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A round of "appaws" to Service Dogs

Key Facts

In hundreds of square metres of rubble, a cadaver dog can locate human remains the size of a human a nail

  • Experts estimate that a single search and rescue dog can accomplish the work of 20 to 30 human searchers
  • Service dogs live and train with their handler, completing a rigorous training programme
  • Game (play) techniques are the focus at the early stage of training

While we think a game of fetch with our beloved family dog is something to occupy their mind and exercise their legs, the principles of this simple game of fetch are used to help locate injured or deceased humans following a mass casualty disaster.

Our canine friends are on duty across the globe for use in law enforcement, tracking, search and rescue (SAR), drug and explosive detection. These service dogs are specially selected and trained from puppies (although can enter training at an older age) with techniques that seem rather straight forward, however, at puppy school for SAR dogs, a rigorous and well-structured timetable propels these canines to hold a potentially life-saving status.

Search and rescue dogs vs cadaver dogs

SAR and cadaver dogs spend their initial days of training fulfilling obedience and listening tasks with essential reward based, gaming techniques. The end outcome however, you could say, is a matter of life or death. Both air-scent dogs work with their nose in the air as opposed to tracking dogs that work with their nose to the ground. SAR dogs are used to locate living humans whereas those that are trained to find human remains are referred to as cadaver dogs.

Search & rescue dog

SAR dogs are trained to find missing people, often as part of criminal investigations but are most certainly used during mass casualty incidents and natural disasters. Fitness is very important and is a contributing factor in the selection process as agility is a key component in their training programme. Disappearing into voids, crawling on their bellies and squeezing through obstacles are just a few of the duties these focused canines are structurally trained to endeavour whilst searching human scent for rescue. These dogs are not trained to find human remains although are often paired with a cadaver dog in certain situations.

Cadaver Dog

The cadaver dog is trained in locating deceased victims following the scent of decomposing flesh, working on or off the lead.

Although capability depends on training, a cadaver dog can locate bodies and fragments (buried or submerged) with the use of special simulated chemicals in training that are only available at certified training facilities. Cadaver dogs are used in investigations to locate victims and survivors from mass casualty incidents as a result of terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other catastrophic events.

SAR and cadaver dogs tend to be on call 24/7 rotating primary and secondary call out positions and are usually called to one of the following without any advance warning:      

Mass casualty event  -  Earthquakes and other natural disasters           Aviation accidents  -  Criminal Investigation  - Terrorist attacks

At war

Often known as ‘SAR Military Dogs’ or ‘War Dogs’, SAR and cadaver dogs at war have further training advancing them in obedience. The Belgian Malinois tends to be a popular choice in the recruitment process as they are known for being fearless, driven and for their ability to handle the heat. Whilst teaching a dog to sit, heel and fetch is a milestone in household puppy obedience, teaching a dog to become desensitized to gun shots and ignore the frantic surroundings whilst searching for casualties is truly awe-inspiring.

Training camp for service dogs

Having already touched on training, these specially selected canines follow a formulated class timetable just like any other student.

In most cases, the puppy is acquired at around 8-10 weeks with around 6-12 months training (18-months if the dog is to serve at war) with a serving period around 5 -8 years.

Game (play) techniques are the focus of early stage training and are the base to propel the puppies to become some of the smart, tough and well-disciplined serving personnel. Techniques such as hide and seek and ball play are used as reward based training. These techniques enable the dog to be excited about finding someone and more often than not, the person closest to the dog is used in early stages of the game and command “FIND IT”. The dog has to think that it is great fun to find someone therefore daily agility training 2-5 times a day lasting between 10-60 minutes is part of their initial fitness programme. The dog adopts a ‘don’t stop until I find it’ frame of mind fulfilling their willingness characteristics shown in the selection process. In addition to these training techniques, scent and tracking skills are worked on usually 3-7 times a day between 5-30 minutes. Once the ability of the dog has improved, training sessions are less frequent with increased duration to improve stamina. By doing this, the dog is exposed to a taster of real life situations where dogs can work up to 8 hours on scene in response to a disaster. Gradually increasing the difficulty of the search, larger search areas and tougher terrain are used in both light and dark conditions.

Although SAR training is initially all about play, characteristics of each dog are closely monitored in the selection process and dogs with a lot of drive and who are eager to play games tend to be the ones that make it through training successfully.

