As we walk through a food court, cafeteria, or past our favorite restaurant we smell all the delicious aromas wafting through the air – burgers, fries, tacos, Kung Pao chicken, or pizza! Smelling these scents carried in the air is called scent rafting, and typically holds little significance to us, unless we smell some of our favorite foods like a freshly baked apple pie! To a dog, the scent of a person is just as strong as that apple pie is to us.
Each of us have our own scent. Because a dog’s sense of smell is so much stronger than a human’s, dogs can pick up the scents of different people. We are constantly shedding cells from the surface of our skin, and they are carried in the air just like food smells. Search and rescue (SAR) dogs are trained to pick up the scent of skin cells – or scent rafts – and work to find missing persons. While these dogs are working, they really are just playing! To a dog, tracking a person is no different than tracking a ball or toy.
SAR dogs are trained to find people, and most importantly, let their handlers know when the person has been found. There are two types of SAR dogs: tracking or trailing dogs (also known as following dogs) and air-scent dogs.
Tracking or Trailing Dogs (also known as Following Dogs) are put to work when the “point last-seen” is known. For example, a tracking dog would be used if a hiker, last seen at his vehicle (the vehicle being the point last-seen), went for a hike in the woods and became lost. Tracking dogs are brought to the point last-seen and directed to track the scent of the missing person. Because scents of additional people can overwhelm the air with scent rafts, tracking dogs are typically first responders. Tracking dogs typically keep their “nose to the ground” because as the skin cells are shed, they fall to the ground or nearby vegetation. Bloodhounds are commonly trained as tracking dogs because their facial features (long drooping ears and lots of facial folds) help to concentrate and direct the scent particles into the dog’s nostrils.
When there is no known “point last-seen”, tracking dogs are less useful and air-scent dogs are used instead.
Air-scent Dogs keep their nose in the air! They pick up the scent of people in air currents and seek out its origin. Air-scent dogs are trained to work in rescue operations such as avalanches, collapsed buildings, or in rescues where rescuers don’t have the point last-seen. For example, if a hiker is lost in a large forest or national park. German Shepherds are commonly trained as air-scent dogs, as well as Labrador and Golden Retrievers, and Shetland Sheepdogs.
Air-scent dogs may be trained as specialized searchers, such as:
Cadaver Dogs. Dogs are trained to search for human remains. These dogs can find something as small as a drop of blood or a tooth.
Water Dogs. Dogs are trained to search for drowning victims. From a boat, these specially trained dogs can smell a body even when it’s completely immersed. Searchers use the dog’s alert point in combination with water current analysis to determine the general vicinity of the body.
Avalanche Dogs. Dogs are trained to search for people buried beneath up to 15 feet of snow.
Urban Disaster Dogs. Dogs are trained to search for survivors in collapsed buildings. This is the most difficult specialty as the dogs must navigate dangerous and unstable terrain.
Wilderness Dogs. Dogs are trained to search for human scent in the wilderness (e.g., a hiker lost in a national forest).
Evidence Dogs. Dogs search for items that have human scent on them. These items are used in police investigations.
SAR dogs and their handlers undergo rigorous training. They train for up to two years in order to be ready. It takes about 600 hours of training for a dog and about 1000 hours for their handler. SAR dogs are trained to ride in anything that would assist the search team find a missing person, such as chair lifts, helicopters, and other aircraft, snow mobiles, boats, and sling harnesses. SAR dogs and handlers are on call 24 hours/day, 365 days a year, with dogs accompanying their handlers to work and on vacation. They may be called upon at any time.
We don’t tend to think about search and rescue dogs, or their dedicated handlers, until an emergency arises: a natural disaster, a mass casualty event, or someone goes missing. And we don’t tend to think that any such emergency will ever happen to us or someone we know and love. But when the unthinkable happens, it’s good to know that there are trained SAR teams ready to step in and help.
As Emergency Preparedness Week wraps up, consider that we aren’t the only ones preparing for potential natural disasters and other search and rescue needs.