Search and Rescue Dogs: The Best Breeds, Training, and Types of Duties

Search and Rescue dogs (SAR) are canines with the personality and training to come together to create a powerful bond with their handler.

Springing into action, SAR dogs are valuable assets during urban disasters and natural calamities. They’re first on the scene to assist humans during difficult times.

A Rescue dog found injured people in ruins after an earthquake

If you want to find out more about the breeds, duties, and training most common with SAR dogs and how they have helped us in more ways than one, stay with us.

What is a Search and Rescue Dog?

SAR dogs are trained canines instructed by handlers to look for missing people, drownings, or cadavers following natural disasters.

But search and rescue dog breeds need many and extensive training before joining their first SAR mission.

German Shepherd dog in shoreline search training
A German Shepherd dog in shoreline search training – Image source

Starting with obedience training, the dogs learn how to track, signal their handler, and stay focused in a stressful situation. Handlers go through training too. 

Search and rescue dog basics

Search and rescue dogs are curious, independent, and obedient. Both the dog and the handler need the physical ability and grit for this kind of work.

Fortunately, dogs are natural hunters. They just need proper guidance, and they can search tirelessly until a task is complete. Their perseverance and keen sense of smell make K9s the perfect partner and service dogs.

They’re trained to follow humans’ air scents or trail a specific smell. Once an air scent is detected, trailing dogs can lock onto it, follow the path, and alert their handler.

Combining those techniques gives them a high success rate, even in large areas.

The history of SAR dogs

The first documented history of search and rescue was in the early 1800s on the Great Saint Bernard Pass in Switzerland.

In 1988, following an earthquake in Armenia, a global team of search and rescue dogs worked together. It was then when the International Search and Rescue Dog Organization (IRO) started to assist with trained teams.

Those brave canines are celebrated yearly since 2008 every last Sunday of April. It includes presentations, discussions, and training.

The Search and Rescue Dog organizations share details of events on IRO’s website.

What dog breeds are used for search and rescue?

Dog breeds that are bred to hunt usually have more scent receptors, making them favorable for search and rescue missions.

No matter where you are, you’ll notice many SAR dogs are either hounds, retrievers, or shepherds.

Labrador Retrievers lead the pack as the most popular dog in the U.S and have been a part of many notable search and rescue teams.

Labs and Golden Retrievers are excellent water search and rescue dog breeds and excels at tracking, and loves to swim.

The second most popular dog in search and rescue is the German Shepherd.

Hounds have the highest concentration of scent receptors and the strongest sense of smell. So it’s no wonder that Bloodhounds comes next. As their name suggests, they’re well known for tracking blood.

Basset Hounds have longer ears and shorter legs to help stir up scents low to the ground.

A Coonhound is the most agile of the hounds and has incredible stamina making it suitable for wilderness missions. Meanwhile, the Beagle is ideal for SAR missions involving young children.

St. Bernards also have a long history of locating lost kids during snowstorms and are the best dog breed for cold conditions.

Herding breeds are suitable for covering long distances during search and rescue missions. Australian Shepherds are naturally independent thinkers and excel with this work.

The Belgian Malinois is an intelligent herding dog often used by police and search and rescue teams.

Assisting as scouts and messengers, Dobermans work hard on search and rescue missions, making them the most common canine in the U.S. marine corps.

During WWII, the military favored the use of Newfoundlands to help locate downed aircraft and conduct rescues.

Giant Schnauzers are capable search and rescue dogs, a fearless farm breed who won’t back down from any challenge. Most Collies perform well at search and rescue, with Border Collies being bright, hard workers.

Pointers also make ideal SAR partners as they’ve developed tracking skills through generations of game bird hunting.

An even friendlier companion is the Spaniel breed. Springer Spaniels have shorter coats and excel at rescue work. 

Terriers are energetic dogs, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier is a courageous breed for rescue missions.

Poodles are not the first type of dog you would pick for SAR training, yet they’re suitable and trainable.

Rottweilers are also capable of the job but do have an intimidating appearance.

