Lori & K9 Willie a scent trained area search dog, given the scent from an article to begin a search. 

Joel & K9 Ruger during a water search, searching for a drown victim. 


Sunshine Service Dogs’ Search and Rescue K-9 Unit

Search and Rescue ~ Questions and Answers


Thank you for your interest in search and rescue. The Sunshine Service Dogs Search and Rescue K-9 Unit, is pleased to be part of the emergency response community in northwest and central Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Our goal is to provide well-trained handlers and canine teams that can assist law enforcement and other emergency service personnel in the search for a lost or overdue person. We assist law enforcement in locating drown victims, land cadaver searches and evidence searches.  

We frequently receive questions about search and rescue dogs and our organization. We thought the following would be useful to agencies involved in search and rescue.  

Our Training Director / Operations Manager, Lori Peper-Rucks, has professionally trained dogs for 30 years.  Lori completed training offered by the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR).  This training covered the Incident Command System, basic survival, map and compass, search resources, search tactics, clue consciousness, and handling evidence.  Lori is certified through NASAR as Search and Rescue Technicians: Level II (SAR TECH II).  

Our answers to the questions below are based on our training, evaluation of searches, years of experience in training and handling dogs, and search and rescue K9 operation management.  

1.       How do K-9 search teams help in a search?  

To address this topic we would first like to provide a little background information on the types of search and rescue (SAR) dogs.  SAR dogs fall into three main categories; 1) tracking dogs, 2) trailing dogs and 3) air-scenting dogs:  

       1) Tracking dogs work by keeping their nose in the actual footprints of a person and following them footstep for footstep.  They work on lead. Our dogs will also indicate articles by lying down, as to not disturb them.  

      2) Trailing dogs search by following the route of the person.   Trailing dogs are generally started at the last known point of the lost person.  They can work either on- or off lead, but we find it more efficient to work them off lead.  Unlike tracking dogs, trailing dogs do not follow foot-step by foot-step; rather they key in on traces of scent left on the surrounding ground and vegetation and, depending on the wind, may work several feet from where the subject actually passed. The dog’s head is generally held between shoulder and ground level when trailing.  

       3) Air-scenting dogs find people by picking up on traces of human scent that are drifting in the air and following the scent “cone” to its source (the person) where it is most concentrated.  Air-scenting dogs are usually assigned to a search area.  The handler works the dog through the area, using air currents to the dogs’ best advantage (generally from downwind to upwind in the area).  When air scenting, the dogs head is held high.  Air-scenting dogs assigned to search specific areas can be easily worked into the overall search effort by splitting the entire search area into sections and assigning dog/handler teams to different areas.  Air-scenting area search dogs also work well with other search resources because the most effective resource can be assigned to search different environments (example: aircraft for large open marshy areas, dog/handler teams or human ground searchers for woods and fields). Our teams are trained to work from a scent article to discriminate from other scent that other searchers may have left. The scent article needs to be collected correctly, to be used efficiently, a trained searcher should do this.  

       Dogs that can multi-task by trailing and air scenting are very efficient in search operations.  Sunshine Service Dogs’ Search and Rescue K-9 Unit, works dogs that trail and air-scent in wilderness and urban situations.  We also have dogs that are capable of searching for and indicating the location of cadaver, both on land and in water; or look for evidence.  


2.      Can the weather be too cold or too hot?  


Very hot weather can affect a search and rescue (SAR) dogs’ performance in two ways; by leading to overheating and by making trail and airborne scent less available to them.  Scent theory indicates that during the hottest and driest part of the day, the trail scent can become very weak and then become stronger with cooler temperatures and higher humidity (dew).  Scent that was not available to a dog in mid-afternoon may become available again later in the day, even though more time has passed since the person passed through.  Hot, still days can also create a problem for air-scenting dogs since it creates a condition handlers call “lofting” where the scent from the person rises straight up instead of being carried horizontally where it is available to the dog.  For these reasons, during hot weather, it is best to work SAR dogs in the morning hours, evening hours, or at night.  


We are not aware of any study on how cold temperatures affect scent.  We train nearly every week, year round, and have worked the dogs in temperatures less than 10 degrees below zero.  In our experience, cold temperatures do not seem to affect the dogs scenting ability.  And, as long as the dog is acclimated and stays active, the cold does not seem to cause them discomfort.  


