Search & Rescue Dogs: FAQ

It takes a special dog (and handler!) to become a fully certified and mission-ready K9 Search team. Not all dogs and people are cut out for the extreme environments, sleepless nights, intense amount of work and training, physical exertion, and occasionally, heartbreak. Over the years of handling a search dog and being a ground and spec ops team member of search teams in several states, I’ve been asked a lot of different questions, so I thought I’d throw some of them together here for those interested or curious. Obviously, answers will change slightly depending on what team you’re working with, but I’ve been on three different SAR teams in three different states, and trained in different disciplines on each one depending on the needs of the team, but for broad generalizations, this is how it works!

August 2011 (91) How did/do you get into search and rescue?

This answer will vary based on the number of people you ask. Everyone is going to have a different answer. Did they love the outdoors and want to give back? Did they feel a calling to help others? Were they attracted to (what they thought) would be fame and excitement, something to brag about? Those last types don’t usually stick around too long. For me and probably a fair number of other handlers, it was the thought of working a dog in search work that first bought me to putting in that application. As for the more technical ‘how’ it depends on the team. But for most the process is similar. There is generally an application process in which you apply to join. An interview process weeds out people with the wrong ideas about SAR (attendance at an overnight or high altitude search as the ‘victim’ usually weeds out quite a bit more), and after a background check, sometimes a physical fitness check, and the support of some team members, you come onboard as a trainee. It’s important to note that just because you make in through the application process, doesn’t mean your dog will. And vice versa. Like I said, it takes a special combination to succeed.

It's a loooong way down!

Hope you’re not afraid of heights. It’s a loooong way down!

Can MY dog do it?!?! (A.K.A. What kinds of dogs can do SAR work?) 

Generally, no one dog breed is the be-all end-all for SAR work. In fact, what most handlers want, is a type of dog, a dog with certain qualities that will make it an outstanding searcher. Dogs need to have great work ethic and motivation to work- after all, they’re going to be searching for hours and miles over rough terrain in all sorts of freezing or sweltering conditions. High energy and fearless, usually good search dogs are horrible family/house pets, and a good number have been dropped at rescues and shelters for being ‘too hyper’ or ‘out of control.’ If your dog is a nice, calm family dog that likes to go out with the family but isn’t batshit insane and bouncing off the walls, then SAR work might not be for your dog. (just being honest here, folks).

We see a lot of dogs from the Herding, Working, Sporting, and Hound groups, and mixes of those breeds, but just because your dog is of a certain breed doesn’t mean it will make a great search dog. Dogs that are too small and too large generally do not perform as well. A small chihuahua will have trouble covering as much ground as, say, a fit and trim labrador, and will most likely never cover the 160 acres in under 4 hours needed to pass their certification. And trust me when I say, even with a fast dog, covering that 160 acres in under 4 hours still requires a downright grueling pace. The dogs also need to be confident, as they will be encountering situations your ordinary house pet will never see. Cliffs, swaying bridges, rubble piles, spooky nights, forest animals, howling wind, and intimidating obstacles are all things that can fail out an unsuitable dog. I once evaluated a young German Shepherd for search work. Pulled from the pound, he was a very sweet boy (and had he been suitable for search work, he would have been a foster failure and my newest SAR dog), but he was afraid of the dark. Eyes checked out fine, he was just unwilling to move more than 3 feet away from the handler in the dark woods at night. He’s currently a wonderful obedience competition dog for the family that adopted him, he just wasn’t cut out for SAR.

My very first search dog, Iden.

My very first search dog, a rescued German Shepherd named Iden. We trained in air scent. Don’t let the picture fool you, he was a total goofball, but an A+ searcher. He once managed to open the door of the RV at a dog show, and followed my scent all the way across the fairgrounds to the ring I was showing dobermans at (at a dead run, with about half a dozen strangers chasing after him trying to catch him!)

SAR dogs need to be motivated to work for long hours at a time. Throw a ball into the bushes for your dog. How long does he look for it? If he gives up within a few minutes, chances are, your dog won’t make the cut. Does he perseverate on it for hours afterward, scratching at the door to get back out to continue looking, or crashing through the bushes looking for it, destroying your garden and digging up all your good dirt in the process? Probably a good search dog right there.

Your dog must hunt for the object with an insatiable appetite, because 2 hours into a search, that will be what is keeping your dog going. They don’t have a vested interest in finding a lost person- they just want their reward, and as far as they know, the person hiding has it. And it’s theirs! And they are going to get it back!! A good search doesn’t WANT to work, s/he NEEDS to work.

