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Search and Rescue Dogs: Traits and Characteristics

 
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. March 5, 2017
Search and Rescue Dogs: Traits and Characteristics

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Despite all the technological and scientific advances of GPS, satellite imaging and robots, search and rescue dogs remain one of the best tools for search and rescue (SAR) teams. Dogs trained for this complex task must receive professional, specific training.

Not all search and rescue dogs can participate in the same missions: these dogs are highly specialized. They are trained to search specifically for dead or living people; some can track scents carried by the air, others follow trails. Dogs are trained to recognize and pick up specific smells, which makes them incredibly useful in disaster sites.

Read on and discover in this AnimalWised article what are the main traits and characteristics of search and rescue dogs.

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Work or play?

While a missing person or the victim of a disaster suffers a waking nightmare waiting for someone to come to their rescue, search and rescue dogs work tirelessly to reach them. Although it may seem that this is a stressful situation for everyone involved, in fact dogs see it as a game. They are trained with positive reinforcement, using treats and toys as rewards.

Thanks to the dogs' familiarity with searching and tracking games, their naturally exceptional hearing, their rigorous obedience training and their close relationship with an experienced handler, search and rescue dogs save the lives of hundreds of people every year.

It's not all fun and games, though: search and rescue dogs work incredibly hard, and even when approaching their work as a fun challenge, they usually have to "retire" early, even as young as 5 years old, because of the physical fatigue and damage caused during their noble work. In tragic situations, such as the events of September 11 2001 at the World Trade Center, both dogs and handlers suffered subsequent emotional problems from the impossibility of finding people alive. After finding so much death and desolation, dogs not only lack the promised reward but feel the pain, frustration and sadness of their handlers and other members of the rescue team.

In other situations, however, success is not in finding people alive but in finding bodies. In these cases, cadaver dogs trained to find human remains are used. Although these dogs cannot bring back someone to their family, their work is essential to solve crimes, close cases and offer a decent burial to the victim.

Besides being rewarded to continue working as if it were a game, search and rescue dogs must receive all the affection of their handlers and have all the necessary care to lead a full and happy life beyond their "working hours".

Search and Rescue Dogs: Traits and Characteristics - Work or play?

What are search and rescue dogs like?

There is no single breed used in search and rescue, but not all dogs are suitable for this kind of activity. All dogs have a highly developed sense of smell and hearing, but for them to be good rescue assistants they have to meet certain additional requirements.

  • A SAR dog must be agile and resilient enough to withstand the difficulties of the work. Pekingese dogs, Maltese dogs, Chihuahuas and other small breeds are not usually used in this work, preferring instead the larger breeds.
  • On the other hand, a SAR dog cannot be so large that it makes the rescue task more difficult. A big dog can become an additional difficulty where access through abseiling might be necessary or when being transferred with helicopters or small boats. Therefore, giant breeds such as the Saint Bernard or the Great Dane are not usually used.
    However, some rescue dogs need to be strong enough to hold or drag people. In such cases, large breeds like the Newfoundland, which has enough strength to swim while a human is attached to its harness, are used.
  • Search and rescue dogs should also have exceptional motivation for time-consuming searches, even under the most unfavorable conditions. That is why dogs with a highly developed prey drive are preferred, as they don't quit their tasks in order to get their reward.
  • All search and rescue dogs must be perfectly socialized with people and other animals. It will also need to be accustomed to stressful situations, such as the presence of many people, explosions, screams, etc.

Any dog can be used for search and rescue if it meets the above requirements and has received high-level training.

Search and Rescue Dogs: Traits and Characteristics - What are search and rescue dogs like?

Specialities of search and rescue dogs

Search and rescue dogs can be classified into different groups according to the specialized tasks they carry out.

Tracking dogs

Tracking dogs, as their name suggests, follow a person's trail from point A to point B. These dogs need a starting point and an unpolluted garment belonging to the person in question. They are used to find missing persons, but also to find fugitives. However, in the latter case police dogs - not SAR dogs - are usually used.

Tracking dogs develop their work in either natural or urban areas. Performing these tasks in the countryside is easier and faster, as odors are maintained for a longer period of time. In urban areas, however, it will be easier for smells to disappear or weaken.

Although most breeds can be valid for this job, tracking dogs are usually scenthounds or related or mixed breeds within that type.

Air-scenting dogs

Air-scenting dogs are those that seek human scents in the air without following a particular person. These dogs are specialists at finding people buried by rubble, landslides or avalanches, but also drowned bodies and human evidence in crime scenes.

Since these dogs do not follow a particular scent, SAR teams tend to divide the site into grids so that each dog covers a single grid. In general, teams usually consist of a handler and a do; the probability of error and mix-ups using this method of separation is practically nil. Air-scenting dogs usually begin tracking upwind. Once a scent is detected, they are able to focus on it to find the source. They are classified into the following categories:

  • Cadaver or human remains detection (HRD) dogs. Usually they detect the presence of dead people or human remains after accidents, natural disasters, etc.
  • Water search dogs. They also they track deceased people, but in the aquatic environment. In general, they carry out their work on boats.
  • Avalanche search dogs. After an avalanche occurs, air-scenting dogs specialized in this type of search track down living people who are buried under the snow.
  • Search dogs in urban disasters. They track living people who are trapped following a disaster in a urban area, such as a landslide or earthquake.
  • Evidence dogs. Air-scenting dogs specialized in these searches are trained to detect human traces and help solve crimes.
Search and Rescue Dogs: Traits and Characteristics - Specialities of search and rescue dogs

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