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Canine Trauma

Search and Rescue Dogs

Novia Scotia K-9 Rescue Team

The use of air scent dogs in wilderness search and rescue work was developed by Bill and Jean Syrotuck, who founded the American Rescue Dog Association (ARDA) in 1972. Since then, their standards and training methods have served as the model for air scent search and rescue dog units across North America.

Air scent or area searching is not tracking (trailing). It involves dogs trained to detect human scent carried by air currents.

A person is constantly giving off dead skin cells (rafts) in the amount of 20,000 to 30,000 such particles per minute; this is what forms the scent. Air scent dogs are trained to "key" in on this and will actively seek out this scent when working. When they detect human scent, they will locate the source, return to the handler, and indicate to the handler that it has made a "find." The dog will then lead the handler into the source of the scent. This is the "recall-refind" and this is the basic concept on which dogs are trained. Air scent dogs can be trained to find humans, articles handled by humans, drowning victims, human bodies, and human remains.

Air scent dogs do not need a "track." They can work areas which have been contaminated by previous searchers, or where the track no longer exists due to aging, or where the track has been destroyed due to inclement weather conditions.

ARDA only employs German Shepherd Dogs and it has drawn criticism in the past for not being open to other breeds. They have good reasons for doing so. Certainly other breeds have their own unique advantages and would be much better than a German Shepherd Dog in certain situations. However, because of the type of search work and the conditions under which we are expected to work, the German Shepherd Dog is preferred for a number of reasons:

  • It is extremely intelligent and obedient, traits which lend themselves to the dog being highly trainable.

  • It has an established ability to do scent work

  • It is a herding breed and not oriented on seeking game. Thus, it is not easily distracted by wildlfe.

  • It is 'double coated' with an under coat and an exterior coat. This type of coat serves as excellent insulation permitting the dog to work in extreme heat and cold.

  • Its coat is long enough to protect from scratches, insects, etc. but at the same time does not mat and sheds water easily.

  • It has a physical conformation that provides endurance, agility and effortless working ability for extended periods of time.

  • It is large enough to be able to cope with all forms of terrain and yet not too large to carry or lift.

  • It is a breed which has ready acceptance with official agencies.

This section on 'real' working German Shepherd Dogs was written by the Nova Scotia K-9 Rescue Team. NSK9RT can be contacted at: If you want to know more about how air scent dogs are trained to do this type of work, an excellent book is Search and Rescue Dogs: Training Methods (ARDA, Howell Book House, 1991). If you want to know more about the American Rescue Dog Association, please visit the ARDA web site.

SAR Training Weekend

Paul Smith

We're back from 10 days in the US of A having had the pleasure of driving around N.J. a lot. We even went into Newark for supper one evening (with three GSD's in the van, no one goes near it). We attended several seminars; the most important one by far was the ARDA disaster training which went on over the Columbus/Canadian Thanksgiving Day weekend October 11-13, 1997.

1997 ARDA training seminar in Allentown, PA;
Nova Scotia K-9 Rescue Team members in the back row, far right: (left to right) Team Leader Doug Teeft, Catherine Chandler, and Paul Smith with Hassa the 'Muppy.'

All ARDA units save the Colorado group were there and it added up to some 50 GSD's. This was the place to see 'real' working dogs. Some of the things I came away with were:

  1. My training problems are not unique.
  2. Our team's problems are not unique.
  3. Welly finally cottoned on to "bark on find."
  4. In about 15 years I'll have learned something about dog handling and SAR work.

Wanna know where breeding for the all round GSD pays off? Well, here it was in spades! GSD's of all flavours and types but with the ability to do the job!

The training consisted of disaster site work and how the FEMA teams train and work their dogs. You talk about precise control of dogs required for this type of work -- especially since the dogs are often required to work out of sight of the handler and in very dangerous situations. Rather than train to the recall-refind concept, FEMA dogs are trained to stay with the victim and alert the handler by barking.

We also attended a three day seminar on the "Discovery and Recovery of Human Remains" sponsored by the FBI and held in Morristown, NJ. All the high tech toys were there including ground penetrating radar, thermal imaging, etc.

But what really stood out was the use of dogs in cadaver and water work.... guess what we're branching out to? Cost effective and reliable.

We also got a chance to do some touring. We were the guests of the Chief Park Ranger for Bear Mountain State Park for a personally guided tour. Imagine if you will six GSD's and their handlers being guided around while the tourists were trying to figure out how we rated a ranger and were allowed to have the dogs accompany us.

On the way home we got to visit the Mecca of outdoor yuppiedom -- L.L. Bean. We arrived there at 12:30 a.m. on a very early Sunday morning, and we weren't alone -- at least 200 other customers in the store. I got a good chance to size up a number of potential SAR 'clients' ....

Anyway -- we're back in the Land of the Maple Leaf and back to our regular training.

Paul Smith lives in Novia Scotia and, with his GSDs Welly and Hassa, trains with the Novia Scotia K-9 Rescue Team. Copyright 1997, reproduction of any kind is prohibited.

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