Airplanes crash into buildings leaving nothing but a pile of twisted steel, concrete and glass. The earth begins to rumble, buildings are toppled and people are trapped beneath the rubble. Severe storms rip through isolated forests disorienting hikers and stranding them in the middle of nowhere. Hurricanes leave a path of destruction in their wake and people are washed out to sea. Unexpected avalanches tumble down mountainsides burying skiers under a carpet of white. Children wander off leaving frantic family members in a state of panic.

In each of these horrible instances we humans once again rely on our four legged friends for assistance in recovering both the living and the dead. These dogs are known as search and rescue dogs and what they are able to accomplish is truly amazing.

Search and rescue dogs are broken down into the following two basic categories.

Air Scent

Each and every one of us has a distinct smell. Dogs that are trained in the air/scent rescue method are deployed by the handlers in a grid pattern across the search area. They do not sniff the ground as one might expect but instead put their nose facing into the wind and begin their search. They are not usually placed on a leash. Once they have detected the origin of the scent they will raise their head even higher and lift their tails. This is a signal to their handler that they’re onto something.


This is the one we’re probably more familiar with. Remember Cool Hand Luke? When Luke escaped and was being tracked down by the team of Bloodhounds those dogs had their noses close to the ground. In order for them to find their quarry they have to be given something like an article of clothing that contains the original scent. Once they get familiar with it and know what they’re looking for it’s off to the races.

It’s all in the genes

Not really. Any breed of dog with the proper training is, in theory, capable of becoming a search and rescue dog. In practice though, certain breeds of dogs possess more stamina, agility and inquisitive nature than their counterparts. For the most past, these breeds are known as herders or working dogs. They include but are not limited to the German Shepherd, Border Collie, Labrador Retriever and Belgian Malinois. Of course, there's nothing wrong with you everyday run of the mill mutt either.


Once a suitable dog is found training begins early and often. It usually starts when the puppy is between eight to ten weeks old. The entire training regimen lasts anywhere between twelve to eighteen months. After that, the dog is usually retired after five to ten years of service out in the field.

The first type of training the dog will experience is obedience training. This is essential since the dogs must always respond to commands given by their handlers. It also helps them socialize with other dogs with whom they will be working with.

The sessions are conducted daily two to five times and the length of the session can range from anywhere from ten minutes up to an hour.

Dogs just wanna have fun

Everything to a puppy is a game and all the puppy wants to do is win the game and please their handler. Early games are reward based. Man throw object, puppy fetch object, puppy bring back object to man, man praise puppy, puppy gets treat. Repeat as often as necessary until the puppy gets to know what’s expected of it.

The games then become a bit more complicated. If the puppy has a favorite toy it might be scented with something and then hidden away a short distance. The puppy is then given of whiff the scent and instructed to go find it. Once again, upon completion of the task the puppy is rewarded with praise, play and a snack. Gradually the distance of the hidden toy is increased in order to increase the puppies range and stamina.

In order to get the dog used to finding humans their handlers will often hide behind trees, in trash cans or dumpsters, behind buildings or in logs. The puppy will then be given the command “Go find!” and it’s their job to locate the handler. The reward system is still used to reaffirm the puppies instincts and behavior.

See, to them, it’s still just a game and will continue to be so even when they are called upon in real life situations.

All in all I can’t think of nobler, more selfless act. I wish the dedication that dogs have to humanity could be rivaled across our entire species. In a way, it makes me wish I could have changed my profession and become one of the dog handlers/trainers. The satisfaction knowing that you’re working with man’s best friend while at the same time saving lives must be enormous.

I tip my hat to both them and the dogs.


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