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Search and Rescue Dogs: Making the Lost Found Again

I was lost among the junipers in the starkly beautiful La Tierra Mountains just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. I sat in a deep stream bed that could drown me in seconds with one flash flood. Lucky for me, temperatures hovered around 60 degrees during a storm-free afternoon. Would I be found by the search dog, I nervously wondered?

I had purposely walked off the trail into the mountains without a radio for communication or compass to guide me, offering myself up as tribute as part of a search and rescue training exercise. Part of me wanted to see what it felt like to be lost – and found. Minutes ticked by, seeming like hours. Panic started to set in. What was I thinking? Trusting a search and rescue team I didn’t know, just for the sake of a story?

Search and Rescue Dogs Golden Retriever

Golden Retrievers are a common Search and Rescue Dog breed.

Then, suddenly, a flicker of motion appeared above me. A dog made a quick dash down the rocky slopes of the stream, dust and debris flying behind the churning paws. A blur of red hair flashed before me, and after a quick touch of a snuffling nose, the fuzzy dog spun with the speed of lightning, retreated to the crest of the steep banks and disappeared from sight. Mere minutes later, search dog handler Linda Meincke and her Golden Retriever, Banner, appeared at the top of the bank. Both started sliding down toward me, with Linda offering smiles and a thumbs up.

I had been lost, and then, suddenly, I was found. After finding me, this happy, exuberant dog then went back to bring her handler to me. This search dog specific behavior is called a “recall refind.” While I had no idea why the Golden Retriever was leaving, I was confident my ordeal was over. The recall refind allows search dogs to work far from their handler. Once they find a victim, they dash to tell their handler.

Meincke and her certified Search and Rescue (SAR) dog, Banner, are highly trained volunteers with the Mountain Canine Corps. The Mountain Canine Corps search team is based out of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Banner is a certified area search live find dog, and Linda is currently cross-training Banner for her human remains detection (HRD) certification.

Basic Types of Search and Rescue Dogs

Area search dogs use a technique called air scenting to quickly search large swathes of land for victims. Sometimes, these plots of land can be hundreds of acres or more. Area search dogs keep their head up, sampling scent particles on the wind, as they zero in on the source of the scent. In contrast, tracking and trailing dogs often search with their head down. These dogs look for pockets of scent on the ground left by the passage of a specific person. Area search dogs do not need a scent article. They look for any human scent in the area, and then help guide their handlers in for the find.

Search and Rescue Dogs have excellent noses

A dog is capable of smelling a single rotten apple out of two million barrels of good apples.

People have trained canines just like Banner to respond to scent for millenniums. Some located prey during hunts, whereas others trained to detect a specific scent. Detection dogs not only locate drugs, accelerants, explosives, currency, and pests but, as Banner clearly shows, they can also find lost humans and human remains in a variety of environments. There are two basic kinds of search dogs — live find search dogs, and human remains detection (HRD) dogs.

Live find canines locate living humans in desert, wilderness, and disaster settings. Specialty live find dogs locate victims during water rescue and avalanche rescue work, too. HRD canines, also known as cadaver dogs, or victim recovery dogs, evolved from the training discipline of the live find canines. They specifically search for the scent of human remains. They can work under a wide variety of circumstances and environments. HRD dogs can find human remains underwater, buried to depths of several meters, and in tiny amounts.

How Are Search and Rescue Dogs Trained?

The morning before our interview Meincke laid out human remains consisting of dried bones and cloth imprinted with decomposition fluids at four locations to let them age. The aging process allows the scent to spread out from the source. That afternoon Banner not only found me but also all four human remains sites, within a matter of 30-45 minutes. The training aids Linda uses for human remains detection training are dried human bone and gauze that has been soaked in the liquid from decomposing human bodies. No other kind of remains can be used to train a human remains detection dog, and a professional HRD dog will not alert to the presence of any non-human remains.

Meincke purchases her dried bones online at Skulls Unlimited. Other teams find human bones for training purposes online at the Boneroom. The decomposition gauze (called “OMI cloth” by search dog trainers) she used was obtained from the Forensic Anthropology Center (FACT) in Texas and through the close-knit SAR and HRD community. They share source because the dogs need to train for accuracy using different samples.

Search and rescue dogs train with real human remains.

Search and rescue dogs train with real human remains.

Other common training materials for HRD dogs include whole blood donated from the handler or other team members, and teeth or surgical remnants provided after medical procedures. Search dogs and their handlers often attend specialty seminars and events so they can further their training and get exposure to other types of human remains. The Forensics Anthropology Center hosts a training event every year for cadaver dogs and their handlers to come in and train with whole human remains in varying stages of decomposition. Outside of events like the one offered by FACT, it’s extremely difficult for HRD dogs to get exposure to bodies outside of real missions, which isn’t ideal.