Think of the stereotypical personality of a Malinois. A pocket rocket. A maligator. Intense, obsessive, with no off button. Those are the traits you usually want to see in a good SAR dog. Would you want that living in your house 24/7 when you’re not on a search? Yes? You might make a good handler.

Raiden, one of my German shepherds, once rolled his ball behind the TV stand while I was gone. I came home to my living room destroyed, the tv stand overturned, the TV smashed all over the floor, books and remotes and knick knacks thrown everywhere, and Raiden, standing happily behind it all, ball in his mouth, with a look on his face that said, “Well, Mom. My ball got away. But it’s ok! I found it!”

Raiden and I having a little chat at training about what we can and cannot do while searching. No, you may not take a swimming break in the frozen lake! As you can see, he's giving me his complete and undivided attention.

A young Raiden and I having a little chat at training about what we can and cannot do while searching. No, you may not snack on that dead thing or go swimming in the partially frozen lake! As you can see, he’s giving me his complete and undivided attention.

What types (disciplines) of SAR work are there?

Usually I’m asked this question of people a tad bit more knowledgeable about the whole process and who are really interested in getting into it, as most laymen don’t realize that there are different disciplines in SAR work. And there’s even disciplines within disciplines. To start with general SAR, there are a variety of different types of work you can do within a SAR team. Everyone starts out as a general ground team member (affectionately called ground pounders). Even K9 handlers MUST be certified as a ground team member *first* and must maintain their ground certification. You will not work your dog every moment of every search, and while your dog may be recovering from a 3 hour search in his crate in an air conditioned trailer, you will most likely be reassigned with another field team as a ground support and redeployed to the field while your dog recovers. In addition to ground team, people also perform in swift water rescue, technical rope rescue/high angle/vertical/cave rescue (sometimes combined into a general Spec Ops category), Urban Search and Wilderness Search, K9, Search Management, or you may specialize in medical, and train in any of those fields with a medical specialty. It’s also not unheard of for people to train in all categories (but not common, as each discipline is pretty much like another full time job, and search management takes A LOT of experience, training, responsbility, and years of familiarity with the search process). Within the different aspects, such as, say, Spec Ops, there are subdivisions. If you’re a Spec Ops member, you may be a rigger, in charge of the ropes and rigging systems designed to pull people up and out of harm’s way. You may be medical, or you could be an edge tender, managing the ropes on the edge of a cliffside, ensuring there’s no rubbing on sharp rocks and keeping things from getting tangled during the descent and ascent. Or you could be a ‘rescuer,’ the term for the team members with specialized training that go over the edge on ropes to find the victim (not for people afraid of heights!).

A rescuer and two medics in the bottom left, an edge tender in the top right. 1 of these people is also a K9 handler.

Two rescuers and a medic in the bottom left, an edge tender in the top right. 2 of these people are also K9 handlers.

Within the K9 speciality (because that’s all you really want to know about, right?) you must choose a discipline for your dog. Some dogs branch out into two disciplines, but initially, you will only train in one. Air Scent, Tracking/Trailing, and Human Remains Detection are the three broad categories, with Avalanche available as a discipline n high-risk areas.  Within air scent we find Urban/Disaster and Wilderness, while Human Remains Detection (HRD) can be urban, wilderness, or water. Air Scent dogs are worked off-leash, and they are trained to alert on any human scent in a given area. Generally these dogs range far from their handler, even a quarter mile away, and they are charged with clearing designated sections for any human scent. These dogs are good for locating people trapped in rubble (Urban) or when the missing person does not have a Point Last Seen (PLS) for a tracking dog to start from.

There's no one under this puddle, Mom!

There’s no one under this puddle, Mom!

Tracking/Trailing dogs are exactly what you’d suspect. They trail the scent of the victim from their PLS. They typically require a scent article, such as a sock or mitten, and are trained to follow only that scent, and to ignore other scent paths crossing the one they are following.

Tracking on dry, dead grass, dirt, and concrete is some of the most challenging tracking conditions.

Tracking on dry, dead grass, dirt, and concrete are some of the most challenging tracking conditions.

Cadaver/Human Remains (HRD) dogs are trained to alert on any human remains in their given search area. They generally work smaller areas than air scent dogs, and can detect scent buried 18 inches deep, high up in the air, amid the rubble of a fallen building, or even underwater.

What sort of training do you need to be a SAR worker/handler?

