Dogs throughout history have been bred and kept for many different tasks and services to people. From hunting and retrieval to guarding, lap dogs and of course family companions and friends. Today we continue to use the dogs’ intelligence, loyalty and willingness to please to put them to use in some very important jobs. They become part of the workforce they are involved in and are generally considered as another staff member and comrade. Search and Rescue is one in a long list of tasks that these loyal animals perform for us.
What do search and rescue dogs do
In many cases of disaster and loss specially trained dogs are called upon to use their extraordinary scenting abilities to help find people who are missing, wounded or casualties. These situations can be widely varied, including aftermaths of hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, tsunami, landslides, avalanches, bombing, helping the police with missing persons and searching for trampers and sightseers who may be missing in remote and dangerous terrain such as mountain passes and dense bush.
A dog’s sense of smell is approximately 10,000 times stronger than ours and they are much better at discriminating different types of scent. Humans shed up to 40,000 skin sells every minute which the dogs are easily able to pick up and locate.
History of search and rescue dogs
Search and rescue dogs date back to 1660 in a place called St Bernard Pass, a mountain route through the Alps between Switzerland and Italy. These were the ancestors of what we know today as the St Bernard. They were originally kept as guard dogs, but their talents were quickly recognised and monks trained them to help locate people trapped by the snow.
Later search and rescue dogs played an important role in WWI and WWII. British, American and Germans used the dogs to help find missing and wounded soldiers. After WWII they were used in the Swiss Alps by the Swiss Alpine Club to locate people trapped by avalanche.
There are two categories for Search and Rescue dogs: air scenting and trail scenting. Air scenting dogs roam off their leash and sniff the air to locate who they are looking for, while trail scenting dogs are kept on a leash and use their nose and ears together to find a scent on the ground. Air scenting is used to work in areas that may have been contaminated by other human searchers and trailing is used when the scent is weeks old. Search and Rescue dogs are quite often trained in both methods.
How to train a search and rescue dog?
Dogs are selected very carefully to be introduced to this type of training. They will be challenged with training for many skills such as advanced obedience, agility, jumping, tracking, scenting and sounding. While selection is not breed specific some breeds stand out for these tasks. Bloodhounds have a superior sense of smell. German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Golden Retrievers and Labradors also excel in training. The dogs also need to have great concentration, so that they are able to keep to the task at hand for up to eight hours a day on any given search.
In addition to the canine effort, it cannot go unmentioned the amazing training and commitment that goes into creating a successful Search and Rescue dog, by his human counterparts. There are years of training and maintenance which these skilled and dedicated trainers, supporters and organisations take on for the benefit of so many who may one day be in need of rescuing.