Search and Rescue Dogs, Horses and Iguanas

As a traditional "ground team" Maryland Search and Rescue does not directly work with or rely on SAR dogs / K9s, or require members to have a search dog.

If an MSAR member is interested, they will have opportunities to work with dogs and dog handlers on search missions and simulations. Within MSAR, there are members who have joined multiple teams, including dog and mounted/horse teams.

If you are interested in training a dog or horse for SAR, there are many great teams in and around Maryland. A simple Google search like "maryland sar/horse dog team" will help you locate a nearby team.

Having been the MSAR website contact person for many years, I have been asked many dog related questions, and a few people even looked to donate or sell a puppy to our team. SAR dogs are pretty cool, can be an amazing resource, and they look great on TV… But MSAR will remain focused on training SAR people.

If you are interested in SAR dogs you can skip the following rant…
Dog teams are great, but their greatness can be blown out of proportion. SAR dogs are more exciting to look at than a search team of 8 dudes walking through the woods, so they get top billing in the news and as a result they are put on a pedestal.

Yes, they make finds… but they are also often one of the first trained search teams to be sent out. They are sent out first because of their potential limitations, like other specialized resources (like trackers and sign cutters) marching a search team through an area can destroy certain types of clues.
Ideally search managers will have access to a variety of SAR resources and use them to their advantage, but don’t discount the human searcher. We might not be as interesting to look at, but without us… that SAR dog is just a stray.

Canine Search & Rescue

The following has been adapted from Vicki Wooters, K-9 Handler, Search and Rescue Dogs of PA, "Search and Rescue Dogs-Which Dog Does Which Task?" in January/March 2006 issue of Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue. [The original article includes reference notes.]

Tasks. SAR dogs have been used to find people dead or alive after calamities like earthquakes, avalanches, tornadoes, hurricanes, bombings, and floods. Some find missing people; police use others to track criminals.

Dogs and handlers must work well together — which requires a relationship based on trust. The handlers must know when the dogs are too tired to continue and must reward the dogs with kind words or pats, even when the search must be given up or the result ends with finding human remains.

These are the types of dogs MSAR is likely to see or work with:

1. A trailing (ground-scent) dog (Nose down) must be able to discriminate scents. These are the dogs, like bloodhounds, that can smell an article of clothing and track it to the missing person. The dog must be able to track someone from the point-last-seen (PLS) to the missing person. The dog cannot be thrown off by contamination. He may use ground or air smells over all kinds of surfaces. Some dogs are trained for urban work – pavement and streets — while others work in wilderness areas. These dogs usually work on leash and in a harness.
2. Air-scenting dogs (Nose up) are good for searches when there is no scent article and no PLS. They must locate everyone within a certain sector. They do not need to discriminate scent; just find all humans in an area where the target was last seen, in areas of high probability. They usually work off leash and perpendicular to the wind.

3. Cadaver dogs should be able to find bodies above and below ground, but some train for above ground only. They are non-scent discriminating dogs that must pass tests to detect tiny pieces of cadavers that have been buried for long amounts of time.4. A disaster dog finds human scent in unnatural environments like the aftermath of tornadoes and earthquakes. These dogs are non-scent discriminating and must be trained to work on unstable footing and in small, confined spaces. They must be agile, obedient, and have lots of stamina. They must be able to follow directional commands and give alerts over long periods of time.
4. A tracking dog must be able to follow the path of a particular person while on harness and leash. This is valuable when a dog is following the most recent scent of "crushed vegetation," as when tracking a criminal. A few dogs can do this on pavement, but most are not trained to discriminate when the area is cross-contaminated. These dogs can follow a trail when no scent article is available. Some tracking dogs work in teams with police or someone with firearms. If a SAR team does not have police training, they usually do not get involved with tracking down felons.

These dogs are less likely to be seen by MSAR:

Water recovery dogs usually work in boats and must be able to alert when they detect a body in moving currents and general water changes. They are non-scent discriminating.
Avalanche dogs can find humans buried in snow — beyond the duties of a regular SAR dog, avalanche dogs must learn to adapt and ride on ski lifts and in helicopters.

Detector dogscan track particular scents like narcotics and explosives (in a criminal search, these factors may be relevant in finding the subject).

Tracking a lost child or someone with Alzheimer’s, lost hikers, and overdue fishermen or hunters usually leads to a live find, which is very rewarding to all involved. However, looking for survivors after a bombing, like that of Oklahoma City, where no survivors were found, can defeat both the dogs and handlers. Many handlers become physically and emotionally exhausted and pass their feelings onto the dogs, which are often retired after a calamity.

Evaluation standards. Dogs must have a certain type of temperament; they must have great stamina and basic obedience. SAR dogs must be non-aggressive around other dogs and people. They must be able to focus on the assigned task and be under the handler’s control at all times.

Breeds. Which breeds make the best SAR dogs? Even mixed breeds can do well if they have the right temperament and are in peak physical condition. Bloodhounds are notorious for tracking ground scents; Labrador retrievers are wonderful as cadaver dogs because, as an Ohio SAR trainer and dog handler, Gina Flattery, says, "They love things that smell bad." Other good performers include German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, and Golden Retrievers. A Kentucky SAR group uses Weimaraners, Smooth Collies and Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Southern Ohio uses a Giant Schnauzer and Australian Shepherd, while a Virginia group uses several Border Collies and Australian Shepherds.

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