By Kate Fernoff
In February of 2022, CSAR announced its first-ever blog contest, open to both backcountry search and rescue members and non-members. The contest was judged by Matt Lanning of Chaffee County SAR South, Ben Wilson of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, and Lisa Sparhawk of CSAR. This article by Kate Fernoff of Park County SAR, SARDOC and SARDUS won first place in the member technical education category.
How Dogs Work
We employ dogs in many facets of search and rescue work. The most obvious way we utilize dogs is for their superior olfactory abilities. They can smell 10-100,000 times better than a person, detecting up to 1-2 parts per trillion. Put another way, a dog could detect one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic swimming pools of water. Dogs are also used to traveling a greater distance than we are physically capable of and can enter areas that are dangerous to people.
Canine handlers are very dedicated members of search and rescue teams. It takes approximately 1-2 years to train a search dog. These dogs are owned by handlers and all their care and training is paid for by the handler. Training continues throughout the life of the dog and most dogs need training at least once or twice weekly for the upkeep of skills alone. Canine teams undergo agency testing outside of their county teams to become certified. Many teams are certified by multiple agencies.
One of the biggest hurdles canine teams face on deployments is getting called out to the “right searches” or the searches in which they will be most useful. As a search manager, you don’t need to know the finer points of dog training, but starting out by asking for the right teams can go a long way.
What You Should Expect of a Canine Team
- A handler that is prepared, both in terms of equipment and fitness, to handle the area they were called out to deploy into.
- A team that is willing to deploy to the requested search area.
- A handler that comes with proper uniform and documentation from their certifying agency.
- A canine that shows no human aggression and is leashed around search base.
- A team that is honest about their abilities and limitations.
What Canine Teams Expect From You
- Ground support if requested by agency.
- To be incorporated into the overall search strategy.
- Clear search assignments and expectations.
- To be informed if a case will likely lead to criminal prosecution (most important for HRD dogs).
- Briefing and debriefing.
Know Your Conditions
Because of the way their noses work, canine teams will struggle to work in very hot and very dry conditions. During summer weather, it is best to get canine teams off to an early start or consider working the search at night.
Basic Types of Search Dogs
There are multiple types of search dogs. Knowing what each type of dog does will ensure that you request what you need for your search. The type of dog you need may change as the search scenario evolves and multiple types of canine teams may be useful. Do not hesitate to change your canine requests based on a changing situation. Do not hesitate to ask the fielding agencies what types of dogs would be most useful.
Area Search/Air Scent
These dogs will find any person within a prescribed area and are worked off leash. Some, but not all, of these teams are trained to find deceased individuals.
What the team needs from you: An assigned search area. The size of the search area will greatly depend on the terrain/conditions, but an initial estimate of around 80-160 acres is reasonable for an initial deployment.
What this team can do for you: Find every person in the assigned area. Determine that no one is in an area.
What this team cannot do for you: Tell you if the missing person travelled through this area or their direction of travel. They may be able to tell you if a deceased individual is in the area.
Scent Specific Area Search/Air Scent
These dogs will find a specific person within a prescribed area. These dogs are worked off leash. Some, but not all, of these teams are trained to find deceased individuals.
What the team needs from you: An assigned search area and a scent article. The size of the search area will greatly depend on the terrain/conditions, but an initial estimate of around 80-160 acres is reasonable for an initial deployment.
What this team can do for you: Find only the missing person in the assigned area. Determine that the missing individual is not in an area.
What this team cannot do for you: Determine the exact path of travel of an individual. They may be able to tell you if a person was in the search area. They may be able to determine if a deceased individual is in the area.
These dogs will follow the path of travel of the missing person. This may not be the exact place that the individual walked depending on weather conditions. These dogs are worked on leash.
What the team needs from you: A point last seen for the individual and a scent article. Usually trailing becomes significantly more difficult when more than 24 hours have elapsed since the person walked away.
What this team can do for you: Provide you with a likely direction of travel or indicate that an individual likely did not travel through an area. Can check likely trailheads/paths to rule in/out areas of travel.
What this team cannot do for you: Cover a large assigned area to determine if a person is present.
Cadaver Dogs/Human Remains Detection Dogs
These dogs are trained to find anything from full cadavers to trace criminal evidence. The skill level/specialty of these teams can vary significantly from detecting historical remains to working criminal investigations. These dogs are worked both on leash and off leash depending on the scenario.
What the team needs from you: An assigned search area. Keep in mind that given search areas need to be adjusted in terms of size, depending on what you are looking for. If you are looking for scattered bones, the team will need to work much more slowly than if you are looking for a whole body.
**Please note that if the information provided by the search team will likely be used in criminal prosecution, the team should be notified as not all handlers are comfortable with these types of searches.
What this team can do for you: Determine if human remains are within the assigned search area.
What this team cannot do for you: Keep in mind that the reliability of the team depends on what they are trained to do. If you are looking for bone scatter from a criminal case and send in a team that is only trained to find large items, you will not be successful.
