What SAR Dogs Do
There are many different disciplines for K9 search and rescue. The primary disciplines that will be used most frequently here on Maui are tracking, trailing, air scenting, and human remains detection (HRD).
An air scenting dog goes into and area and finds anybody. They do not need a starting track/trail or a scent article. If there happens to be somebody other than the subject you're looking for in the search area and the dog finds them, that's okay - you celebrate their good job and then continue searching. After finding the subject, the dog returns to the handler, does an alert, and leads the handler to the subject. The human handler is in the field walking a search pattern and your dog is ranging within a certain distance from you. Air scenting is ideal when you have a large wilderness area, few people around, and no starting track and/or scent article, or the track has degraded too much for a tracking or trailing dog to follow.
Tracking & Trailing
Tracking and trailing are actually two separate disciplines, but they both accomplish the same end goal. Given a specific person's scent, follow a continuous path to that person. Tracking and trailing use different training techniques and the dog works in a different way.
SAR TRACKING A SAR tracking dog is given a scent article (something with the subject's scent on it such as clothing) and follows the path that the subject followed. Tracking dogs generally keep their nose focused on the ground and detect the ground disturbance odors. These are odors caused by compressed soil, broken grass, etc. This is human scent that has pooled within subject's track. A SAR tracking dog has an advantage when ground disturbance odors will be the key to maintaining the track to find the subject. SAR tracking dogs are more in-tune with ground disturbance odors. In some situations ground disturbance odors are stronger than human scent and, where there are large gaps in the human scent trail, a tracking dog can maintain the track by detecting the ground disturbance odors. A tracking dog can detect human odors that have moved from the track but tracking dogs are not as proficient at this as a trailing dog.
SAR TRAILING A SAR trailing dog is given a scent article and follows a trail of human scent. This is scent that may have settled on the ground in or the near the track, or on nearby surfaces such as bushes or walls. A SAR trailing dog is more proficient at detecting human odors that have moved from the track. Trailing dogs know where and how to look for odors and are often more proficient at discriminating scents in environments where a lot of other people have been. A SAR trailing dog usually has an advantage over a SAR tracking dog in environments with hard surfaces or with more human scent distractions, such as in an urban or suburban search, over varied terrain, or situations when the scent has moved off the track. A SAR trailing dog can detect ground disturbance odors but are not as proficient at it as a SAR tracking dog.
Some handlers find that it is easier to read a tracking dog's body language and can tell more easily when the dog is off the track vs. on the track.
TRACK/TRAIL AGE The age of the track or trail is key because the scent degrades over time. There is no specific formula for how long the scent will last and the dog will still be able to follow the track/trail, success depends on a seemingly infinite number of variables. In some situations scent may only last a few hours and in others scent could last for days. In general, a very proficient dog can detect and follow a 12 hour old track/trail consistently and have a reasonable chance of success with a 30-hour old track/trail. After 30 hours the track/trail may be too faint or degraded to follow but it is still worth the attempt.
TERMINOLOGY The terminology between tracking and trailing can be very confusing or ambiguous because other agencies and those in different countries use the terms differently. Much of the time we simply group both into the category "tracking and trailing." There are at least 5 variations on the terminology and as a SAR we use the terminology that most US-based SAR organizations now use with the prefix "SAR".
Human Remains Detection
HUMAN REMAINS DETECTION (HRD) HRD dogs are trained to find the scent of human remains that may be on the ground, buried, or elevated. HRD dogs are often referred to as "cadaver dogs." Although most people think of saving lives when they think of search & rescue dogs, finding human remains is extremely important to give closure to loved-ones and to find evidence in criminal cases.
Other specialized disciplines of search dogs include:
WATER SEARCH Water search dogs are trained to detect submerged human remains, often working from the bow of a boat.
DISASTER Disaster dogs are trained primarily to find people buried in a collapsed structure. They work on unstable surfaces, in small confined spaces, and other situations not usually found in other SAR disciplines.
Characteristics of a Good SAR Dog
STRONG PLAY DRIVE This is the #1 characteristic of a good SAR dog. If a dog will keep chasing a ball (or whatever other motivator the dog loves), and maintain enthusiasm, motivation, and focus the whole time, that is an indication of strong drive.
DESIRE TO PLEASE If a dog has a desire to please his/her handler in addition to a strong play drive, the dog will be more responsive to training from the handler.
APTITUDE FOR LEARNING NEW COMMANDS If it took months to teach your dog to sit, your dog might not be as receptive to learning new things. Of course, in some cases it could be the handler's need for training! The handler has to be receptive and have an aptitude for learning new tricks too.
AGE OF DOG Some people will tell you that starting with a young puppy is best while others will tell you a more mature dog will learn faster, and many will happily debate the topic for hours. In reality, the affect of age probably depends on the individual dog and handler. If your mature dog (8 months or older or so) has the proper discipline, training, and temperament, then as a team you will probably be proficient faster than if your dog is a puppy. However a mature dog may have developed bad habits that will be very difficult to overcome. If your dog isn't disciplined (i.e. is spoiled) and has bad habits, SAR training may be difficult or impossible. If you have an older dog keep in mind their useful working lifetime - the time until he/she is too old to be athletic. If your dog is 6 years old, they may be 8 by the time they are ready, and how many more years will he/she be able to run for hours over rough terrain?
ATHLETICISM Doing a search is like running a marathon for a dog, while keeping mental focus the entire time. He/she must be agile and athletic. K9 teams will work ~40 minute sessions with rest and replenishment breaks.