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Search and Rescue Dogs – A basic summary of Purpose Bred dogs

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Search and Rescue Dogs


Where did Search and Rescue dogs originate from? What traits do they possess? And which breeds are commonly used? Read on to learn more about these purpose bred dogs.

In the 17th century, Benard of Menthon built a Monastery and an Inn at the summit of the Great St. Benard Pass in the Swiss Alps as a refuge for travelers across the Pass. The monks were often called to assist travelers who were stranded, lost or avalanched in winter storms while crossing the passes between Switzerland and Italy. They brought along their dogs, now known as St. Benards (which were originally brought in to the hospice as guard dogs). The monks soon recognized that the dogs had an amazing sense of direction and they proved to be invaluable as guides in bad conditions. The dogs were even able to indicate to the monks the whereabouts of people who were completely covered under snow.

Although the St Bernards were probably the first dogs used in mountain rescue, they weren’t the major influence in the movement towards modern search and rescue dogs as recognized today. Dogs were frequently trained by the Red Cross as far back as the first world war to search for people needing help. German and French dogs were trained to go through the battlefields at night to lead medical corpsmen to the injured. During World War II, dogs in England were trained to locate people buried under rubble – they would even be able to provide an indication as to whether the buried person was dead or alive. Dogs provided invaluable assistance during the wars and were trained and used by the military for many purposes – tracking, alerting that they got the scent of an enemy, scout dogs, etc.

The Bloodhound has been celebrated for its prowess as a search dog and has been used by police officials in the United States for decades to track and find criminals and escaped prisoners – many are still used for this purpose today. The Bloodhound’s nose is legendary, however, there aren’t very many kennels today that breed Bloodhounds for tracking.

In 1962, some members of the German Shepherd Dog Club of Washington State decided to start a Search Dog Committee. Hank Wilcox had been a military dog trainer and was one of the people particularly involved. He had worked with air scent dogs during World War II and trained them to search for aircraft by locating high test fuel. They developed a searching dog that would look for the airborne scent of a human being in the same way that a hunting dog looks for game. The dogs were worked off-lead and were trained to find the subject and then go back to the handler and lead them back to the subject (“refind”).

In April of 1969 the Search Dog Committee left the German Shepherd Dog Club of Washington State and two groups resulted: Search and Rescue Dogs Association (SARDA) under Bill Syrotuck and German Shepherd Search Dogs of Washington State (GSSD) under Hank Wilcox. SARDA disbanded in 1984, and GSSD is today the oldest search dog unit in the United States.

Common Search and Rescue Breeds:

Do you know the different breeds of search and rescue dogs? Most dogs today are companion dogs that live in loving homes with their people, but many of the different breeds were originally bred for specific and distinct working purposes. Each breed behaves differently and has different strengths and weaknesses, with their natural instincts having been bred genetically into them over hundreds of years.

However, dogs that are not bred by professionals who adhere to strict guidelines regarding breeding can exhibit different traits or lose their original instincts entirely within just three generations of breeding. This is why it is imperative to select a working dog from parents that you have actually seen working in a manner that will suit your particular needs if you are looking for a dog with a purpose beyond being a companion. Ask for the dog’s pedigree chart to see if there are generations of real working dogs behind them – it can be difficult to find good instincts or a good “work ethic” in such dogs if breeders select for other traits when they breed their dogs.

Common Traits of Search and Rescue Dogs:

Breeds found to work well for search and rescue typically come from sporting and herding groups. Air scenting wilderness search and rescue dogs are extremely athletic and adapted to running both in the heat and cold for very long periods of time. They are nimble and fearless and must respond to commands well along with having high intelligence and problem solving skills. The dogs must be laser focused on the task at hand – being able to find the scent no matter where it leads them or how much it is intermingled with other odors. A well trained Search and Rescue (SAR) dog is a sight to behold and requires a finely refined dog with a great deal of stamina, a very high ball/prey drive and work ethic. Not all dogs are suited to this duty. Some dogs air scent while others prefer ground scenting.

Some common search and rescue breeds are as follows:

  • American Labrador Retrievers
  • Belgian Malinois
  • Bloodhounds
  • Border Collies
  • German Shepherds
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Newfoundland
  • Saint Bernard

Read another article on purpose bred dogs by clicking here: Herding Dogs


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