When somebody says “Search and Rescue dog” it conjures up images of a sheriff’s deputy with his trusty bloodhound on a long line, a local cop with his tracking German Shepherd, or the volunteer with her trailing Golden Retriever. These are all fine examples of extraordinary working dogs in their prime, but what if somebody gets lost in the deep wilderness? What if a trail goes dry? What if the subject has been missing for multiple days and the trail is too old to be worked?
Enter the wilderness airscent Search and Rescue dog. Most often used for the job are herding breeds- chosen for their brains, endurance, ability to work and learn on their own, agility, and for prey drive. A search manager will call on these natural talents as a resource in all search and rescue scenarios. These dogs are handled by volunteers, trained to smell their subject in the air, not confined to a trail. These dogs are fighting fit, ready to tackle any terrain with the precision of a Formula One racing driver, and the multi-day endurance of a Tour de France champion; these are professional athlete dogs, competing in agility, canicross, and even flyball to stay fit for the search. GPS collars have verified the dogs running more than 100 miles a week.
Keeping these dogs fit and ready every day is essential since you never know when you will get the call. It’s a balancing act, you need the dog very fit but not over-conditioned where it wouldn’t be able to work up to 15 days in a row. The dog cannot be dehydrated and needs some energy stores for those long and arduous multi-day searches in the mountains. It can be very hard to get it right when you’re keeping the dog’s endurance at its peak daily and doing search training 3-4 days a week. What’s even harder is keeping it fun for the dog, keeping his attention, and keeping him from getting lax with a “yeah, we do this every day so I’m not going to give 100%” attitude. You do this by changing up rewards, changing training locations, different search durations, and keeping a steady stream of new faces for your dog to find.
The handler works his dog out of his own pocket. The dog needs to be professionally certified like any other search dog. The handler is professionally certified too, often an EMT, certified veterinary assistant, or both. Hundreds of hours of classroom training are spent studying scent theory, lost person psychology, and high/low angle rope rescue, among other subjects. The handler often knows his dog better than his spouse, and will spend thousands of hours training before the dog and handler team are certified.
The airscent dog and handler are given an area to search, often upwards of 300 acres. The dog is not scent discriminate and is not given a scent artice of the lost person; This is because the bits that make you smell differently from me are the fatty acids, the heaviest part of your scent, these bits fall straight to the ground and don’t get carried in the wind. This is why tracking and trailing dogs can stay on one specific person’s trail so well. The team works the area like a grid across the wind giving the dog the best chance to smell the subject. The dog works off lead for up to 6hrs in a single task.
When he finally has scent he will alert to his handler, and when he finally locates the subject, the dog gives a “refind”- an alert to tell the handler he’s located the person. This is often done by circling the handler and barking, or jumping off the handler in excitement that he’s done a great job. The handler then gives the command to “show me” and the dog leads the handler to the missing person so that critical life saving care can be administered. What does the dog do all this for? What is his reward? Often just a game of fetch, or a good tug of war session. The dog takes the most joy out of finding the missing. He understands the difference between training and a real mission and works as if it was his own life on the line.
If you would like to learn more, contact your local volunteer Search and Rescue group. They are always willing to talk to anyone and are always looking for new faces to “get lost” for their dogs to find in training.
Does volunteer SAR or scent work sound like a blast but don’t have the time or resources to pour into a SAR dog? Look for my article on deer antler shed hunting in the coming months.