Search and Rescue Dogs


With a powerful nose and ability to traverse a variety of terrains, search and rescue dogs are an integral part of disaster relief.

Their ability to save lives is well documented. Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs are specially trained to leverage their superior sense of smell, night vision, sensitive hearing, and endurance to locate missing persons.

Their extraordinary abilities reduce the amount of time spent searching for victims. This highly increases the chance that a missing person will be found alive. It has been estimated that a single rescue dog team is as effective in locating a lost person as 20-30 humans trained in searches.

If these dogs only knew what a difference they make. Certainly, there's nothing that can replace the precision of a dog's nose - and absolutely nothing that can replace a dog's heart.
~Bob Sessions, rescue worker, Federal Emergency Management Agency

The Secret to Success

German Shepherd Search and Rescue DogsSAR dogs use air scenting or trailing techniques to find victims of tragedy. Rescue dogs are well trained to focus on one scent and follow wherever it may lead, not becoming distracted by other odors. Trailing dogs work on lead, while air scenting dogs work off lead.

Every human being has a different smell. This is caused by the body's constant shedding of skin cells and bacteria. While this smell is not discernible to humans, rescue dogs readily pick up on it. This allows them to locate missing persons hidden from view. The dog will zero in on the odor of skin flakes that fall off our bodies. The skin cells float in the air and drop to the ground. If the victim has drowned, the skin cells float to the surface.

These hard-working heroes view the search as a puzzle they must solve. And they look forward to their reward for finding a victim - a hug, treat, or tug of war with their favorite toy. Search and rescue dogs live for praise.

And they appear to take it personally when they are unable to complete their mission. During the World Trade Center disaster, search and rescue dogs were becoming visibly depressed when days went by without locating a victim. Their handlers asked volunteers to hide so their dogs could find them and the dogs could receive their much needed praise.

Unfortunately, in recovery missions, the praise must be downplayed in deference for the victim.

The Nose Knows

Dogs detect first with their nose, then with their ears and eyes. Their sense of smell is highly developed. They have approximately 25 times more smell receptors than humans.

Your dog's nose contains 200 million olfactory receptors. Each of these receptors can detect and identify a distinct odor molecule. These tiny molecules are continually shed by various different objects and organisms.

Dogs can detect odors at concentrations nearly 100 million times lower than humans. Imagine being able to sense one drop of blood per five quarts of water! This is why your dog's constant sniffing makes sense. She is gathering a wealth of information from the grass, sidewalk and street.

SAR Missions

Search and Rescue dogs are capable of finding:

  • children lost in parks or the wilderness
  • elderly people that have wandered from homes
  • lost hikers or hunters
  • victims of avalanche, earthquake, explosion, fire, flood, plane crashes, train wrecks, tornadoes or other disasters

Search and Rescue Dog Breeds

A German Shepherd Search and Rescue dog is a popular sight. But, several other dog breeds (typically larger working and sporting breeds) are used for SAR work. While some are more popular than others, each of the following breeds offers a unique strength as a rescue dog.

  • Australian Shepherd
  • Belgian Malinois
  • Bloodhound
  • Border Collie
  • Doberman
  • German Shepherd
  • Giant Schnauzer
  • Golden Retriever
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Newfoundland
  • Rhodesian Ridgeback
  • Rottweiler
  • Smooth Collie
  • Weimaraner

Bloodhounds have been used in searches as well as by police forces to track criminals. Their strong ability to track a scent (that may be weeks old) is well documented in many court cases across the country. Labrador Retrievers make excellent cadaver dogs. They are known for being highly attracted to things that smell bad. The ability of Newfoundlands to rescue avalanche victims is legendary.

German Shepherds are one of the most versatile breeds of dogs. They are used not only for search and rescue, they excel as K9 police dogs and dogs in the military, and perform therapy roles as well.

Successful Search and Rescue Dogs

Virtually any medium or large breed dog can make a great rescue dog. As long as they enjoy tracking and have the proper concentration to follow a scent. While the breed isn't critical, attitude is paramount.

Requirements for the SAR dog include:

  • ability to get along with other dogs and people
  • agility
  • endurance
  • trainability

After a successful evaluation, dogs with a strong play drive that will work for rewards are preferred. During training, dogs are rewarded with play, praise or treats after locating a volunteer victim. In an actual search, when a victim is unresponsive, a handler must be quick to offer praise, in a somewhat subdued manner, or after removing the dog from the area.

SAR dogs are trained to follow a scent in varied terrain and weather conditions. Cadaver dogs are trained to track scent in bodies of water. These skills are honed with regular training session. Handlers also perform some training tasks at home.

Rescue Dog Handlers

Search and rescue dog handlers are volunteers. Requirements for a handler include:

  • affinity for communicating with and training their dog
  • enjoyment of the outdoors
  • physical fitness
  • time for training and searches

Equipment, seminars and travel are required for handlers. Donations may help offset some of these costs. Equipment can include:


  • dog vests
  • long lead lines
  • working harnesses


  • compass
  • clothes appropriate for varied terrain and weather
  • flashlights with spare batteries
  • food for long searches in remote terrains
  • pack for carrying items
  • radios

Handlers volunteer for search and rescue work not because of the glory. But because they like to work with their dogs and are good problem solvers. They need to be in tune with their dogs and recognize cues so that they know when to proceed and when to quit. If you crave publicity and are not self rewarded, you will be disappointed in search and rescue work.

Training for Search and Rescue

Training can vary depending on the group. Handlers of search and rescue dogs must be certified in CPR and first aid, and learn how to treat a crime scene. Wilderness survival skills are needed for some searches while disaster recovery searchers must be prepared to find victims with serious injuries or that are deceased.

It is important for the handler to keep their own attitude in check. Dogs are like mirrors. They pick up on our energy and emotions, and can easily become anguished or distraught should their handler feel the same.

Training for SAR normally takes a year of biweekly sessions. After training, the dog and handler are evaluated to ensure that they are ready for full fledged search and rescue missions.

Prospective handlers should contact an established group for guidance in getting started. For more information, contact The National Association for Search and Rescue, Inc.


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