There are three major types of search-and-rescue dogs used to recover lost people. Air-scenting dogs are used mainly to search large outdoor expanses, such as woods and forests. These dogs use their noses to detect human scent on the wind current. These dogs do not need an article with the scent on it.
The handler of an air-scenting dog must position the dog to sniff in the direction of the wind and detect the presence of any human out there. The air-scenting dog can detect human scent from at least 150 yards away. Their job is to go to the source and come back and take the handler to the person. This task is performed completely off leash in the wilderness or woods. One of the benefits to an air-scenting dog is that he can work at night.
In water, a search dog detects human remains by scent given off from the oils in the skin. The gases of the decomposing body rise to the surface and can be detected by the dogs from the shore or from a boat.
There are also the tracking and trailing dogs. The tracking dog performs on a leash or long line. He uses a scent article and follows the exact footsteps of the lost person by following the scent particles left behind. The trailing dog also performs his job on leash or long line, but he follows a ten-to fifteen-foot wide path along which the person traveled. This dog's nose follows the human's scent in a zigzag pattern until he finds the source.
Search dogs use their noses to follow the scent of a human being. They must also be agile and persistent enough to follow it through extreme circumstances. Each of us has our own unique scent, which is made up of discarded skin cells called rafts. This personal scent is mixed with shampoo, soap, detergent, and even gum or bug spray. All of these things make scent, including our exhaled breath. Air-scenting dogs can detect human scent under water, in snow, or in rubble piles. They can be trained to focus on the living or the dead. There are subgroups within each category that can concentrate on forensics or human remains, depending upon the specialty.
Qualities of a Search Dog
A Golden has to have the right stuff to be a good search-and-rescue dog. The ideal candidate will have a strong play drive, high endurance, and a strong desire to be with people. Goldens make great search dogs because they have great noses. They love to be with people and display incredible endurance and perseverance for very little reward. Most search-and-rescue dogs work for the opportunity to play with their handlers upon the completion of a job well done. Some handlers might use a tug toy, others a ball or a quick game of fetch.
A good candidate for search and rescue has a high degree of trainability. This means some problem-solving ability and the willingness to take direction. A dog with a balance of confidence and independence but who accepts direction easily is ideal. Lastly, the best candidate for a search dog should be able to be called off or able to ignore game birds and other wildlife and concentrate on finding only human scent.
Training the Search Dogs and Handlers
Search dogs are very versatile animals that are constantly in new situations. They are around new people, places, and circumstances that require them to be extremely adaptable. Socialization to all kinds of people, dogs, places, and things to climb on, through, and over are the keys to a successful candidate. Training in agility and obedience are helpful as they prepare the dog somewhat for the conditioning he will require.
Expenses for search-and-rescue training and travel are entirely up to the handler and are not subsidized by any government agency. These expenses include veterinary care, travel, equipment, gear, and training expenses for both the dog and handler.
Some typical things that a search dog must be familiar with are boats, helicopters, elevators, escalators, and unstable surfaces. Search training involves hide-and-seek games, in which the person hiding runs away and the dog must search to find them. It takes about two years to train a search-and-rescue dog to competency. By far the majority of the training is for the handler in the search-and-rescue dog partnership. The handler must be physically fit, with survival awareness, first-aid, and CPR training. He or she should be able to use a map and compass and be familiar with search strategies.
Hours of practice go into teaching and maintaining the skills acquired by both the dog and the handler, and handlers must practice on a regular basis to maintain the dog's sharpness and abilities. Endurance on both the dog's and handler's part is essential, since searches range anywhere from three-to eight-hour shifts at a time. In searching for lost or missing persons, time is of the essence. The longer the search takes, the less likely the outcome will be a happy one.