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Search-and-Rescue Dogs Save Lives, Bring Closure to Families

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Training a dog for search-and-rescue (SAR) work takes years of dedication and hard work. Search-and-rescue dogs work in emergency situations, and save lives every day. It can be emotional work -- take this story, for example.

Harry Oakes exhaled a tired sigh, hung up the phone and looked over at his dog, Ranger. The county sheriff’s office had just called with the grim news that a 17-year-old named Angela had wandered away from home three days ago and was missing, presumably lost in the woods nearby. He was told it would be a cadaver search.

Oakes and Ranger, a Labrador/Newfoundland mix, arrived on the scene with his friend Becky Mimo and her German shepherd, Quigley. Christmas was only four days away, and the Oregon winds blew cold in the dense, dark woods. Ranger and Quigley led their handlers through the rough terrain, keenly pursuing a hopeful scent.

Thirty minutes after embarking on their search, the dogs found Angela—alive, but unconscious, huddled in a fetal position and with a core body temperature of only 92 degrees. But Angela wasn’t the only amazing discovery the team made that day. Cuddled inside the teenager’s jacket was the girl’s faithful cocker spaniel, who had managed to find Angela on her own after bolting away from their home a half mile away. Angela, who made a full recovery in the days that followed, owed her life to the body heat of her pet dog—and to the noses of two dogs she never met.

Tools of the trade

Indeed, when it comes to searches and rescues, there are few tools more important than a dog’s smeller.

“Dogs have an olfactory ability over 50 times that of humans, so they are excellent at being able to detect human scent quickly,” said Michael Lueck, a member of the Search One Rescue Team in Dallas, Texas.

The science of this phenomenon is actually fairly simple. All bodies, whether dead or live, continually release microscopic particles containing a unique scent. Millions of these particles exist in the air and are swept across wide distances by the wind, which a trained dog can detect.

But it’s not just the dog's olfactory organ that makes it uniquely qualified for hero duty.

“Dogs can also move much faster than humans, so they can cover a pile or wilderness setting much faster. In a disaster setting, it is often safer for dogs to walk on rubble than humans. Dogs are more agile, weigh less and distribute their weight across four paws, so there is less chance of further disturbing the pile,” Lueck said.

Canine categories

Oakes -- who runs International K-9 Search and Rescue Services, a training and SAR-for-hire company based in Longview, Wash. -- estimates that there are more than 240 search-and-rescue (SAR) dog teams comprising about 4,000 SAR dog handlers in the United States. The vast majority are unpaid volunteers who spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars of their own money to train their dogs and themselves to rescue and recover accident and disaster victims across the world.

SAR dogs come in many varieties. The three main types are:

  • Tracking dogs, which physically track the path of a specific person, usually without relying on air scent.
  • Trailing dogs, which are trained to hunt for a particular individual by pursuing tiny particles of skin cells or human tissue discarded on or close to the ground by the lost person on his or her path.
  • Air-scent dogs, which sniff the traces of human scent that linger in the air and search for the “cone” of scent where the smell is most concentrated. This type of dog can locate the scent of any person, as opposed to that of a specific person.

Some SAR dogs fall into different specialty categories. These include:

  • Disaster dogs, which are experts at locating victims of earthquakes, tornadoes and other disasters.
  • Cadaver dogs, which have a special nose only for finding the remains of deceased people.
  • Water search dogs, which are trained to detect human scent in or under the water.
  • Avalanche dogs, which specialize in tracking down victims trapped in an avalanche or other snow disaster.

Aside from their amazing sense of smell, keen hearing, night vision and aptitude for training, dogs are the ideal animals for search and rescue “because of their ability to be versatile,” Oakes said. “One day we might be on a lake looking for a drowned victim, the next in the deep wilderness searching for a hunter or hiker, the next in the Philippines searching for survivors of an earthquake.”

With so many disasters just waiting to happen, “there will always be an increasing demand for these dogs,” Oakes said.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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