These dogs will search an avalanche debris field for a person.
What the team needs from you: An assigned search area.
What this team can do for you: Indicate whether any person is within the debris field.
What this team cannot do for you: n/a
Water Search Dogs
These dogs will search a body of water for a drowning victim. Please note that these teams are not just cadaver teams sitting on a boat and that certification specifically in water search is necessary to provide quality search information
What the team needs from you: A boat that can operate at low speeds, preferably with a platform of flat area on the bow to place the dog and someone skilled that can drive the boat accurately.
What this team can do for you: Provide victim location or narrow a search area for side scan sonar and dive teams.
What this team cannot do for you: n/a
Disaster Search Dogs
These dogs will search a disaster site for live or deceased individuals. They are divided into two groups: live find and cadaver. Live find disaster dogs will NOT find deceased individuals and are trained to ignore the scent of human decomposition.
What the team needs from you: An assigned search area.
What this team can do for you: Find live/deceased persons within disaster area. Indicate that no one is within the assigned search area.
What this team cannot do for you: Live find teams will not indicate the presence of deceased individuals.
Scent Article Collection
- A scent article is an item that ONLY the missing person has handled. It does not have to be a particular type of item, but it must have been exposed to the individual/individual’s odor.
- It is very important that a scent article is never handled by anyone without proper precautions as this this will contaminate the article, making it unusable. Family members will try to help by bringing out clothing. Ask them to not touch the individual’s clothing and allow the canine handler to collect the article appropriately.
- It is very important that the article belong to the individual who is missing. Sunglasses from a car may actually belong to the individual’s child/friend/significant other. If the canine team uses this article, they will not gain usable information
Consider a K9 Ops Manager
- If you have a large search with multiple canine teams deploying, consider requesting a K9 ops manager.
- This individual should be an experienced K9 handler who is not deploying with their dog.
- This individual can make sure that teams are briefed/debriefed and that search areas are appropriately assigned. They can also work as a liaison with the rest of search management to provide summaries of dog team efforts and results.
Test your knowledge of what teams you would call out for an individual scenario (these are based on recent call outs).
Missing Child: A 6-year-old wanders away from his house three hours prior to search and rescue being called. The family lives in a suburban area that is surrounded by wilderness.
The ideal dog teams that would be called in this scenario would be trailing dogs and scent specific area search dogs. If a trailing dog can give an accurate direction of travel, area search dogs can be dropped in ahead of the trailing dog to search likely areas. Area search dogs that are not scent specific could also be utilized.
Missing Teen: A 13-year-old female leaves her house five hours prior to callout. The family lives in an urban area.
Trailing dogs should be called out. Scent specific area search dogs can be used to search any surrounding parks.
Missing Hiker: An adult hiker leaves on a trip and has now been missing for 10 days.
Area search dogs (scent specific or not) cross-trained in cadaver will be most useful in this situation. Dogs (such as a disaster live find dog) trained to ignore or not trained in human remains detection will not be as useful. It would be possible to run an assigned area with a live find and then a cadaver dog, but it would be time consuming. Trailing dogs will not be useful in this situation.
Missing Suicidal Individual: A suicidal individual walks away from their vehicle three days prior to callout. Since this time, the area has received two feet of snow. The individual is strongly suspected to be deceased.
Cadaver and avalanche dogs would be most useful in this situation. Although avalanche dogs are trained to find live individuals, it is unlikely that there is significant decomposition of the body at these temperatures and odor will be closer to that of a live individual. Avalanche dogs will dig as an alert, so if crime scene preservation is very important, this should be considered.
Disaster Site: Multiple individuals, presumed deceased, are missing at the site of a mudslide. It has been three days since the slide.
Ideal dogs would be disaster cadaver dogs. Cadaver dogs without disaster training will work as well in these scenarios as long as the team is comfortable. You could consider using a water dog if there was a surrounding body of water that could safely be searched on a boat.
Disaster Site: Multiple individuals, presumed deceased, are missing at the site of a fire. Buildings are reduced to foundations only.
Ideal dog teams would be a disaster cadaver dogs and a cadaver dog with training in burn sites/burned remains detection. Cadaver teams that have only trained on large sources (i.e. whole bodies) will be less effective. Live find dogs are not useful.
My goal is to make requesting dog teams easier for search leaders. I want to put the right canine teams into the right areas and to help break down the “language barrier” between canine handlers and incident commanders. I know firsthand how a bad experience with a canine team can lead to distrust of canine resources in the future, which hurts the overall mission.
Dogs are an important tool in search and rescue. Just like any tool, dogs are not appropriate in all situations. Similarly, requesting the right tool for the right situation is going to make your search time much more productive.
Kate Fernhoff is a canine handler living in Pine, Colorado. She currently is a member of Park County Search and Rescue, Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States, and Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado. Her current dog, Ronan, is certified in air scent and human remains detection. She has held canine certifications in both Oregon and California.