Dogs (K9s) can be a valuable resource in searches for lost and missing persons. Handlers must be dedicated and highly skilled and their K9s hard working, and well-trained, to be effective. Specific applications for SAR K9s include urban/suburban/rural/wilderness settings, disaster, cadaver, avalanche, and drowning or recovery.
Typical SAR K9 Missions include searching for:
•Missing children, disabled persons, or the elderly in suburban and rural locations.
•Hikers, hunters, mushroom pickers, greens gatherers, and other missing persons in forestlands.
•Evidence of major crimes in outdoor settings.
•Victims of drowning and avalanche
•Possible suicide victims
Search and Rescue (SAR) K9s detect human scent. Exactly what this means to the dog is not known. It may include skin rafts, evaporated perspiration, respiratory gases, or decomposition gases from bacterial action on human skin or tissues.
In Snohomish County Volunteer Search & Rescue (SCVSAR), SAR K9s can be generally classified as “airscenting”, or “trailing”.
Airscenting K9s primarily use airborne human scent to ‘home in’ on subjects, whereas trailing K9s rely on scent deposited by the subject on the ground, buildings, or foliage. Airscenting K9s typically work off-lead, are non-scent discriminating (locate scent from any human as opposed to a specific person), and cover large areas of terrain.
Trailing K9s are usually scent discriminating and require an uncontaminated (by other human scent) scent article from the subject, work on-lead to follow the subject’s path, and may use non-human scent (e.g., crushed vegetation, disturbed earth) in following the subject’s movements.
In wilderness search and rescue applications, airscenting K9s 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, or ridge lines in the afternoon) whereas trailing K9s 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 K9s must be capable of working for 4-8 hours without distraction (e.g., by wildlife).
Disaster K9s are used to locate victims of catastrophic or mass-casualty events (e.g., earthquakes, landslides, building collapses, aviation incidents). Disaster K9s probably rely primarily on airscent, and may be limited in mass-casualty events by their inability to differentiate between survivors and recently-deceased victims.
Human Remains Detection (HRD), or cadaver, K9s are used to locate the remains of deceased victims. Depending on the nature of the search, these K9s 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 trailing K9s are often cross-trained as cadaver K9s, although the scent the dog detects is clearly of a different nature than that detected for live or recently-deceased subjects. Cadaver K9s can locate entire bodies (including those buried or submerged), decomposed bodies, body fragments (including blood, tissues, hair, and bones), or skeletal remains and the capability of the K9 is dependent upon its training.
Avalanche K9 work is similar to airscenting, disaster, or HRD, and must be able to rapidly transition from a wilderness airscenting scenario to a disaster scenario focused on pinpointing the subject’s location. K9s will only be finding ‘live’ subjects when they are maintained in close proximity to the avalanche site and deployed within a very few minutes of the slide. Otherwise they will be deployed in a ‘recovery’ mode, as they would be in the event of a submerged drowning victim needing to be located and recovered.