Case Study : Search & Rescue Dogs

Golden Retriever Rufus finds his ‘missing’ person after a 10 minute training search in the Brecon Beacons and is rewarded with his favourite toy: a fluffy tuggy on a bungee. © Kathy Donaldson

By Kathy Donaldson, trainee handler


Using dogs to find missing people in the UK dates back to the battle fields of WW1 when dogs carrying first aid kits located injured soldiers by airborne scent. In 1965 Scottish mountaineer Hamish MacInnes founded the Search and Rescue Dog Association (SARDA) based on the Swiss concept of using dogs to find people buried in avalanches. Dogs are now used by many more organisations than SARDA, for example Lowland Recue.

In Britain search dogs are used to detect deceased people both on land (cadaver dogs) and under water (drowned victim dogs) and people who are, thankfully, alive (air scent dogs).

Trailing dogs can follow the path of a person several hours after their passage (scent specific trailing dogs).

Search & Rescue training uses positive reinforcement and the dogs search for a person who carries their reward, usually a toy. They need a good level of obedience and to show no interest in livestock or wildlife when working at distance. Early learning pairs human scent with the reward, and a helper plays with the dog and then hides up wind whilst the dog watches, restrained by the handler. On release the dog will follow the cone of scent coming from the helper and on finding him that allimportant game ensues. Soon the dogs understand the concept and search by scent alone, for them finding a missing person is just a big game of hide and seek that culminates in tremendous fun.

Working Golden Retriever trainee Search & Rescue Dog Rufus, owned by Kathy Donaldson. © Ian Roberts Photography

As training advances the dogs learn to return to the handler and give a clear indication that they have found someone, and then lead the handler to the missing person, or in the case of disaster recovery dogs, stand and bark at the location of the scent. Training involves generalising their learning to new environments and developing search stamina. Dogs train twice-weekly and it typically takes two to three years to qualify. For a SARDA assessment, a dog searches four different 20 hectare areas over two days, each search taking approximately 90 minutes and they must locate the ‘missing’ bodies.

Each branch of scent-work involves specialised training with a rigorous certification process before the dog is qualified for a real search because, in many instances, the information the dog provides can mean life or death for the missing person.

Today there are around 150 volunteer search and rescue dogs covering the UK. Originally German Shepherds were the most popular breed, gradually being replaced by Border Collies and increasingly working Labradors and Springers. Golden Retrievers are rare, however along with my young Working Golden Retriever (WGR) Rufus, we are a trainee SARDA air scent team learning to detect live missing people. There are two other trainee WGR teams and, coincidentally, the dogs all have the same sire.

Rufus is a typical WGR: boisterous and playful, but with a sensitive side. At the end of a busy day his idea of bliss is to cuddle on your lap, although at 27kg it’s a bit of a tight squeeze! He has a huge desire to please and a great appetite for work, and I’m hoping that these traits will lead us to become a successful team.

Animal Therapy Magazine