All Things Dog

The Special Abilities of Search & Rescue Dogs

The Special Abilities of Search & Rescue Dogs

Dogs selected for SAR training must be the epitome of the obedient, well-socialized, and friendly professional.

Every week, it seems, there's another news story about a highly trained search and rescue (SAR) dog that's found a lost person. And when there's an earthquake or other catastrophe, these amazing professional dogs are constantly in the headlines—and deservedly so. Rescue workers have come to rely on the intelligence and advanced skills of SAR dogs to find hikers, hunters, and children lost in the wilderness; to seek out Alzheimer's patients who have wandered away from homes or hospitals; and to discover the hidden bodies of homicide victims.

What makes dogs so useful as searchers?

While humans have about 5 million odor-sensitive cells in their noses, a dog can have up to 220 million of these cells. In fact, search dogs are trained to follow airborne, rather than ground, scents. With the right wind, a search dog can sense their target a mile away. Add to this their acute sense of hearing, and you have an animal with a very strong awareness of the world around them. And, as any dog owner can testify, dogs are quick, agile, and capable of covering ground much faster than humans.

Those heightened abilities, combined with their keen canine intelligence, give dogs a natural inclination to search and rescue activities. But if that's all there was to it, every dog would qualify. What separates a true SAR dog from all the others is its rigorous training.

SAR training (and more training)

Many SAR dogs get their start as puppies. For a year or more, those puppies undergo a thorough training regime working with an assigned handler. Day after day, these dogs are put through their paces to become consummate "professionals." Their performance is constantly evaluated to make sure they are on track. In some cases, an older dog may qualify for SAR training if it has highly developed capabilities and SAR-related inclinations—and if it has a good relationship with its handler/owner.

How do SAR dogs work?

All humans constantly give off microscopic particles that bear their scent. Millions of these particles become airborne, and the wind carries them for long distances. Air-scenting SAR dogs are trained to locate the scent of any human within a specific search area, even if it's heavily populated.

SAR dogs can work any time of day or night, in most kinds of weather, and they excel where humans are limited: in the dark, in dense forests, in heavy debris, and in the water.

Which dogs make the best searchers?

The most commonly used breeds for SAR work include Golden Retrievers, Giant Schnauzers, Bloodhounds, German Shepherds, Dobermans, Rottweillers, Labradors, and mixed breeds. These dogs are usually selected because of their stamina, intelligence, and trainability. Individually, dogs selected for SAR training must be the epitome of the obedient, well-socialized, and friendly professional. And, of course, they must be totally reliable. After all, this is—quite literally—a matter of life and death.

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