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Canine Culture: Disaster Dogs to the Rescue!

When tragedy strikes, canines are often called in to help. Who are these heroic “disaster dogs,” and what does it take? Do you and your dog have the right stuff to be a search and rescue team?

The recent anniversary of 9/11 gives us pause to reflect on the human lives lost, and “paws” to consider the canine heroes and handlers who step up for duty during disasters. We don’t think much about the working dogs among us until there is a crisis. But have you ever wondered what it takes to make a good disaster dog, considered the extensive training involved or how the world of search and rescue (SAR) works?

Disaster Dog Qualities

Sense of Smell.
It all starts with a keen sniffer. Some breeds more gifted than others, but with 200+ million “nasal olfactory receptors,” all dogs possess a  powerful sense of smell. While there is no breed requirement, certain canine characteristics are more desirable than others.

Physical Ability. Given the rigorous conditions and treacherous terrain often involved, SAR dogs should be hearty, healthy, athletic and agile in the medium-to-large range. (Giant dogs can present transport challenges.)

Attitude is Everything. Intelligent, responsive, even tempered and focused with an over-the-top play drive are key for SAR. An intense desire to tug or find a toy fuels their relentless desire to work. While this characteristic makes an excellent “disaster dog” in the field, it can be disastrous in an average pet home! (Luckily, Canine Craze has a class for that – keep reading!)

SAR Training & Types

Foundation Skills Obedience and socialization lay the groundwork for any advanced skill development and certification – whether for SAR work or competition. It is critical that the SAR team truly function as a unit, and building that level of integration and trust takes time. Canine sports – such as agility – are not required, but help fine tune handling skills, communication and relationship building.

Long Haul Not surprisingly, SAR teams take hundreds of hours and years of training. Given the personal commitment involved, SAR handlers and their dogs forge extreme relationships during the training process. While the ultimate goal of all SAR dogs is to locate a human scent, the training process differs based on whether the dog is trained to scent discriminate (specific individuals) and is Search (nose up) or Tracking/Trailing (nose down) focused. 

Air-Scent, Area Search Dogs Search dogs work with their noses in the air to pick up human scent anywhere in the vicinity, as opposed to a specific sent trail. They are the ones called in to find missing children or potential disaster victims in a large area with no specific starting point. Some specialize by type of disaster (avalanche, etc), whether live or cadaver finds, or wilderness vs. urban terrain. Because of the increased risk and challenges of urban searches, the only national standards for SAR teams are the FEMA-certification standards for urban disaster work.

Tracking/Trailing Dogs Tracking dogs typically work on-leash with their noses to the ground through all types of terrain – they are not searching, but following a specific scent. This type of work requires a starting point, an article with the person's scent on it, and an uncontaminated trail. Trailing dogs will work on or off-leash (sometimes venturing off-path) and can also use air-scent techniques to find the subject. 

Inside SAR  
You might be surprised to know that many SAR dogs are actually rescues, and their handlers are mostly volunteers who are “on call” year round. SAR organizations all across the country coordinate with local law enforcement and emergency agencies to help locate lost loved ones, detect clues at crimes scenes, or find victims (dead or alive) in natural disasters such as floods, tornados, earthquakes or avalanches.


Put YOUR dog’s nose to the test!
Canine Craze’s Nose Work classes help your dog develop his scenting abilities with the same principles taught in SAR training. Designed for pet dogs of all shapes, sizes, ages and breeds, we haven’t found an unhappy sniffer yet! Dogs and people absolutely LOVE it! Contact Canine Craze for more info or to sign up for the next session.


Ask the Trainer:  Renee Jetter,
ABCTC, CPCT
* Professional dog trainer; co-owner of Canine Craze Performance Center in Urbandale – an 18,000 sq-ft. dog training, daycare, boarding and events facility. Animal Behavior College, 2006 graduate.

* Expertise: puppy development; positive reinforcement training; obedience;
competition; agility; tricks; freestyle; scent detection; canine good citizen/therapy dog testing; Paws & Effect volunteer service dog trainer.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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