What do SAR dogs do?

search and rescue dog being guided

SAR dogs work alongside a human helper to save lives. Trained with the local environment in mind, their job is to search large areas to home in on any target.

These teams consist of dogs specializing in tracking, trailing, and air-scent.

Specialties: Four fields of Search and Rescue Dog Training

The breeds we mentioned don’t just fit the job description because they’re bred to have the physique. They also have the desire and consistency to be search and rescue dogs.

They are trained as early as 12 weeks, where the process is gradual and very slow.

Each dog also learns at different paces and is required to complete a set of time so they can be prepped for fieldwork, which is generally 600 hours of training.

These are the 4 fields potential SAR dogs can train in.

1. Search and rescue tracking dog 

Tracking dogs train to focus on the individual scent on the ground. They lock into the smell of the clothing or object with the missing person’s scent and stays on track.

Keeping its head low, a tracking dog breed will occasionally raise its nose to detect airborne particles.

Good tracking dogs can accurately track trails more than a month old, given that the amount of time elapsed and the environment affects the strength of the trail left behind.

2. Search and rescue trailing dog

Trailing dogs follow the specific scent left behind by a missing person. They focus accurately on the smell and detect turns or even “double backs” made by the missing person.

These dogs often work alongside the helper and remain on-lead.

3. Search and rescue air-scent dogs

Air-scent tracking dogs follow diffused or airborne aromas until they locate the origin of the smell. Often working off-lead, these dogs can cover large areas within a short time.

The dog barks to let the handler know they have found the missing person’s scent or origin.

4. Search and rescue: avalanche, cadaver, disaster, and other purposes

Following a disaster over a large area, it’s not uncommon for air-scent and trailing dogs to work together.

Deployed in areas where lost people are likely to be, air-scenting dogs can quickly scan the site. From the origin of the scent or piece of evidence, the trailing dogs can begin maneuvering outwards.

Human remains detection is a specific training undertaken by the search and rescue dog. The hounds focus on odors specific to deceased humans.

These smells can travel through water. Working near and even in the water, search and rescue dogs assist in rescues involving drownings.

Avalanches can be complicated search and rescue situations to respond to. The mountainous areas are often challenging to access, with deep snow preventing humans from calling out for help.

Hearing an avalanche dog’s bark can bring relief to the disorienting feeling of being trapped in the snow.

On high-altitude mountain passes, even snowstorms can necessitate a search and rescue mission. Local response teams are acclimatized to the altitude. They can work effectively despite the reduced oxygen at high altitudes.

Watch this short video of Barry, a St. Bernard, who helped detect and locate humans following snowstorms and avalanches in the early 1800s:

Tsunamis usually occur in conjunction with other natural disasters. Roads into the area are often blocked by debris making search and rescue challenging.

Triggered by earthquakes, these disasters require a coordinated response from international search and rescue teams.

Urban disasters need a different approach. The victims are typically buried following the collapse of a building.

Working off the lead, the dogs do a rubble search by locating the exact source of a human scent before alarming the rescue teams with a bark.

When looking for missing persons, a cadaver dog’s keen sense of smell can help. Once beneath the surface, a human body releases small amounts of odor, which canines can pick up.

Wilderness SAR missions often take place in rugged terrain. Mountain rescue dog breeds need stamina as these missions can take a full 8-hour working day to complete.

They work tirelessly to locate human scents in large areas with little or no other human odor.

Evidence collection is also an essential part of the search and rescue functions. This task is practiced by police dogs who assist officers with investigations.

The air-scenting service dog searches for the origin of a human scent, which can be an item of clothing or an object used by the missing person.

Search and rescue dog standards

Different dogs in obedience training

Aiming to lift the image of SAR dogs and provide a framework for trainers, the IRO sets standards for search and rescue canines to assist in. Here’s the step-by-step process.

Level I: Basic obedience

You can start a search and rescue dog’s training as young as 10 weeks old. To pass level 1, your dog will need to prove he’s comfortable around non-threatening strangers and other dogs.

This training also tests basic commands and how to pay attention to the handler while walking on a loose leash.

