There are a variety of disciplines that search dogs can be trained for: basic disaster, cadaver dogs, water cadaver dogs, avalanche, and evidence or physical clue locating dogs. The dogs that are most suitable to SAR work are the working and hunting breeds.

Search dogs are a valuable JOSAR asset as they can cover large areas quickly. These dogs “get scent” from nooks and crannies that the visual search team is unable to do. Their ability to “pick up scent” as a clue is used to help determine the direction of travel of a subject, or when man trackers lose track of that direction. Dogs are usually effective for 4-6 hours of work, and just like all of us, they need to be hydrated to keep the mucus membranes moist.

There are two basic types of search and rescue dogs:

1) A trailing dog is a dog that is scent specific. When given a scent article (a personal items that would have the scent of the subject), they follow that individual scent to locate the subject. These dogs are worked on a long line. They can also provide verification of a trailhead location, which basically means the person was at that location and then give a direction of travel.

2) An area dog is non-scent specific. They are trained to locate any human scent. These dogs do not work on a line, and are out in front of their handler. These dogs are capable of covering an area that would require many human searchers to cover. They “get scent” from quite a long distance away, then communicate this information to their handler by using a trained alert.

What does it mean to "get scent"?

Dogs have olfactory cells equivalent to thousands of times greater than humans. Each human has a unique scent which is available to the dog by 40,000 small raft cells which shed from the human body each minute. These rafts contain bacteria and moisture which float in the air and settle on the ground or moist areas. This continued shedding is what the area and trailing dogs identify and work into the source. The scent can be destroyed by a variety of situations such as sunlight, heat, lack of moisture, high winds, heavy rain, and in time it dissipates. It can also become contaminated by extraneous gases, fumes and multiple people within the search area. Sometime the scent is just not there. A study has shown dogs are an effective resource, and are successful under good conditions 85-90% of the time.