Most people don’t realize what a time commitment SAR work is when they first sign on. They think it might be like a dog training class- come once a week for maybe an hour or two, and BAM, search dog in the making. The reality is much, much different. Training, (and maintaining that training) takes about 15-20 hours per week of a handler’s time. Often group trainings are held 3-4 times per week, for 3-5 hours at a time, and you’re expected to work your dog solo on other nights, especially when you are in the training phase. At group training you will be expected to act as the subject for other people’s dogs and they will act as your subjects, so you will not be able to arrive first, train quickly, and head home. It’s a group effort.

Like the post office, weather will not be a factor. You will train in snow, sleet, hail, rain so heavy you can’t see your path, pitch dark conditions, heat upwards of 110 degrees, muggy humid days and sweltering nights, and in brush so thick you need a hatchet to clear a path. And lest you think “We don’t need to go into that thick underbrush, no one could possibly get through!” we once found a 92 year old, wheelchair bound, alzheimer’s victim 5 miles from his care facility 25 yards into impassable blackberry brambles. Never underestimate your subjects!

On nights you’re not training your dog, you’ll be training yourself. You’ll participate in weekend trainings without your dog, mock searches that last until midnight on a day where you’ve just worked an 8 hour shift at your regular, paying job (and that you have to go back to the next morning). You’ll attend classes on scent theory, wilderness first aid/first responder and EMT-B, ropes and knot tying, FEMA courses, scene and hazard safety, wilderness survival, map and compass courses, GPS classes, lost person behavior, navigator training, hasty vs thorough search scenarios, air observer, man tracking, crime scene preservation, incident command, and critical incident stress management (just to name a few).

Training for cave rescue at Airman's Cave, Austin, Texas. Yes, full sized adults DO fit through that hole (affectionately known as the birth canal). Cave rescue is NOT for the claustrophobic.

Training for cave rescue at Airman’s Cave, Austin, Texas. Yes, full sized adults DO fit through that hole (affectionately known as the birth canal). Cave rescue is NOT for the claustrophobic. I’m not claustrophobic at all and I had a mild panic attack about halfway through. SAR will push you to your limits.

These courses are all just the prep work for having to gain the required ‘sign-offs’ needed to become mission ready. Once you’ve attended the courses, you must demonstrate knowledge in each section by proving your skills in the field. You’ll have to tie knots in front of your instructors by memory and to their satisfaction. You’ll have to assess a scene or situation and provide the needed care while an instructor looks on. You’ll have to call for air evac, or decide when to call in a spec ops or K9 team, and you’ll have practical demonstration assessments, where you’ll have to do things such as tie a swiss seat harness and use that and your equipment to ascend and descend a steep or vertical cliff face, or serve as a munter during a haul out of a victim. You’ll have to pass your fitness test, which, for our team, involved hiking 2 miles with a 30 pound pack in under 30 minutes AND your pulse rate and blood pressure at the finish had to be within acceptable limits (NOT an easy test, rest assured. I pulled my back out at the start of one from the weight of my pack, was 30 seconds too slow, and was laid up for 6 weeks before I could retake it).

You’ll have to maintain certain equipment, which can end up being expensive. You’re required to carry a certain number of items with you, and most people add their own optional items on top of that. First aid, ropes, flashlights, batteries, fluids and food, safety gear, navigation tools, documentation tools, emergency shelter, communications, maps and compass, GPS systems, gloves, protective eyewear, a helmet, carabiners, prusiks, flagging tape, knifes, fire starter, paracord, sleeping bag, and toiletries are just some of the items you’ll carry with you. If you’re a K9 handler, throw on even more water for your dog (your dog will never carry a load while searching), extra food, and multiple rewards. A fully outfitted 24-hour search pack can weigh upwards of 50 pounds, a 72-hour pack can flatten a small child.

A look at the contents of my 24-hour pack. My 72 hours pack contained even more.

A look at the contents of my 24-hour pack. My 72 hour pack contained even more.

The price of your involvement can add up. You can’t afford to go the cheap route with most gear- even my expensive pack from REI was tearing at the seams after 12 hard months in the field. Your equipment is not a place you want to skimp on either- bargain bin at WalMart is not going to cut it in a life or death situation in the field. You’ll often need duplicates of everything- a 24 and 72 hour pack for the field, and a set of each to be used in training. The last thing you want is to exhaust your first aid kit on a training (and you WILL use your first aid consumables in a training situation- there’s no pretending to break out the gauze and ace bandages), then have a call out that night with an unready pack that hasn’t been resupplied.