K9 Search and Rescue Team Inc., located in Dolores, Colorado, defines three basic skill levels. To become operational with this group, a SAR dog must pass each level of testing:

        - level I; Obedience Test: While the handler is walking with the dog on a loose leash, they encounter one visual and one auditory distraction, such as a jogger running in front of the dog and a door slamming shut. The dog can be slightly startled, but he must not panic, bark or try to run away.

        - level II; Professionalism Test: The handler leaves his dog in a group of search dogs under the care of another handler. He puts his dog in a "sit" or "down" position and tells the dog to "wait." The handler then walks at least 30 feet away, where the dog cannot see him. Several different handlers then rotate into the caretaker position, watching over all of the dogs. This goes on for at least 15 minutes. Each dog must remain in the "sit" or "down" position without any additional command until his handler returns.

        - level III; Physical and Mental Ability Test: The dog must navigate a tunnel, climb an A-frame with a minimum 45-degree incline on each side, get into a tractor bucket with his handler and be lifted at least 10 feet without trying to jump out. The ability to sit in a cart pulled by an ATV or snowmobile without trying to jump out must also be proved. He must also travel in a boat without trying to jump out, confidently approach a running helicopter and accept being lifted into the air while wearing a harness.  (How Search-and-rescue Dogs Work, Julia Layton)

Dog or handler, are they fit for the job?

The characteristics the dog should have on his K9 resume to qualify in the recruitment process is highly dependent on the breed and the attitudes he shows towards game play. The dog and handler are specially selected and generally live and train together, with about600 hoursof training before a dog is field ready.

More often than not, the handler must be a current active duty personnel that presents willingness and alertness similar to the dog. Voice modulation is also required to ensure authoritative command with a strong physique if they are ever required to assist their injured companion.

The three primary breeds of SAR and cadaver dogs are German Shepherd, Belgian Malinois and Labrador Retriever. The German Shepherd is a popular SAR breed as they are typically eager to play, smart, obedient and agile while their double-layered coat insulates against severe weather conditions making them useful across the globe. The Belgian Malinois holds characteristics that make it a popular breed to be trained further for military.

All dogs as puppies must show high drive to ball/play and show intense excitement about playing with a strong desire for his toy. These traits are then enhanced and translated into an unstoppable drive to search and retrieve no matter what the conditions. Intelligence, agility, stamina, drive and work ethic with the confidence and the ability to listen are all must have’s in the checklist of training selection. Any temperamental flaws the dog may show would suggest that the dog may not be suitable for duty as these flaws would potentially get in the way of work.

So, I imagine you are wondering if a dog feels the emotional stress that a human may feel. The answer is yes. This is why it is important to differentiate a SAR to a cadaver dog.

One 12 year old SAR dog found the bodies of two missing firemen at 9/11. The dog curled into a ball next to them and wouldn’t move or eat. The main identifiable stress trigger here is the fact the SAR dog found the victims deceased when they are trained to find live survivors whereas a cadaver dog, is trained and acclimatised to finding deceased victims.


In the aftermath of the terror attacks on September 11th 2001, the NYPD K9 Unit were one of the K9 units that worked hard for four months searching hundreds of square metres of rubble. Dogs from a number of states were called in to assist in the search for victims and survivors. Several search dogs were praised for their tireless work earning endless recognition.

Bretagne, now 16, is perceived to be the last living 9/11 service dog. The Golden Retriever from the Texas Task Force was 2 years old when she worked 12 hour shifts at Ground Zero with her handler Ms Corliss. Bretagne is one among thousands of SAR dogs worldwide that are recognised and praised for their efforts.

To all dogs on duty whether they are SAR, Military or Law Enforcement, we salute you.

Fantegrossi, D. (2015) Things You May Not Know About Military Dogs. [Online] BarkPost. Available from: [Accessed: 21st November 2015].
Allsopp, N. (2012) K9 Cops: Police Dogs of the World. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 21st November 2015].
Paterniti, M. (2014) The Dogs of War. [Online] National Geographic. Available from: [Accessed: 21st November 2015].
Layton, J. (2005)  How Search-and-rescue Dogs Work. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 22nd November 2015].
Downing, K. Training a SAR Dog. [Online] Pedigree Database. Available from:[Accessed: 22nd November 2015].
Hemmerly-Brown, A. (2010) Army using Search and Rescue dogs to ‘sniff out’ survivors. [Online] U.S. Army. Available from: . [Accessed: 23rd November 2015].

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