3. Can too much time have elapsed since last contact 

Time is a factor in the availability of scent for trailing dogs.  In general, the more time that elapses, the less trail scent is available, with the exception mentioned above.  That’s why if we hope to find a person by following the route they took, the earlier a trailing dog can be brought in, the better.  That said we have had dogs pick up on scent and follow a persons trail 18 hours after the person had walked there. Lori had a seasoned tracking dog and she picked up a trail made 1 week prior, however, the trail was in an area where there wasn’t much human activity, but there was animal activity. It’s almost always worth trying a trailing dog from the Last Known Point to see if they can at least indicate a direction of travel.  This information gives area searchers a better idea of the higher probability areas that should be searched first.  Dogs cannot always work miracles, but they have been known to trail persons in cars and indicate the correct direction of travel after an entire week.  

The level of contamination from other people’s scent is also a factor in the performance of trailing dogs. If many people have gone into the search area, the scent from the lost person’s trail can become obliterated.  

Time is much less of a factor for air-scenting dogs working an area search.  These dogs are keying in on the scent from the “scent-generator” (the person), which can be carried long distances on air-currents (easily ¼ - ½ mile on a steady breeze). Using a scent article it also allows the dog to determine who we are looking for.  Contamination from other persons can be handled by allowing the search area to “air-out” for 30 minutes before sending an air-scenting dog in.  The strongest scent that remains will be that of the lost person.   

4. Things to consider while waiting for arrival of a K-9 SAR team:  

Gathering scent articles. 

When starting a dog on a search the handler will show the dog the lost persons scent article and give the “find” command.  The find command means, “Find the person that smells like this.”  Therefore, it is important to be sure the scent article actually belongs to the lost person and is not contaminated with the scent of other people.  Scent articles should only be collected by trained persons and kept in clean, unused zip-lock bags for each dog/handler team.  

Gathering pertinent information (Is there an outline of questions to ask)? 

We recommend use of NASAR’s Lost Person Questionnaire; this is a useful tool for the person taking the initial report of a lost person.  

5. Things to consider when organizing search assist teams.  

Should each team have a medically- trained person available? 

Yes.  The ideal would be to have each search team consist of a dog/handler team, radio operator, a navigator, and a medically trained person.  Each member of our team has training in each of these areas, but it is good to have more people assisting the dog handler on the search.  

Should team members have flashlights, radios, and flagging tape (list)?  

Our team member’s carry the items recommended by our standards, in a 24-hour Ready Pack.  It includes items for first aid, shelter, navigation, and improvising.  At minimum, each team member should have water, a flashlight, extra batteries, food, compass, radios, some first aid supplies, flagging tape, and clothing appropriate for the climate.  

Should there be perimeter containment teams to allow use of the "eclipse" motion detection? 

Teams assigned to provide the containment perimeter are crucial to the search operations.  Their function is to insure that no one leaves or enters the search area unknown.  Without containment the lost person could unknowingly leave the search area. The eclipse motion detection system involves positioning vehicle headlights or lanterns at the edge of sight path to detect night time movement at the containment perimeter.  Knowledge of lost person behavior is important to knowing where to place the containment perimeter.  

What other strategies have you developed from experience and training?  

One of the most important lessons we have learned from our training and experience is to maintain a positive attitude.  To be effective on a search you must believe that you are going to be the one that finds the lost person or the clue that leads to the lost person.  Equally important, you must not make assumptions about where the lost person is capable of going.  Search your assigned area and don’t jump to the conclusion that the lost person could not possibly be in it.  

In our experience, things that contribute to a successful search include early notification, containing the search area, gathering pertinent information, gathering scent articles properly, good planning to identify high probability search areas, hasty searches of areas most likely to produce the lost person or clues, searching for clues as well as the subject, and using well-trained, well-rounded search teams.  

6. Things to consider when finding a person or body.  

What actions to take when finding the subject or evidence? 

According to our training standards, the first responsibility of someone arriving on the scene is to determine if the person is deceased, alive or critically injured.  Proper emergency care is more important than an investigation.  At the point that responders determine the person is deceased, every attempt should be made to preserve the surroundings and the exact position of the deceased and associated evidence.  The area surrounding the scene should be secured with rope, string or tape.  Write down a description of the scene as you found it.  If at all possible, even if alone, remain at the scene until official help arrives.  Always try to have a witness to any activity you are involved with around the scene of a death.  Do not search a deceased person for identification.  That is an official function that must be carried out by the respectful authorities as well as any photographing or evidence gathering.  

7.  Things to consider when informing the media or public.  

Is there information that should be controlled to protect the victim, organizations, or family?  

Questions from the media, the public, or the family should be referred to the Incident Commander, usually the Sheriff or his/her designee for the search.  They are the best trained to determine what information to release.  Radio codes should be used for reporting the serious injury or death of a person, and this should be set in place before the search begins.  



Like us on facebook


“But ask the animals and they will teach you.”

Job 12:7 NIV