All About Search and Rescue Dogs

Search and rescue dog / Getty Images

Although they’re often portrayed on TV and in the movies, it can be hard to fully appreciate just how brave, courageous, and heroic a search and rescue (or SAR) dog can be. Search and rescue dogs are disciplined, life-saving canines that are sharply trained to spring into action in the case of a crisis situation, whether it’s identifying human remains, finding a missing child, or seeking out evidence to help solve a crime. Along with their highly-trained handlers, SAR dogs are working dogs that are prepared to assist in emergencies in any environment, from the wilderness to the city.

While all dogs have earned their title of “man’s best friend” for good reason, the search and rescue canine takes it to a whole new level: the finely-tuned skills of search and rescue (SAR) dogs can often mean the difference between life and death, especially during mass casualty events, natural disasters, and when searching for missing persons.

History of Search and Rescue Dogs

Rescue dogs are credited with saving thousands of lives every year. Though there are many dogs that can be trained in search and rescue, generally breeds like the German Shepherd, Border Collie, Belgian Malinois, and Labrador Retrievers are chosen—and they may begin their training as early as 8 to 10 weeks of age.

There are many documented instances of search and rescue dogs throughout history; in World War II, for example, they were used to help search for people buried in the ruins of houses after air raids. In many other countries, both search and rescue and service dogs were being trained as early as the 1920s, any many regions saw a resurgence in SAR training in the 1950s. Among the earliest documentation of search and rescue was in the early 1800s, within the Great Saint Bernard Pass in Switzerland.

After an earthquake in Armenia in 1988, a global team of search and rescue dogs was formed; the International Search and Rescue Dog Organization (IRO) began to assist with these trained teams.

Qualities of a SAR Dogs

Since dogs experience the world through some 200 million scent receptors in their noses (for comparison's sake, humans only have 5 million), they can detect the most subtle scent, even if it's one from several years ago.

That’s why search and rescue dogs are specifically trained to use their noses to assist in an emergency, such as locating a missing person or uncovering clues from a crime. These dogs can follow trails that are months, or even years old, as well as detect a scent from a piece of clothing that hasn’t been worn in a decade. Some rescue dogs are trained to detect scents in the air, while others are known as trailing dogs because they can follow scents on the ground.

But, of course, a dog needs more than their nose to become a SAR dog. These canines have to meet several rigorous qualifications, such as being resilient, strong, and agile dogs that are powerful enough to hold or drag objects—including humans when necessary. Additionally, SAR dogs must be very well socialized with both people and other animals, and they have to be able to withstand stressful situations, like loud noises (explosions) and overwhelming crowds of people or other animals.

While larger breeds are generally preferred when training SAR dogs, they cannot be so large that their size would pose challenges during the rescue task at hand. St. Bernards are known to be able to smell up to 15 feet under snow, but they aren’t an ideal choice for training because of their massive size. On the other hands, breeds like the Newfoundland are often trained in search and rescue because they aren't quite as large but still have the strength to swim while a human is attached to its harness.

Perhaps most importantly, SAR dogs have to be laser-focused and exceptionally motivated to continue with the task at hand during even the most time-consuming searches. And they have to be able to do so even the most unfavorable conditions. Generally speaking, that's why breeds with a highly developed prey drive are preferred—these dogs won't give up until they've received their reward.

How SAR Dogs are Trained

Once a dog is old enough to undergo training, becoming an SAR dog will require several years of daily lessons. These dogs are first trained in basic obedience (they must master classic commands such as sit and come, stay, and heel), primarily through the use of hand signals since verbal communication may not always be possible during a rescue situation.

SAR dogs then undergo rigorous agility training, so that they were fully prepared to navigate treacherous terrain. They have to be able to balance themselves while walking on beams or other unstable footing, as well as to jump through windows and perform other highly athletic, and often dangerous, physical feats.

They will then continue their training with more specialized searching and tracking lessons, which will increase in difficulty and intensity as the dog gains both skills and confidence. These types of sessions might also include retrieving, such as finding a piece of evidence or a tool that when provided to its handler could save someone's life.