A few days ago, I took part in a public search for a local man who had been missing in our region. The man had been missing for 2 weeks and the family, desperate for answers, initiated a public search. Although law enforcement had brought in their own team, including dogs and helicopters, their search efforts came to no avail.
As we combed acre after acre of heavily dense woods and swampy bog, I began to truly appreciate the majesty of a Search and Rescue animal. As I attempted to retrace steps, look for anything unusual; a shirt hanging from a tree limb, a flock of circling birds, a path of worn down tall grass. I began to think differently. We had brought our dog. A former sled dog who found his second calling as a “sniffer-efficianado.” Able to find any strong, or “not of nature” scent, and even he- being a superior navigator and with a passion for stopping to smell the roses; even he could not find any rock or shrub out of the ordinary. We walked away discouraged, frustrated, and tired. Our hearts went out (and still do) to the family of this missing man. In my attempt to comfort his wife, I said as I embraced her with a hug, “I know you want answers, and I don’t know what those answers are, but I do know that those answers will come.”
An experience such as this, can truly wake even the most humble person to the fact that- humans are not always superior. It is with this undeniable truth that I now embrace an easily overlooked, yet undoubtedly unique service that only a canine can perform.
Search and Rescue Dogs or SAR’s, for short, are called upon during times of utter despair. Natural disasters, missing persons, mass casualties such as 9/11, and other situations which adhere to the urgency of life or death. Not only does time become a pressing issue for the people needing to be found, but also the environment for the dogs themselves can pose very dangerous risks. For example, in an urban earthquake situation where an SAR dog may be deployed, the dog is at risk of death should crumbling concrete fall on them, or a pile of debris shift below them and trap them as well.
There are some breeds that are better suited for this type of work. A very common breed choice is the German Shepard, due to their versatility. Other breeds include: Golden Retrievers, Bloodhounds, Border Collies, and many brachycephalic breeds such as the Rottweiler and Boxer. However one cannot mention search and rescue without mentioning the longest forerunner in survival rescues: the Saint Bernard.
The St Bernard is actually one of the oldest search and rescue breeds. This breed was originally bred for companionship to many monks of the mountain monasteries of the Swiss Alps. The St Bernard being a genuine companion, would often set about into the mountains along with the monks, refusing to leave their friends behind, and began to develop into the avalanche/mountain rescue relief that we know today.
FEMA lays out some pretty strict guidelines when registering a dog for rescue work. Many organizations such as the American Rescue Dog Association have regulations of their own as well that dictate whether a rescue dog is “mission ready”; Along with many other localized state organizations.
If you would like to help support some of these dogs, their handlers, or families in need of SAR services, check out the non-profit Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States. If you feel that your dog would be an excellent candidate for search and rescue work, I encourage you to reach out to a local training organization. If you aren’t sure whether or not your dog could be a four legged hero, click here to see a list of common characteristics and traits.