The use of dogs in search and rescue is a valuable component in wilderness tracking, natural disasters, mass casualty events, and in locating missing people. Dedicated handlers and well-trained dogs are required for the use of dogs to be effective in search efforts. Search and rescue dogs are typically worked, by a small team on foot.

Search and rescue dogs detect human scent. Although the exact processes are still researched, it may include skin rafts (scent-carrying skin cells that drop off living humans at a rate of about 40,000 cells per minute), evaporated perspiration, respiratory gases, or decomposition gases released by bacterial action on human skin or tissues.

From their training and experience, search and rescue dogs can be classified broadly as either airscenting dogs or trailing (and tracking) dogs. They also can be classified according to whether they scent discriminate, and under what conditions they can work. Scent discriminating dogs have proven their ability to alert only on the scent of an individual person, after being given a sample of that person's scent. Non-scent discriminating dogs alert on or follow any scent of a given type, such as any human scent or any cadaver scent. SAR dogs can be trained specifically for rubble searches, for water searches, and for avalanche searches.


Air-scenting dogs primarily use airborne human scent to home in on subjects, whereas trailing dogs rely on scent of the specific subject. Air-scenting dogs typically work off-lead, are usually, though not always, non-scent-discriminating (e.g., locate scent from any human as opposed to a specific person), and cover large areas of terrain. These dogs are trained to follow diffused or wind-borne scent working perpendicular to the wind, then to indicate their find (for example, by sitting with the lost party and barking until the handler arrives, or by returning to the handler and indicating contact with the subject, and then lead the handler back to the subject). Handler technique, terrain, environment (vegetation), and atmospheric conditions (wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, and sky conditions) determine the area covered by air-scenting dogs, although a typical search area may be 40–160 acres and scent sources can be detected from a distance of 1/4 mile or more. Although other breeds can be trained for air-scenting, the prototypical air-scenting dog is a herding (e.g. German or Belgian Shepherd Dogs, Border Collies) or sporting breed that has a reputation for working closely and in coordination with a human handler.


A trailing dog is scent specific, can also have his/her head up using some of the air scent techniques to find the subject. Trailing dogs will work on lead, and trailing dogs will venture off the actual path that a subject took should a scent pool be discovered. This is not to be considered an error by the dog, as they are following a specific scent and working through all other human scents to get to the source.

Many dogs are capable of tracking and trailing; larger, sport, hound, working and herding breeds tend to be used more often simply for their adaptability in various terrain.

Wilderness SAR

In wilderness SAR applications, airscenting dogs can be deployed to high-probability areas (places where the subject may be or where the subject's scent may collect, such as in drainages in the early morning) whereas tracking/trailing dogs can be deployed from the subject's last known point (LKP) or the site of a discovered clue. Handlers must be capable of bush navigation, wilderness survival techniques, and be self-sufficient. The dogs must be capable of working for 4–8 hours without distraction (e.g., by wildlife).

Human Remains Detection

HRD or cadaver dogs are used to locate the remains of deceased victims. Depending on the nature of the search, these dogs may work off-lead (e.g. to search a large area for buried remains) or on-lead (to recover clues from a crime scene). Airscenting and tracking/trailing dogs are often cross-trained as cadaver dogs, although the scent the dog detects is clearly of a different nature than that detected for live or recently deceased subjects. Cadaver dogs can locate entire bodies (including those buried or submerged), decomposed bodies, body fragments (including blood, tissues, hair, and bones), or skeletal remains; the capability of the dog is dependent upon its training.

Avalanche Dogs

Avalanche dogs work similarly to airscenting, disaster, or cadaver dogs, and must be able to rapidly transition from a wilderness SAR-airscenting scenario to a disaster scenario focused on pinpointing the subject's location. An avalanche dog's main responsibility is usually to find humans that are trapped under snow. Some avalanche dogs can smell people that are under 15 feet of snow. Some dogs that are used for this job are St. Bernards, German Shepherd Dogs, and Labrador Retrievers.


Search and rescue dogs posses a special skill set that makes them invaluable assets to the teams and the communities they serve. All of the dogs that work with SARRT must pass a health and workability screening before being accepted into training and then onto the team. Our professional dog handlers and trainers are experts in teaching the behavior and tactics that make a great dog into a SAR K9.  

Upon acceptance into the SARRT K9 program, candidates will be required to complete all requirements necessary to become a K9 Flanker. Once you have passed all your K9 Flanker requirements and have served as a K9 flanker as required, you can apply to become a K9 handler, provided there is an open slot on the team. Any current dog you have will be evaluated separately from you, and one or both may or may not be accepted to be K9. You must be open to adding a new K9 to your home if your current dog is not able to perform the job. We will assist you in finding an appropriate K9 that not only fits the requirements of the job, but integrates into your home and lifestyle.

Please be aware that the attrition rate is very high within the K9 SAR industry. It is often difficult for dogs from lineage with no SAR experience (or other similar working areas) to succeed in search and rescue. To maintain operational standards and safety, SARRT can not comprise on the skills of our K9s as they are a valuable and lifesaving resource. Our K9 officer and trainers have the final decision as to readiness.

If you feel that your dog would be an asset to our team, please contact JCulver@sarrt.org.