A Day In The Life: Search And Rescue Dogs

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Disasters strike when we least expect them. Tornadoes tear up the Midwest, hurricanes plague the south, earthquakes rock the coasts, and snow storms and avalanches blanket the north. In times of need, we rely on every available body to lend a hand; or sometimes a paw. Search and Rescue Dogs play a vital role during disasters. Be it human or man-made, Search and Rescue Dogs have been on the scene for nearly every major and minor disaster for decades. These canines heroes are hard working, dedicated team members of our internal emergency response system that deserve high praise and lots of love and cookies for the work they perform.

History Of Search and Rescue Dogs

Arguably, as long as little Timmy has been falling into wells, heroic dogs have been alerting their owners that something was amiss. Most agree that Search and Rescue Dogs got their official start in the Alps between Italy and Switzerland in the St. Bernard Pass. It is said that in the early 18th century, monks who lived in the St. Bernard Hospice in the Alps would keep a team of St. Bernard dogs around to help them locate lost travelers after snowstorms. The St. Bernard Hospice and monastery was created in 1050 by St. Bernard de Menthon to help travelers safely traverse the dangerous pass. The St. Bernard Pass is the only route through the Alps between Italy and Switzerland, its sister pass, Little Saint Bernard Pass, is located between France and Italy. It is estimated that over 2,000 travelers disappeared between the pass in a 200-year span.

The first dogs to arrive at the St. Bernard Hospice were said to have been the descendants of the mastiff style Asiatic dogs that were brought over by the Romans years earlier. Sadly, not much is known of the breed in the early years of its existence. Due to paintings and scarce documentation, the estimation has been made that St. Bernards officially came into existence between 1660 and 1670. This new breed, aptly called St. Bernards, had an uncanny sense of direction and resistance to the cold, making them perfect for the harsh winters that are so common in the Alps. It was here in the snowy Alps, nestled between Italy and Switzerland that Search and Rescue Dogs got their humble beginnings.                           

Let’s fast forward to 1914 when World War I began. While dogs had been used for search and rescue purposes before now, a certain canines made his mark on the world in a big way during the trials of WWI. Stubby, a Pit Bull Terrier, was America’s first and most decorated WWI War dog, and the only dog to be promoted to Sergeant. Some of Stubby’s duties included locating injured soldiers on the battlefield, improving morale, and alerting to the presence of mustard gas in the trenches.

There are countless tales of dogs performing heroic feats in the name of search and rescue throughout the years. From the Twin Tower attacks on 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina; Search and Rescue Dogs continue to save lives to this day.

The Nose That Knows

Temperament and disposition play a significant role in determining which dogs can become Search and Rescue Dogs. Whichever dog is selected, whether it is a puppy or an adult, it must be able to focus on the task at hand and find a specific human scent no matter what obstacles or additional smells are present. For some types of search and rescue work, different breeds can work better than others. In general, working breeds seem to work the best for search and rescue work. Those breeds can include Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Border Collies, Belgian Malinois, and Golden Retrievers. The American Rescue Dog Association says that a dog must have the following quality to make a good Search and Rescue Dog.

  • Excellent scenting capability

  • Strong drives (prey, pack, play, etc.)

  • Physical endurance/stamina

  • High degree of intelligence

  • High degree of trainability

Types Of Search and Rescue Dogs

Tracking/Trailing Dogs

Tracking and trailing Search and Rescue Dogs specialize in scent discrimination, meaning that they can follow human sense over large distances. A standard tracking search and rescue dog can track a scent over any terrain including grass, gravel, concrete, asphalt, sand, and wooded areas. Tracking Search and Rescue Dogs are typically either used to locate lost and missing persons or to track criminals on the run.

Urban/Disaster Search and Rescue Dogs

Urban Search and Rescue Dogs, also known as disaster Search and Rescue Dogs, are primarily utilized to search collapse buildings and other damage structures after natural or man-made disasters. These amazing canines are trained to feel confident on even the most precarious of rubble. Agility training is a must for these Peak canine athletes. Urban Search and Rescue Dogs  amazingly know how to ignore the scents of the humans around them while searching for any people who may be trapped out of sight.

Cadaver/Human Remains Search Dog

A Human Remains Detection Dog is used to locate various types of human remains. These clever canines can be used to find whole cadavers, partial remains, or evidence in a multitude of settings including urban, wilderness, and aquatic locales.

Practice, Practice, Practice

You may think that every dog is able to magically know whenever Timmy falls into a well, but that isn’t the case. Becoming a Search and Rescue Dog takes a lot of hard work and training. And once your dog has become a certified Search and Rescue Dog you still need to continue training him to maintain his fine-honed skills. It takes over two years to fully train a Search and Rescue Dog. The actual process of training a Search and Rescue Dog is a very involved one.

A typical day in the life of a Search and Rescue Dog can start out just like that of any other dog’s. Outside of training, it is important that Search and Rescue Dogs live their lives as normal dogs; so until the call comes, they are enjoying quality time with their owners/handlers. But when the call comes the dogs are on the clock. Search and Rescue Dogs can sometimes be asked to work 4-8 hour shifts, or even longer for larger tragedies. On site at 9/11, some Search and Rescue Dogs were reported to have work 12-hour shifts after refusing to leave because they could still detect people.

The Search and Rescue Dogs who work around the world deserve our respect and praise for the fantastic service that they provide our communities and country. To all of the Search and Rescue Dog teams out there, we thank you for your service.