Level II: Canine professionalism

A dog shows professionalism by consistently obeying basic commands. The ideal search and rescue dog shows no distress when separated from its handler.

The test requires your dog to be in a group of search dogs under the care of another handler.

They should remain in a “sit” or “down” command while you move at least 30 ft away and out of sight.

Level III: Physical and mental ability

A search and rescue dog needs to pass physical and mental tests. An obstacle course, including a tunnel and an a-frame, tests your dog’s navigation skills.

Simulating actual activities, the dogs need to remain calm when lifted 10 ft in a tractor bucket or when traveling in a boat.

These budding heroes will approach a running helicopter, wear a harness, and get lifted into the air.

Tracking a target: Practical test

An urban test involves following a track despite distractions and obstacles. The target moves across a city, crossing intersections and alleyways.

About 30 minutes after the target leaves a scent article in an alley, the handler places the search and rescue dog on the scent.

The K-9 needs to accurately follow the trail and locate the item in a short enough time.

Search and rescue dog training

A German Shepherd dog being trained on the field
A German Shepherd dog undergoing an obedience training

The beginning of SAR training relies on building basic communication skills with your puppy. Simple commands can significantly improve your relationship with your dog.

The attention shown to the handler while walking with a loose leash allows you to travel with your dog comfortably in public spaces.

You can get involved with search and rescue training whether you have a dog or not. A local search and rescue organization will be the best contact to find a dog in your area.

Each canine and handler team must pass a national certification in SAR and recertify every three years.

If you have a dog, raising him to be curious and obedient is a good foundation.

Your dog must be older than 18 months to attempt the test. The FEMA accredited course permits you to assist in local and state response efforts.

What training is required to become a search and rescue dog?

Handlers work on search strategies, mapping, markings, briefing, and debriefing skills.

Several tests will cover the above skills alongside your canine handling skills. You can begin your training for search and rescue dog handling by watching other handlers during staged rescues.

Before becoming a handler, consider joining local search and rescue efforts to learn the strategies and communications skills needed for a mission.

It’s also a great way to contribute to your community’s safety while in the company of your best friend.

Once you’re comfortable, the formal handler training should follow suit.

Private search and rescue training

The American Kennel Club (AKC) honors search and rescue achievements with an AKC Title Certificate. Urban search and rescue titles need certification as deployable dogs for FEMA or State Search and Rescue.

Your dog has to participate in at least 5 actual wilderness SAR efforts to be eligible for a Wilderness SAR title.

Search and rescue dogs can train for disasters in urban areas, air scenting in the wilderness, scent discrimination trailing, human remains detection, water search and rescue, and water human remains detection.

Don’t worry; tests are easier to pass after training.

Group lessons for training are also recommended to ensure a social setting for the SAR dog’s benefit. Socialization can improve a puppy’s confidence and friendliness – great qualities of a search and rescue dog..

SAR training: How to get started

Start with research and training. Look for training courses offered and SAR teams working in your area. Most organizations are friendly and offer approachable events with live demonstrations.

Meet the working dogs alongside their handlers, who together perform incredible rescue missions.

The average age of a SAR dog is between 1 and 4 years old, with most dogs retiring from physically demanding challenges around 5 years old.

The requisites of search and rescue dogs training

Forming a bond between the search and rescue dogs and the helpers, part of the training will test the dog’s ability to perform duties while the handler is out of sight.

The dogs must be independent while still following commands from the handler or another handler in the team.

Training your dog for SAR missions also involves teaching your canine some common yet essential commands for the job.

“Find it” initiates a search for human scent. While “Leave it” is to ignore a particular distraction. Seldom used, but still common, is “Over,” which tells the dog to climb over an obstacle.

“Show me” instructs the dog to take the handler back to the location of a find. “Tunnel” commands the dog to crawl through a tunnel.

SAR dogs at work

Ski patrol dog in action
Meet Luna, a Labrador working as a Ski patrol dog – Image source

After all the training and preparations, search and rescue dogs are a sight to see. A smile on a dog’s face and a wagging tail mean they’re happy.