While search dog training is quite complex and multi-faceted, it’s relatively straightforward. The search dog candidate learns to associate the scent of live humans or human remains, depending on their specialty, with their favorite toy and with playing a favorite game. Search dogs are chosen for their love of tug & fetch, and so the dogs quickly learn to point out the scents in question to their handler, so their handler will then play a quick game of tug or fetch with them. Gradually, the search dog in training is given larger areas to search and more difficult problems to solve, but it always comes down to their love of the game. As the dog gains experience, they tackle harder and harder scent puzzles, until, eventually, they’re able to search for hours on end with pinpoint accuracy.

Search and Rescue Dog Training is a Process

Search dogs also undergo a variety of skills training, including obedience and agility. They have to be able to be under their handler’s control, while also being able to navigate harsh terrain independently.

“HRD and SAR canines are not perfect,” Linda is quick to say, “no canine is – they make mistakes.”

Linda scratched Banner from her first scheduled air scent Mission Readiness Evaluation (MRE) because of an alert problem that surfaced during a SAR training seminar.

When Linda analyzed the situation, she realized that the failure to alert was when Banner happened to return to her from behind.  In that situation, she says, “Banner would have to pass me, spin around, and jump on me to ‘tell’ me, and instead, she was just running past me and continuing to the front. Once I identified the problem, she will now alert properly, whatever direction I am facing, to come in for “the tell” – “the find.”’

During her initial training, Linda always knew what direction Banner returned from. So, she inadvertently always faced Banner when she came in for “the tell.” Search dog handlers log their dog’s training and progress so that any issues that develop can be more easily troubleshooted. It’s also important to have a training log from a legal standpoint. Per the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), if something isn’t documented, it’s presumed as having not happened.

Search and rescue dog handler on a mountain

Search and rescue dog handlers undergo specialized training, too.

Full SAR training can take anywhere from six months to a year or two, depending on how much time you put in per week. Every dog is an individual and some learn quicker than others, but nothing can make up for on-the-job experience. Scent work isn’t always straightforward, so the dogs in training need to be exposed to a variety of circumstances and complicating factors before they’re truly field ready.

“It took one year to thoroughly train Banner for SAR, “ says Meincke. “When deployed, we take our searches very seriously, always work with a partner, and with State Incident Command overseeing the search.”

Teams train at all hours of the day and night at least twice a week. The handlers have to train just as much as the search dogs, if not more! SAR requires a very diverse skill set, especially if you’re working in specialty environments, like swift water or mountain rescue.

Search and Rescue Dogs Learn By Playing

Search dogs in training learn to associate search and rescue work with play. The dogs that possess intense play drive will work for hours to get their reward at the end of their mission. In order for a search dog candidate to graduate to a full-fledged, mission ready search dog, the dog needs to understand several complex behavior chains. They also need rock-solid obedience, agility, and manners. The precise skills a search dog requires to be mission ready varies based on their specialty (live find, human remains detection, disaster, urban, aquatic, wilderness, etc.), but in a nutshell, all search dogs need to be able to do the following in a variety of environments, in all kinds of weather, and at any time of the day or night, regardless of the level of distraction around them:

1. Respond to the cue or command used to begin the search

2. Search the area for the scent they’re looking for with confidence

3. Locate the scent source with precision and accuracy

4. Indicate the location of the scent source via a trained behavior to the handler

5. Accept the reward with energy and enthusiasm

When it comes to determining whether a dog will do live find search and rescue work or human remains detection work, dogs often have a preference. Some dogs are ambivalent about people and poor candidates for live find. Other dogs have an aversion to the scent of human remains, but they love people and are highly social. “The main difference between SAR and HRD is the scent,” says Meincke. Otherwise, the training follows a similar track, with similar skills necessary. Meincke is quick to point out an old search and rescue saying — “Trust your dog.” Handlers talk too much, Meincke says, and it can throw the dog off their game. The search dog doesn’t need our help, Meincke insists, especially because, as she so eloquently puts it, “I can’t smell squat!”

What is The Best Breed for Search and Rescue?

search and rescue dogs border collie

Search and rescue dogs can be any athletic breed. A strong toy drive is most important.

The best search dogs are medium to large breeds, with natural scenting ability, a sturdy, athletic build, and lots and lots of toy drive. They’re social, but with some natural independence, and they’re naturally confident. According to Mary E. Cablk, a scientist at the Desert Research Institute who studies scent detection, “you don’t want a really smart dog,” she says, “as its curiosity might lead to distraction. Instead, look for a dog that never tires of playing with a tennis ball or pull toy.”

