In the wake of unspeakable devastation, such as the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, we rely on hero dogs to find survivors and to snatch hope from overwhelming tragedy.
These highly trained dogs have a long and illustrious history of sniffing out loved ones. They play a vital, often central, role in search and rescue.
One such search and rescue event occured on a January afternoon in Vail, Colo. Ski patrolman Steve Sutton was making his rounds when an avalanche call came over the radio, reporting that two skiers had been on the hill when the slide hit.
Sutton and his search dog, Max, raced over to the site on a snowmobile. "There was a huge pile of snow in front of some trees," Sutton recalls. "Max immediately started digging and within a couple minutes, he had found the skiers." Shortly after that, two other patrolmen arrived at the scene and got oxygen to the victims. Sutton rewarded his dog with his favorite toy for a job well done.
In another case, a woman was separated from her husband during a hike through Yosemite National Park and several search dog teams were put on the job of finding her. "The woman had ventured off to take pictures of wildlife," recalls Brad Phillips, one of the dog handlers. "When we arrived, we let our dogs sniff the woman's jacket, which enabled them to determine the direction of travel. About a mile off one of the main trails, we found the woman – scared and cold, and very relieved to be found."
Emergencies That Rescue Dogs Handle
These are just two kinds of emergencies that call for the talents of search and rescue (SAR) dogs. They may also be enlisted to find a missing child, a corpse in a criminal investigation or a disoriented senior citizen – or people trapped under debris following a building explosion, plane crash, tornado, hurricane or earthquake.
Most search dogs specialize in either air scenting or trailing. The air-scent dog finds people by picking up traces of human scent adrift in the air. Then, they look for the "cone" of scent, where it is most concentrated. "Air scent dogs generally work with their nose elevated, so they can search the wind as it comes in," Sullivan says.
Trailing dogs, on the other hand, find people by following the minute particles of skin cells that are cast off as a person travels. These heavier-than-air particles will usually be close to the ground or on nearby foliage, so the trailing dog keeps his nose to the ground.
In most cases, the dogs' services are provided free, says Penny Sullivan, president of the American Rescue Dog Association (ARDA). And, while almost any type of dog can learn to do search work, the most commonly used breeds are German shepherds, golden and Labrador retrievers and bloodhounds. These dogs have the size, strength, athletic ability – as well as a double fur coat – necessary for long searches, which often take place on high mountain terrains and in frigid temperatures.
Even within a breed, though, some individual dogs are more suited to the work than others. "The dog must be physically sound, love people, be above average in intelligence and want to do the job," notes Vikki Fenton-Anderberg, a dog handler and trainer with Absaroka Search Dogs in Montana.
"A search dog must have a good play drive," Sullivan adds. "The dog needs to stay motivated enough to keep working in order to get his reward, which is usually playing fetch, tug-of-war or some other game with his owner."
Training a Hero
On average, it takes 1½ to 2 years for a dog and his owner/handler to become "mission-ready." No matter how the dog will ultimately be used, training methods are basically the same.
They usually begin with the dog being held down by an assistant while the owner/handler runs a short distance away – preferably into the wind – and then ducking out of sight. The assistant then releases the dog with a command such as "Go find."
"Assuming the dog is well-bonded to his owner, he will usually race to where he last saw him or her," Sullivan says. "Almost without fail, the dog will go sailing right past where his owner is hiding, and that's when the dog realizes, 'Wait a minute; my owner's scent is no longer coming into my nose!' Then, the dog starts to use his nose to find his owner." When he succeeds, the animal is rewarded with a play session and the dog learns to associate finding the missing person with receiving his reward.
Gradually, the distance the handler runs away and the length of time the puppy is held down are increased. Finally, the "game" is expanded to have the dog search areas without seeing anyone disappear and to look for people other than his owner.
"We begin with small areas and try to work with favorable wind conditions to maximize the dog's chances for success," says Dan Comden, an SAR dog trainer and handler in Seattle, Wash. "Longer and larger search problems are gradually introduced. If a team is having a difficult time, they're encouraged to take a step or two back in their training continuum to bolster the dog's confidence." It's important that the dog be successful, Comden adds, to motivate him and keep him working.
The dogs are trained to indicate the discovery of human scent by barking, or at least scratching and whining, in the direction of the person located. They can and do indicate people buried many feet down, even under snow or debris or where a fire has taken place or chemicals are present. Most of the search and rescue dogs that are required to go overseas to work must be certified.
Do the dogs like the work? "You bet. They love it," Comden says. "A good search dog is highly driven to solve the search problem." Granted, they have no idea that what they're doing is saving lives. To them, finding a victim is a game – a fun way to spend time with their owners.