The search and rescue dog is an invaluable partner to law enforcement authorities and rescue personnel. Its talent in tracking and locating humans who are lost or trapped comes from natural ability, extensive training, and a close bond with the humans with whom it works. The average dog possesses over 200 million olfactory cells, in contrast to five million in humans. This incredible sense of smell allows the search and rescue dog to track and locate those whose fate would otherwise remain a mystery.
Search and rescue dogs can be trained in a number of specializations. There are air scent dogs, who sniff the air and identify the skin cells that are shed by people. Trailing dogs would be more reminiscent of a bloodhound, focusing on an exact scent, usually gained from a piece of the missing person’s clothing. Other search and rescue dogs include water search dogs, cadaver dogs, and avalanche dogs. Almost any breed can potentially become a search and rescue dog, although larger animals are preferred due to their stamina and agility.
The training of a search and rescue dog usually begins when it is eight to ten weeks old and can require several years of daily lessons. The first steps are basic obedience, the recognized commands such as sit, stay, heel, and come. Most of these commands are learned via hand signals, as verbal communication may not always be possible in a rescue situation. Next comes agility training, teaching the dog to carefully negotiate treacherous terrain, jump through windows, or balance themselves while walking along beams, ridges, or areas with unstable footing.
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Searching and tracking lessons are intensified as the dog progresses in its efforts and gains skill and confidence. Search and rescue dogs are also taught to retrieve, as finding a piece of needed evidence and quickly returning it to a handler could mean the difference between life and death for a person in need.
Handlers of search and rescue dogs must develop a strong bond with their animals. They work as a team, and to the outside observer it would almost appear than the dog and its handler can read each other’s minds. The handler must become aware of minor changes in the dog’s body language, and notice any small behavioral changes. Different dogs may well have different responses to locating a person in need of rescue, and it is up to the handler to learn these verbal cues and respond to them immediately.