Search and rescue dogs

They follow their noses to lost and injured humans


Disaster strikes.

An earthquake rumbles, an avalanche roars, a building collapses, a tornado roars through a Midwestern town, a hurricane brings destruction to the Gulf Coast or eastern seaboard, a bomb reduces a federal building to rubble.

Almost before the dust settles, the dog and handler teams are there, searching for victims alive and dead.

With a sense of smell far more powerful than man’s and an ability to probe nooks and crannies that humans cannot penetrate, these dogs save lives and bring comfort to the families whose friends and relatives succumbed in the tragedy.

Search and rescue dogs are the hard-working heroes of disaster relief, but it’s all a game to these talented canines. Finding a victim brings a reward – a hug, a treat, a tussle with a favorite toy. The dogs live for the praise, even though it must sometimes be muted in deference to grief.

“As long as it remains a game, they’ll work until they drop,” said Gina Flannery, a search and rescue handler and trainer from the Cincinnati area. “When it becomes work, they’ll quit.”

Flannery is head trainer for Southern Ohio Search and Rescue Dogs, a small group of dog-and-handler teams that is called to work natural disasters and search for missing persons. SOSARD works with police departments in Clermont County and helps with searches in other areas. Flannery’s own dogs – Kiva, a male yellow Labrador Retriever, and Kachina Doll, a female red Bloodhound, are trained to search for victims alive and dead.

A paramedic and a technician at Hoxworth Blood Center in Cincinnati, Flannery got involved in search and rescue work when her husband suggested she get a dog to accompany her on her solitary hikes. The dog liked to track, so Flannery had him evaluated by a police dog trainer and committed herself and her dog to search work. After a year of solitary searching, she formed SOSARD in 1995. Today, the group has seven teams, including a Norwegian Elkhound, a mixed breed, a Rottweiler, Kiva and two other Labrador Retrievers, a German Shepherd, and Kachina.

The dogs

The dogs must be focused on the task at hand – to find the scent no matter where it leads or how much it is intermingled with other odors.

The Bloodhound is celebrated for his prowess as a search dog and has been used in the southern US by police forces to track criminals for decades. The Bloodhound’s legendary nose is accepted as evidence in courts throughout the country. However, kennels that breed Bloodhounds for tracking are few and far between, Flannery said, adding that she hunted far and wide to find Kachina.

Newfoundlands are well-known avalanche rescue dogs. Labrador Retrievers are “the best cadaver dogs in the world,” Flannery said. “They love things that smell bad.”

Flannery said that she likes a mixed group of dogs in her group because different breeds have different skills and levels of endurance.

Other favorite breeds for general search and rescue work are German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, and Golden Retrievers, but any medium-to large breed or mix can serve just as well if they enjoy tracking and can concentrate on following the scent. Kentucky Search Dog Association, part of the state emergency services department, has Weimaraners, Smooth Collies, and Rhodesian Ridgebacks among its teams along with GSDs and retrievers. Southwestern Ohio Search and Rescue has a Giant Schnauzer, an Australian Shepherd, and a couple of mixed breeds, and a group in Virginia has several Border Collies and Australian Shepherds along with more common breeds used in search work.

“The breed isn’t critical,” said Sarah Stuart of SWOSAR, “the attitude is.” Her dogs are Belgian Malinois.

Whatever the breed, search dogs must be evaluated before they can join a group. Dogs with a strong play drive are preferred, Flannery said, dogs that like games of fetch and will work for rewards. In training, dogs are rewarded with play and treats when they locate an acting victim; in an actual search, the victim often cannot respond when found, so handlers must be quick to provide the praise, often in a low-key manner after removing the dog from the vicinity of the find.

Dogs are trained to follow the scent in different terrain and weather conditions and to identify cadaver scent in bodies of water. Their skills are sharpened through regular training sessions and by handlers with daily training at home.

The handlers

Search and rescue handlers are volunteers. They must be physically fit, enjoy the outdoors, have time for training and searches, and take pleasure in training and communicating with their dogs.

Handlers may raise money for equipment, seminars, and travel, but they spend their own money to maintain their readiness and their dogs. Equipment costs add up. Along with working harnesses, long lines, and vests for the dogs, handlers need appropriate clothes for the weather and terrain, radios, flashlights with spare batteries, food if the search is likely to take days in remote terrain, a hard hat, a compass, a pack to carry items on the trail, and other items.

