On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

On Search and Rescue Canines

Red Cross dog, 1909. Image via Wikipedia.

Red Cross dog, 1909. Image via Wikipedia.

Dogs are among some of the most beneficial animals to humans. They have long been appreciated for their loyalty to humans above most other animals, and valued for their heightened senses. Their sense of smell in particular is extraordinary, which makes them an invaluable aid to humans in an investigative capacity. Dogs are internationally used in police and security outfits as drug detectors for this reason, and more impressively, as search and rescue (SAR) dogs.

One of the earliest uses of dogs in the search and rescue position was during World War I. Dogs were used by the Red Cross across Europe to search for the wounded on the battlefield. The French Army also employed the animals as “ambulance dogs” for a similar purpose. Today there are several national services, including the Red Cross, the American Rescue Dog Association (ARDA) and FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, who raise and train dogs for this purpose. Red Cross, ARDA, and FEMA have been present at many of the major disasters in the last decade, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent Japan earthquake. At the World Trade Center after 9/11, an estimated 300 SAR dogs were present.

There are two types of SAR dogs: airscent dogs, who are trained to sniff the air for and detect a scent and alert their handler to the location of the scent; and tracking dogs, who nose the ground to track a scent given them ahead of time, allowing them to track a person through their steps. The most common dogs trained for airscenting are Golden and Labrador Retrievers. Due to their sturdy build and playful nature, they are generally not stressed by the work of a SAR dog, and their naturally docile temperament makes them easy to work with and extremely loyal to their handlers. It also raises their protective instincts towards humans. Collies and Shepherd breeds are also common due to their strong herding instincts. Most dog breeds can be trained for tracking, however the most common are hounds, who are renowned particularly for their ability to follow a scent.

Handling a SAR dog is a constant task, with training beginning usually in early life, puppyhood preferably. The dogs must be trained in basic obedience in order to maintain their own safety. They are also trained in agility and, of course, scenting. The most essential training for a SAR dog, however, is bonding with their handler. The handler must not only be a trainer to the dog, but also a friend. The reason, after all, that dogs make such effective creatures for this line of work stems from their natural inclination to serve, protect, and obey their human pack.

While the training can be difficult, and dogs are sometimes put in dangerous situations in order to protect human life in the line of SAR work, the dogs lead, on the whole, good and happy lives. They are necessarily well-cared for by their trainers, praised for their work, and kept in constant exercise and diversion in the course of the task. Most importantly, the dogs serve an essential function that humans who have been found by them will forever be grateful for, and humans who train them will always respect.

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