Linda says that Banner is an ideal search and rescue dog. She has a good range and is both smart and has high play/prey drive. “The tennis ball is her crack,” laughs Meincke, who firmly embraces the concept that you can’t train range. “You can ‘pull’ a dog in, but you can’t ‘push’ a dog out.”

Search dogs need the natural ability to range so they can cover large amounts of ground quickly and independently. If a search dog stays too close to their handler, the team can only go as fast as the handler can go. In mountainous or hostile terrain, humans don’t tend to go very fast at all.

Common search dog breeds include a variety of working, herding, and sporting dog types. Border Collies, Labs, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and the Belgium Malinois are extremely popular choices.  Many mixed breeds excel at Search and Rescue. According to Meincke, the best dog for the job must also have the stamina, strength, and endurance to search for 8 hours if needed, in all terrains, whether searching in daylight or darkness.

How Are Search and Rescue Teams Called Upon for Searches?

The United States has a very solid, well-established system in place for disaster response. Search teams are called upon through these official channels. During smaller or non-disaster searches, search dog organizations are often called upon by the local sheriff’s department. Search and rescue teams never self-deploy, and they only respond after an official invite by someone in authority.

In New Mexico, the State Incident Command (SIC) calls out the SAR teams. If the search goes beyond 8 hours, the teams send in their coordinates before resting. They’ll continue the search the next day, or another team will take over. “Unfortunately, people don’t stay put when lost, but tend to wander,” says Linda. “Wind, temperature, and humidity are all factors when searching.“

The Mountain Canine Corps often teams up with Sandia Search Dogs, an all-volunteer group based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Linda says it’s crucial that people know, “We’re not just a dog club. We’re expected to get out there and do our job with support people who are just as important as the handlers. You need someone you can trust with you. They help with navigation, communication, and to help watch the dog and look for clues.”

How Are Search and Rescue Dogs Certified?

In order to participate in SAR missions, each dog and handler must pass certification exams. Some groups require their teams to pass their organization’s Mission Readiness Exams. Teams usually re-certify every few years. Others utilize a national certifying body like the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) or the Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States (SARDUS). Passing one of the nationally recognized exams requires significant amounts of preparation and adherence to specific standards.

Teams who respond internationally to disasters, usually require national certification. For organizations that utilize a Mission Readiness Exam, the MRE often mirrors the national exams. Search dogs need to meet a baseline level of skill before responding to missions, so those in authority have a general idea of what the dog can accomplish.

To pass MCC’s live find MRE test, Banner had to search an unfamiliar 80-acre plot of land. Meincke was given the GPS coordinates of the test location the night before. During the test, the team had only four hours to find one to three people.

Search and rescue dog in a field

Search and rescue dogs cover large areas of land.

“Banner passed,” she said with a wide smile. “Banner had the stamina and focus to keep working and found all three people.”

For the Mountain Canine Corps HRD test, the dog must search a 1-acre area and find two scent sources. Test evaluators bury one scent source. The search dog candidate must find both sets of human remains within 2 hours. During national level exams, HRD dogs must demonstrate their skill in searching open areas, vehicles, buildings, or debris piles. They must be able to find and indicate to both elevated (hanging) and buried remains.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the dog must NOT alert to the presence of human remains if none are there. If the dog gives a “false” indication, the team immediately fails the exam. The MCC search organization requires all teams to pass their MRE before they officially deploy. In MCC’s experience, most teams require intensive training for 1 to 2 years in order to pass the evaluation.

Individual search and rescue teams have varying requirements for handlers. Most teams require handlers to have taken classes in first aid, CPR, canine first aid, lost person behavior, map reading, compass use, and radio communication. Search and rescue handlers looking to certify their skills on a national level can do so through NASAR, which offers 4 levels of search and rescue technician certifications.

Learn More About Search and Rescue

Visit the following organizations’ websites to learn more about their training programs and certifications:
FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Certification
National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR) Handler & Canine Certifications
Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States (SARDUS)
National Search Dog Alliance (NSDA)

Bev Thompson is a Feature Writer covering stories about Service and Working Dogs for online and magazine publications. She received an Excellence in Writing Nominations from The Dog Writer’s Association of America (DWAA). She lives in New York City with her Sealyham Terrier, Pip. Pip competes and titles in performance events and is currently ‘getting nosey’ in scent work classes.


Bev Thompson is a Feature Writer covering stories about Service and Working Dogs for online and magazine publications and is the recipient of Excellence in Writing Nominations from The Dog Writer’s Association of America (DWAA). She lives in New York City with her Sealyham Terrier, Pip, who is Full of The Dickens, stirring the pot competing and titling in companion and performance events and currently ‘getting nosey’ in her Scent Work Classes.

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