The teams

Teams like SOSARD and SWOSAR work when called out by police departments and may travel miles day or night to get to a search site. They work in all kinds of weather in all kinds of terrain to find lost children, Alzheimer’s patients, overdue fishermen or hunters, accident victims, and lost or injured hikers. Many groups, SOSARD and SWOSAR included, do not track felons, for they do not have police training or carry firearms.

In addition to their work for SOSARD, Flannery and several members of her team are registered with the North American Search Dog Network and can get called as individual teams to respond to accidents, drownings, or disasters. NASDN hosts national seminars and evaluates dogs for skills in building searches, article searches, area searches, trailing, cadaver searches, and three skill levels of trailing.

SWOSAR is a larger group with about 25 members. Its teams work with the Hamilton County Urban Search and Rescue Task Force and the Miami Valley Urban Search and Rescue Task Force and are associated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency Task Force in Ohio as trainers and participants in rescues.

The national and international attention showered on search and rescue dogs attracts owners looking to gratify their own egos by participating in a high-profile volunteer activity. But handlers are evaluated as closely as dogs to weed out those who let their desire for the spotlight interfere with the job as well as those who cannot emotionally handle the toll of working with disaster victims.

Good search and rescue handlers have another life, according to Flannery. They volunteer for search work because they enjoy problem-solving and working with their dogs, not because they need a boost to their egos.

Ego distracts people from a critical aspect of a search – reading the dog. Each dog has different cues that tell the handler that it is getting close to the quarry, that it is confused or unsure, or that it is tired. A handler must understand and trust his dog’s cues to know when to proceed and when to quit and not be worried about the television cameras and public notoriety.

“There’s not a lot of glory to this,” Stuart said. “You have to be self-rewarded or you are going to be disappointed.”


Training varies according to the group. Handlers must earn and retain certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid, learn how to maintain a crime scene, and attend sessions in other aspects of search and rescue work. Teams that work in large-tract wilderness areas need survival skills, and those who work disasters such as the terrorist bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City earthquakes, hurricanes, and other calamities must be prepared to come upon seriously injured and dead victims.

Flannery said that search and rescue handlers and trainers learned a lot from the use of dogs in Oklahoma City, for the dogs worked tirelessly and found no survivors and so got little reward. The anguish of the handlers was part of the equation, for the attitude of the person is relayed to the dog. Now handlers are better trained and dogs are rested and relieved before they become exhausted.

For more information about SOSARD, contact Flannery by e-mail at To learn more about SWOSAR, call Lieutenant Terry Trepanier, (937) 885-2791 or (937) 434-4023.

In the air or on the ground? Dog noses find the way

A dog’s sense of smell is not only more powerful that ours, it is more discerning. Thus a dog can pick out a target odor in a sea of odors, especially if his concentration is reinforced by periodic exposure to an item of clothing or other object handled or worn by the person he is seeking.

When trailing a person, a dog keys on the odor of skin cells that flake off the body. These skin cells float in the air and drop to the ground as the person moves about, and they float to the surface of the water if a victim has drowned.

The website of the Kentucky Search Dog Association (, a division of the state’s emergency management agency, defines the difference between air-scenting and trailing dogs with the advantages of each.

Air-scenting dogs work off-lead, directed in a search pattern by the handler. They work with their heads up, sniffing the air to catch the scent and follow it to the victim. Air-scenting dogs are valuable for searches in collapsed structures, for locating the bodies of drowning victims, and for other searches in which a person is not tracked from one point to another.

Because air-scenting dogs work on scent above the ground and range away from the handler, they can work in areas contaminated by human searchers but allowed to air out for awhile. After the contamination has settled, the only body giving off air scent will be the quarry.

Trailing dogs work on-lead. They follow the skin-cell trail wherever it leads, even though it is mixed with other scents.

Bloodhounds are the best trailing dogs. Their long ears and loose facial skin form folds that scoop and trap scent around their noses. In good conditions, Bloodhounds can follow trails that are weeks old, while other dogs must be on the track within hours.

Contamination of the area, i.e., if family members have been beating the bushes for a lost relative, can reduce the effectiveness of a trailing dog, for dogs have trouble discerning between the scent of the quarry and the scent of a family member. Hot weather can cause problems, too, for skin cells decompose quickly in higher temperatures.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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