You’ll need to provide your own uniform, which can see a lot of wear and tear and may need to replaced every 6 months. Your expensive water proof, leather, military combat-grade boots will be falling apart after 12 or even 6 months of intense use. You may need to upgrade your vehicle to one with 4 wheel drive, and you’ll be putting insane amount of miles on it driving to search sites, K9 training, team trainings, and missions. Search and Rescue is not a cheap endeavor. Your K9 will be burning calories at incredible rates, and your dog food bill will go up. Raiden, my second search dog, was eating 10 cups of high performance dog food, every day, at the peak of his career, and I’d often supplement with high calorie treats, calorie dense oils, and protein snacks while on a search. Keeping weight on him was hard. These dogs are the olympic athletes of the dog world. For a comparison of what Raiden is like now in his retired semi-old age (he’s 9 now)- he’s down to just 4 cups a day. So the increase to what he was eating while working was astonishing, and he didn’t have an ounce of body fat on him. You’ll have trainings without your dog, to train your search skills, and these will be in addition to the many hours and nights you spend training with the K9 team. Some weeks are spent out with your team every single night after you get off work.

You never know what you'll be doing at training. Practicing rappelling from someone's vaulted living room ceiling? Yep, that's a possibility.

You never know what you’ll be doing at training. Practicing rappelling from someone’s vaulted living room ceiling? Yep, that’s a possibility.

What certifications are required?

All of this will be before you’re even allowed to set foot on an actual search. Before you’re deemed ‘mission ready’ you must pass all of these skills, and demonstrate them before your instructors in order to get ‘sign-offs’ in your task book. Your task book will be a log of all your training and the sign-offs are the instructor’s signature verifying that you’ve demonstrated that skill to the team’s standard. You’ll also keep a training log of every run your dog does, and you must keep it accurate, as often, in large, high-profile, search cases that end up going to trial (such as the Laci Peterson case), your log books and task books will be subpoenaed, and your dog’s training records will be scrutinized by police, detectives, and lawyers.


Once your task book is completely filled, you’re ready for your ultimate test- your SARTech 2. Similar to a lawyer passing the bar exam, or a doctor taking the medical licensing exam, this test independently certifies you, no matter where you got your training. You’ll have a written and practical test in which you’ll demonstrate man tracking, map and compass skills, land navigation, rope skills, route and area searches, and clue finding, Without this outside certification from the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), you are not a viable, tested, certified search and rescue worker and you will not be allowed on a search. Some teams will allow a SARTech 3, the lowest, basic, ‘Intro to SAR’ certification, to be present at a search but they are not allowed to leave the command center except to drive into town to bring back food, and basically act as errand boys for search management. A SARTech 1 certification certifies you to operate at the highest level- search management. It can take a year or more to reach a SARTech 2 level.

No matter how highly your instructors think of you, without that outside national certification, you are a liability, with no way to verify the quality and extent of your training. The same holds true for a search dog. Their handler may be SARTech 2 certified, but the dogs themselves must pass their own SARTech evaluations as well (and FEMA certs, if they’re disaster dogs). By gaining the certification of an outside, national, independent organization, the quality and effectiveness of search dogs is held to a high standard. It means that both you are your dog are knowledgeable, capable, and proficient at your jobs. Those who can’t pass the test, don’t search on real searches. The stakes are too high to let someone who is untrained or just ‘dabbles’ in SAR to spend valuable, limited time finding a victim who could be in real danger.

Rok, a certified SARTech air scent and FEMA disaster dog, chilling on the team's rope bag.

Rok, a certified SARTech air scent and FEMA disaster dog, chilling on the team’s rope bag.

Each SARTech K9 test involves a written exam portion for the handler, followed by a practical evaluation in the discipline in which you’re certifying for. To pass a SARTech 1 certification for an air scent dog, the dog and handler must locate two subjects within 160 acres in under 4 hours, during the day. They must also complete a night search consisting of locating one subject inside of 90 acres within 2 hours.

A SARTECH 1 trailing dog test consists of a 50% rural and 50% urban track, 1 1/4 miles in length, with 8-15 turns, cross tracks and aged between 24 and 26 hours old. The dog must complete this within 3 hours, including time for breaks. They must discriminate scent at the start of the track, meaning the dog must locate the start of the track with direction from the handler, rather than be be told exactly where it is (such as a traditional start for an IPO tracking dog where the start is marked with flagging tape).

A land HRD dog must test at each of several stations and indicate the presence of scent (or lack thereof) at each of the stations. The stations consist of buried source, elevated source, source in a vehicle, source in a building, and a blank, where no source is present.  The amount of source material can be no more than 15 grams in weight and the dog has a 15-30 minute time limit depending on test station and difficulty level.