Below are just some of the instances when these brave and diligent dogs help us today.

Search and rescue dogs during a crisis

SAR dogs are effective both locally and internationally. Specialized search and rescue teams remain mobile and can effectively assist neighboring states or countries with crises.

In the days following a disaster, teams assist with human remains detection.

Search and rescue dogs – 9/11 

More than 300 dogs participated in the search and rescue efforts on Ground Zero following the September 11 attacks.

The first dog and handler team arrived within 15 minutes. SAR dogs found the last living person after 27 hours.

Search and rescue dogs – Haiti Earthquake 

Earthquakes can devastate large urban areas making access to the affected area difficult.

A disaster search dog helped locate people buried for as long as 70 hours following Haiti’s earthquake. Teams battled against rugged terrain during 12-hour shifts to search the affected area.

Search and rescue dogs – Japan Tsunami

The International Search and Rescue Advisory group coordinated 50 search and rescue teams worldwide to assist Japan after a tsunami.

Six canine disaster search teams from the U.S. arrived in Japan and helped bring 12 people to safety.

SAR dog life after retirement

Hard-working search and rescue dogs usually retire after 4 years of service. Bretagne, a SAR dog who assisted on the 9/11 search and rescue mission, lived with her handler until 16 years old.

Retiring SAR dogs either remain with the handler as a family dog or are rehomed or adopted into new families.

If you love the qualities of a search and rescue dog, consider adopting a retired SAR dog from a rescue dog association. These loving and dedicated canines can also make for great companions.

Start your search for a retired search and rescue dog online. Organizations like Pets for Patriots and Mission K9 Rescue help locate loving homes for working dogs who have served their country.

The perfect canine for search and rescue

German Shepherd K9 dog
Image source

Other than the breeds we mentioned earlier, a mixed breed can also do great as a service dog or search and rescue dog.

If you choose a puppy from a litter, it’s important to observe the dog’s personality. Besides, dogs are smart enough to learn, and they can be trained for any situation.

Things to consider when getting a SAR dog

Find a dog you feel is best suited to your local environment. You also need to consider the age. Younger dogs, once trained, have the opportunity to serve for a longer time.

Look for a dog who actively explores and engages with new people in a friendly way. You should also keep your dog active with daily search exercises as this will affect its ability to do actual missions.

Your best option is to find a registered breeder who breeds dogs from working lines. A dog’s value increases with specialized training, and SAR dogs can cost you more than $2,000.

Alternatively, look to adopt the offspring from a fellow SAR team member’s dog.

Testing a dog for SAR qualities

Here’s how you can test a dog for SAR qualities before you adopt them. 

  1. Walking The Aisle – Which dog comes to greet you?
  2. Greeting The Dog – Is the dog friendly?
  3. Tug And Touch – When playing, does the dog get excited?
  4. Reaction To Other Dogs – Shows interest in other dogs without aggression.
  5. Sudden Movement – A good search and rescue dog can be startled but should not attack or retreat.
  6. Sound Sensitivity – A loud noise should evoke curiosity in the dog.
  7. Toy Toss & Toy Toss With Noise Distraction – Toys should grab a puppy’s attention.
  8. Toss And Spin – Toss a toy before spinning your dog and then letting it hunt for it.
  9. Hide And Seek – A suitable dog will search relentlessly for a hidden toy.
  10. High Toy – Placing a toy out of reach, the dog should bark, spin or jump to get it.

Search and rescue dogs: True teamwork

A dog about to ride into the helicopter for search operation
A rescue dog about to ride into the helicopter for a search operation – Image source

SAR dogs have served on the front lines and have captured our hearts during countless crises.

These working dogs achieve tasks with obedience and remain focused in stressful situations.

If you’re up for this partnership, the first step to becoming a search and rescue handler is finding your nearest SAR organization.

Your new-found community will help you to find a suitable puppy and provide contacts for training. Choose your search and rescue dog from the breeds which appear on our list for a natural fit.

Do you have a search and rescue dog? Share your stories with us in the comments below.

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