of clothing which carries that person's unique scent. In theory, any dog would be capable of picking up both an airborne scent and following a land trail. In practice, however, professional dog handlers train the animals to specialize in one or other of several tracking disciplines.

Search-and-rescue teams may include:

  • Air-scent dogs
  • Trailing dogs
  • Tracking dogs
  • Disaster dogs
  • Cadaver dogs
  • Water-search dogs
  • Avalanche dogs

Search-and-Rescue Dog Documentary

Air-Scent Dogs

Air-scent dogs are the best known. These animals are trained to pick up molecules of human scent adrift in the air. They are able to hone in on the precise location of the person emitting the scent by detecting and following the odor to its point of highest concentration. Air-scent dogs are best used in large, open spaces in which other people are not present. This is because they may not be able to distinguish the target sent from that of another person.

Several environmental factors can impact the success of an air-scent dog's search. Prevailing wind conditions, ambient temperature, type of terrain, time of day, pollution and contaminants may all affect the dog's ability to locate a specific scent. A light wind in the early morning on a still, cloudy day represent the best conditions for a scent dog to undertake search-and-rescue.

Zasko, pictured here with his military handler, is  an air-scent dog trained to detect explosives and works in war zones

Zasko, pictured here with his military handler, is an air-scent dog trained to detect explosives and works in war zones

Trailing Dogs

Trailing dogs are specially trained to detect the presence of tiny particles of human tissue, such as hair and skin cells a person sheds as they move. Heavier than the molecules suspended in air which an air-scent dog is trained to discern, these tiny particles sink toward the ground, resting on soil, foliage, or the surface of water. A trailing dog will follow a scent with its nose close to the ground.

The bloodhound is the most well-known of the scent-discriminating trailing dogs. Usually working in a harness, the animal is primed by sniffing an item of clothing which carries the scent of the missing person. Unlike the air-scent dog, the trailing dog will discriminate and follow that specific scent alone.

Trailing dogs are able to work in urban environments as easily as natural ones. Given a suitable item from the missing person and knowledge of the last location which the person was seen, trailing dogs are often the quickest way to locate a victim. But in the absence of a scent item, there is little a trailing dog can do.

Trailing dogs can trace tiny particles of human flesh, hair, and clothing

Trailing dogs can trace tiny particles of human flesh, hair, and clothing

Tracking Dogs

Tracking dogs do not use scent at all. These dogs are trained to follow discrete physical tracks and traces left by a person. These may be disturbed ground or footprints. Tracking dogs are also used in the pursuit of criminals where no indication of scent is available. In these situations, they will often be used in teams which can close in on an individual.

Tracking dogs often work in teams, using visual clues, rather than scent, to find their quarry

Tracking dogs often work in teams, using visual clues, rather than scent, to find their quarry

Disaster Dogs

Disaster dogs may use a variety of techniques to locate people, including the skills used by air-scent, trailing, and tracking dogs. But they are specially trained to work in the aftermath of disaster zones. They may be used to locate people trapped in rubble after bombings or earthquakes. These extraordinary dogs are trained to work in unstable environments and cramped or confined conditions.

Working with Northwest Disaster Search Dogs, Lisa Bishop and her dog, Cody, watch the skies for the rescue helicopter to arrive

Working with Northwest Disaster Search Dogs, Lisa Bishop and her dog, Cody, watch the skies for the rescue helicopter to arrive

Cadaver Dogs

The cadaver dog has been taught how to detect the particular scent of a human corpse. These specially trained animals can detect cadavers above ground and those who have been buried. The cadaver dog will ignore the scent of living humans. These animals are able to detect recently dead bodies and those who have been deceased for some time, even if the only remains are dried blood or fragments of bone.

Volunteers from Bucks County Search and Rescue follow Tucker, a cadaver dog, during the recovery of a crashed aircraft

Volunteers from Bucks County Search and Rescue follow Tucker, a cadaver dog, during the recovery of a crashed aircraft

Water-Search Dogs

Water-search dogs have very specialized skills. Working with the human teams in boats or along the shoreline, they can pick up the presence of a human body submerged in water by sensing the gases such bodies release. A trained diver works with the team, ready to search for the body once the dog indicates its presence and location.

Barnaby, a skilled water-search dog, helps Mike Knorr look for a missing person in Red River

Barnaby, a skilled water-search dog, helps Mike Knorr look for a missing person in Red River

Avalanche Dogs

Avalanche dogs operate in snow to locate the victims of an avalanche. They can plow through deep drifts and detect the scent of a person even under 15 feet of snowfall. Avalanche dogs use a range of senses, including smell, sight, and hearing, to find victims.

Murphy and his handler, Eric Seelenfreund, work together as part of an avalanche rescue team

Murphy and his handler, Eric Seelenfreund, work together as part of an avalanche rescue team

We Owe Dogs a Great Debt of Gratitude

The first search-and-rescue dog was the famous St. Bernard, which helped people lost in the mountains. Dogs have been specially trained to assist people in recovery situations for upwards of 300 years. Every year, the lives of hundreds of individuals are saved by the skill and bravery of these remarkable animals who work in some of the most dangerous situations known, from landslides to war zones. Humans owe a debt of thanks to these truly courageous and highly skilled dogs.

© 2018 Amanda Littlejohn

Comments

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on September 18, 2018:

Hi Paula,

So true! I love my dogs, although they're both getting on in years - like me. I probably won't have new dogs if I outlast them. And I agree with you that Border Collies are exceptionally smart.

I love the idea of a "Rescue Cat" but you're right, the chances are kind of slim!

Suzie from Carson City on September 18, 2018:

stuff......Quite simply dogs are wonderful and truly, "man's best friend!" Some of the more intelligent breeds, like Border Collies for instance, I swear.....can be trained to do ANYTHING! Their abilities are vital to us.

Although I love them and had many in the past, at my age & limitations, it would not be fair to a dog for me to have one any more. They do require a lot of exercise, freedom and continual care.

I'm with Flourish, because I also love cats and have 3 little characters that keep me company & entertained. Alas...there is no such thing as a "Watch Cat" or a Rescue Cat or drug-sniffing cat (unless we can count catnip!!)

Thanks for the great article about Doggy-Life-Savers!!!

Amanda Littlejohn (author) on September 18, 2018:

Thanks, Shelley. It's a cliche as old as humanity more-or-less, but dogs really are our best friends. Whereas cats, I think, are certainly our Overlords!

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 18, 2018:

Dogs are such heroes, so skilled and special. Although I don’t have one (I have several cats) I love their spirit.