There will be incredibly tempting distractions both in training, on the tests, and of course, in real life. My first search dog once came barreling back to me with an entire rotted deer head (with a pretty impressive rack) in his mouth. It was covered in maggots.

There will be incredibly tempting distractions both in training, on the tests, and of course, in real life. My first search dog once came barreling back to me with an entire rotted deer head (with a pretty impressive rack) in his mouth. It was covered in maggots. He was very proud of his find.

A water HRD dog will test for 500grams of source or more, both in shoreline and open water, and both in swift and still water.

Disaster dog certifications come in various levels, and are often jointly trained, tested and recognized with FEMA and NASAR. The requirements vary between types of urban disaster tests, but tests generally include an agility element which may involve climbing ladders, elevated planks, tunnels, see saws, slick and rough surfaces, areas with limited viability, and areas where the dog is required to crawl. There is an obedience element in which the dog must follow handler cues to go 25 years in either direction to certain areas, and 50 yards back, and take directions from the handler at each station.

Sample FEMA canine directional test

Sample FEMA canine directional test

For a FEMA disaster dog, they must also locate 2 victims buried in rubble and must stay within the bounds designated by the test, and the handler will keep the dog within this search area using only verbal or hand signals.

Disaster City, College Station, Texas. The site of many, many FEMA K9 certifications.

Disaster City, College Station, Texas. The site of many, many FEMA K9 certifications.

Of course each test is more in depth than the brief overview I’ve provided here, and if you’re interested in all the requirements for each test, you can visit the NASAR document that outlines each test here.

What’s a real search like?

In a word? Grueling. The pager may go off at 2am, and you’ll drag yourself out of bed, jump into your uniform, grab your dog, and be off. You could drive hours to reach the site. Often the searches last for days, and you may be searching for 18+ hours a day in extreme temperatures. You’ll be hot or cold, tired, hungry, your feet will hurt, you’ll be dirty, sweaty, disgusting. Your hair will be greasy, you may not have a shower in days. Your only sleep will be stolen a few hours at at time, often in the dirt, or on the hard concrete floor of a fire station garage. You’ll be searching all hours of the day or night (I once searched a graveyard at 2am with my squad. Creepy.) You could see mass carnage, suicide victims, bodies, or you could be faced with the emotions of not finding that lost 18 month old child and seeing the distraught parents as the search days carry on with no clues.

Ground teams searching

Ground teams searching with air support above

When you first arrive on scene, you and your K9 will be given an area to search, and that area could be quite a distance from base camp. If it’s extremely far, and you’re extremely lucky, you’ll be given a helicopter ride in (If you do, you won’t always be given the same lift back out!) You’ll have a few ground team searchers with you, and you’ll use your topographical map, gps and compass, as well as wind speed, direction, weather, temperature, and knowledge of how scent moves in different conditions to plot out the best way for you and your dog to clear the area in the least amount of time. You’ll be paying close attention to your dog’s body language, watching as he picks up a scent cone and using his body cues and your knowledge of scent to put together the puzzle and to ultimately guide your dog toward the victim. A lot of people think K9 handlers are a bump on the log while the dog searches, but that’s just not true. It’s a team effort, and while the dog may pick up the scent, it could be a hot and still day with no wind, and it’s up to you to know scent theory and wind and weather conditions and to be alert to your dog’s body language in order to help your dog work the scent cone back to the victim.

Scent theory image from

Scent theory image from

If you’re lucky, the missing person is within your area, and your training will help you find them. More often than not, you’ll finish your search area with no luck and return to base camp to recover and be redeployed. Some searches end in happiness, some end in heartbreak, some end with no answers at all. You have to be able to accept the outcome no matter what it is.

Is it worth it?

Yes. Absolutely.

December 2009 332

Travis County Search and Rescue's Spec Ops team for the 2011 Garner Rope Rescue Competition. That's me sitting down in the front!

Travis County Search and Rescue’s Spec Ops team for the 2011 Garner Rope Rescue Competition. That’s me sitting down in the front! We took home second place in all 3 events that year (we lost 1st place by only half a point in high angle rescue!).

It's a lifestyle

It’s a lifestyle

Disclaimer: All pictures (except for the one with the helicopter) were taken during training. You generally will not be taking pictures during a real search, unless you stumble on evidence/crime scene (and then you won’t be putting those up on the internet!). ;)


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