Search Dogs

Why use dogs to search for missing persons?

Dogs have an amazing physiology that is optimized for scent work. Dogs have millions of more receptors in their nose than humans and a larger portion of their brain is dedicated to processing scent signals. They use their keen sense of smell from birth. This sense allows dogs to “see” back in time, which is extremely beneficial in a search. A tracking/trailing dog, for example, can use scent to “see” the previous presence of a missing subject and the direction they traveled.

What do clothespins, satellites, and helicopters have in common?

They are all items used in our dog training!  Dogs can be trained for different "specialties". MCC is focused on locating missing persons, so our training involves teaching the dog to find and locate human scent. The best way to find and locate human scent, however, can depend on many factors of the situation, such as the setting. Is the search, for example, in a wilderness or urban-setting? Is the terrain relatively flat or mountainous? What type of vegetation is present?

Because of the many situations that are possible on missions, MCC trains and fields several different types of search dogs. A tracking/trailing dog finds and follows the specific scent trail left by the missing person. An air scent dog follows scent carried by the wind that is emanating from a person. MCC also fields cadaver dogs, who are trained to detect and locate the source of decomposed human remains, to aid in the recovery of missing individuals.

Training, for both the canine and handler, takes a considerable amount of time and dedication. Every dog/handler works as a team and a special bond develops between the dog and handler. MCC does not train other people’s dogs; each dog on the team is trained by their owner. If all goes well, a dog is mission ready after more than a year of training 4-8 hours a week, year round, in all weather; thus, hundreds of hours of focused training take place to produce a search dog.

Training is not limited to scent detection work; as in the human members of MCC, training for the dogs is also extremely varied to prepare them for whatever situations they may encounter on a search. They also learn to perform activities such as loading in and out of a running helicopter. Clothespins and satellites also assist the team during training. During training, a tracklayer/subject can leave behind flags, or clothespins with trail tape, that allows the handler to see the path taken (and easily removed as their dog tracks the subject). GPS satellites assists training by allowing comparison of the track of a tracklayer and the dog. These comparisons can be valuable for evaluating a team's performance and scent conditions. The GPS log can also be consulted to examine an airscent team's coverage of an area.

How are the different types of search dogs used in the wilderness?

MCC primarily fields two different types of search dogs in the wilderness: tracking/trailing and air scenting dogs. A tracking/trailing dog finds and follows the specific scent left behind by a missing subject; the dog must be given an article with the missing subject’s scent to know whose scent to find and follow. An air scent dog can be trained two different ways: scent specific and scent generic. A specific air scent dog, like the tracking/trailing dog, is looking for the scent coming from a specific person and also needs a scent article from that person. A generic air scent dog will look for any person in an area. Depending on the search area, different types of dogs are used. For example, we might deploy a generic air scent dog to quickly ascertain whether a subject is in an open field and a scent specific dog to check another field, where other searchers present. If there is a likely place the subject was in the past, such as a place their friends last saw them or their vehicle’s location at a trailhead, we might deploy a tracking/trailing dog to that location.

MCC also has cadaver dogs. These dogs detect the scent of deceased humans and will not alert on the remains of animals. Many of our searches using cadaver dogs involve suicidal subjects. Although this work can be sad, we feel this is an important service of MCC because the families of these subjects benefit from closure.

What are urban search dogs and how are they different?

Several urban search and rescue (USAR) trained dogs are on MCC. These team members have deployed to help in Oklahoma City after tornados and to the Pentagon after 9/11 as part of FEMA’s NM Task Force-1. USAR dogs are trained to locate, pinpoint, and give a clear, readable alert indicating the presence of live human scent in a collapsed building or other disaster situation. In order to perform this demanding task, the USAR dog and handler team must master a variety of skills that will enable them to search disaster sites safely and effectively. Besides scent detection, USAR dogs receive specialized, advanced training in the following skill areas:

1. Obedience - USAR dogs are required to respond quickly to their handler’s commands at all times. Required obedience skills range from walking, off lead, at their handler’s side (even when other people, equipment and vehicles are in the area) to dropping into a down position whenever directed by the handler.

2. Agility - Agility skills that are part of a USAR dog’s training include climbing ladders, walking across elevated surfaces (even if they are slippery, wobbly or movable), and crawling through small, enclosed spaces.

3. Directability - A USAR dog must also learn to take direction from the handler, i.e., respond to hand signals that direct the dog to move away from the handler, or to move to the left or the right. The ability to respond to the handler’s signals are crucial to making sure that the disaster site is searched completely.

The final step in the process is making sure that the USAR dog provides a clear indication that he has located scent and pinpoints the point where the scent is strongest. The dogs are trained to bark and scratch at the location of strongest scent and to remain at that location and continue barking until the handler can mark the location. This alert differs from the refind alert that we generally train for the wilderness dogs; returning to the handler might be dangerous in an urban disaster situation. However, the alerts are similar in that they must both be clear, readable alerts. Once the location that the dog has indicated has been marked, heavy equipment and rescue personnel can come in to extract the trapped person from the rubble and provide medical care.

What traits make a good search dog candidate?

MCC search dogs come in many shapes and sizes. We have purebreds, shelter dogs, and freeway pickup dogs on the team. In general, all of the dogs of MCC share some physical and mental traits. Shared mental traits include intelligence, mental stamina, friendliness, and having a strong bond with their handler. Physically, the MCC dogs are strong and healthy to deal with the physical demands of SAR. A search dog must also be large enough to withstand working in the mountains over long distances. However, a really big dog might be hard for a handler to lift over a fence. A search dog candidate must also be intelligent with mental stamina because they need to be able to concentrate on a scent for hours. They should also be brave and friendly; we don’t want to scare subjects! A strong desire to work is necessary and a good rapport with the handler is crucial so that the dogs will work hard to please their handler for many hours. Not all dogs with these traits find that searching is for them. About 50% of dogs, who are allowed to begin training after passing an evaluation with our team, decide that they would be happier pursuing other activities. Many of the same physical and mental traits are required for the handlers and support specialists!