Search-and Rescue Dogs

Last week, we looked at modern working dogs and all the ways they help and protect us. Today and over the upcoming weeks, we’re going to focus in on a particular type of modern dog—the search-and-rescue dog—along with its handler.

As previously mentioned, search-and-rescue dogs are especially useful in situations where a person is missing in a large or especially hazardous area. Situations involving hikers lost in the woods or on mountains, hurricane victims, or the elderly or small children who have wandered away from home would all benefit from the amazing scenting abilities of search-and-rescue dogs.

We’ve all seen them on the news: dogs wearing bright-coloured vests climbing over collapsed buildings or running through a field or forest, searching for the lost. But how are they able to find that sole person in such a large or complex area? In the end, it all comes down to skin cells. Without our knowledge, we humans shed about 40,000 skin cells each minute, and they fall around us like a cloud, either settling to the ground around us if the air is still, or they’re caught on the downstream wind to travel significant distances. And it’s not just the skin cells dogs can smell—it’s the scent of perspiration, soap and skin care products, bacteria/fungus, hormones, and—in those less fortunate—decomposition. Dogs follow these scents to find the source that produces them. Scents come off any subject or object in a cone following the prevailing wind, i.e. narrow at the source and expanding outward in a scent cone until it dissipates or is disrupted by barriers like walls or cliffs that cause the odor to swirl and eddy. A dog’s search pattern depends on finding part of the cone and using its nose and training to locate the concentrated source.

Finding the first part of the trail can sometimes take considerable time and patience. There are three main types of scenting methods and most dogs favour one technique:

Air-scenting dogs:

  • A heads-up search, often off lead.
  • Identify the smell of any human in the area and follow the concentrating scent as the dog gets closer to the target.
  • Can cover large areas during the day or night.
  • Does not need a track to follow or a specific starting point.

Tracking dogs:

  • Nose-down search, usually on lead.
  • The dog follows a specific track of disturbance over land.
  • Follow the exact track of a specific scent, even if the target doubles back. On a mountain trail a tracking dog would follow the ascending odor trail around every switchback, even if it detected fresher odor blowing down the mountainside.

Trailing dogs:

  • A combination of air-scenting and tracking.
  • Follows a specific scent.
  • On-lead searches, using partially head-up air scenting and head-down tracking techniques.
  • Will follow the scent pool off the trail. On the mountain trail mentioned previously, the trailing dog would likely cut across switchbacks if it detected fresher odor blowing down the mountainside.

But how can they follow a scent over hills and through valleys, around rocks and through buildings? Next week we’ll look at the difficulties of tracking scent. These skilled dog and handler partnerships make it look easy, but it’s considerably harder than that!

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Photo credit: Cleanboot and Virginia State Parks