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Search and Rescue Dogs in the UK

Search and Rescue Dogs in the UK

Search and Rescue ( SAR) Dogs are trained to find missing people by various means such as air scenting, trailing and tracking.  These are very efficient methods of searching large areas quickly and does not always require items of clothing or effects of the missing person, depending on how the dogs have been trained.

Several search dogs have been awarded the Dickin Medal for bravery, including Irma and Jet two German shepherd dogs who located trapped people in the Blitz of 1945. For further details of canine recipients of this prestigious award see separate article.

Specific applications for SAR dogs include wilderness, disaster, cadaver, avalanche, and drowning search and rescue or recovery. Most of the volunteers of the National search and rescue Dog association are trained to both air scent and track for victims lost in the UK , dogs working for the group include collie and collie crosses, Hovawarts, a Labrador and several working type cocker spaniels.

The United Kingdom International Search and Rescue Team is a professional group on call to respond to humanitarian accidents or disasters anywhere in the world, to provide a ‘Search and Rescue Facility’. There are 13 UK-ISAR teams. They operate a rota system based on three groups providing 24 – hour cover for the UK Fire Service for national and international deployments. Each rota group will be primary call for 4 months and then on secondary call for 4 months. If the primary team is deployed the secondary team moves to the primary position.

Since it was set up the UK ISRT has been to many disaster zones including:

2011 Japanese Earthquake.

2011 Christchurch, New Zealand, Earthquake.

2010Haiti Earthquake.

2009 Sumatra Earthquake

2005, Pakistan for the 2005 Earthquake.

2004 Thailand Tsunami

2003 Algeria Earthquake

2001 India Earthquake

1999 Turkey EarthQuake –august and October.

1999 Macedonia Humanitarian aid

1991 Iraq – Operation Safe Haven

1997 Rwanda

1996/1997 Montserrat

1988 Armenia – Earthquake

1974 Mexico – Earthquake.

In wilderness SAR applications, such as those encountered by our mountain rescue teams, air scenting dogs can be deployed to high-probability areas (places where the subject may be or where the subject’s scent may collect, such as in drainages in the early morning) whereas tracking/trailing dogs can be deployed from the subject’s last known point (LKP) or the site of a discovered clue. Handlers must be capable of bush navigation, wilderness survival techniques, and be self-sufficient. The dogs must be capable of working for 4–8 hours without distraction (e.g., by wildlife).

Disaster dogs are used to locate victims of catastrophic or mass-casualty events (e.g., earthquakes, landslides, building collapses, aviation incidents).Disaster dogs rely primarily on air scent, and may be limited in mass-casualty events by their inability to differentiate between survivors and recently-deceased victims.

Human Remains Detection (HRD) or cadaver dogs are used to locate the remains of deceased victims. Depending on the nature of the search, these dogs may work off-lead (e.g., to search a large area for buried remains) or on-lead (to recover clues from a crime scene). Air scenting and tracking/trailing dogs are often cross-trained as cadaver dogs, although the scent the dog detects is clearly of a different nature than that detected for live or recently-deceased subjects. Cadaver dogs can locate entire bodies (including those buried or submerged), decomposed bodies, body fragments (including blood, tissues, hair, and bones), or skeletal remains; the capability of the dog is dependent upon its training.

Avalanche dogs work similarly to air scenting, disaster, or cadaver dogs, and must be able to rapidly transition from a wilderness SAR-air scenting scenario to a disaster scenario focused on pinpointing the subject’s location.

Missing Animal Search (MAS) Dogs use tracking, trailing and air scenting techniques in order to locate missing, trapped or injured animals and can be trained to locate deceased animals or remains. The Missing Animal Search Dogs Association based in Herefordshire in the UK are carrying out research in this area of search and rescue.

In the UK Dog teams from the National search and rescue Dog association can be quickly deployed by 4×4 vehicles or helicopter to remote areas where they can quickly begin to start searching, whilst other search resources are being marshalled.  At the present day within NSARDA there are in excess of 100 qualified search dogs on 24 hr call, 365 days of the year.

Dogs work equally well in the dark and use their senses of smell and hearing to their fullest under these conditions.  It is calculated that a dog is equivalent to about 20 searchers in good conditions and many more in poor conditions.  In ideal conditions a dog can pick up a human scent from about 500 metres.

NSARDA search dogs are employed in a wide range of incidents from lost walkers and climbers, those with mental conditions such as Alzheimer’s, dementia or depression, plus missing children and possible victims of crime.

Search Dogs are usually summoned by the Police control room via a NSARDA call-out co-ordinator who, after discussing the details will establish the necessary resource required.  Handlers are usually contacted by telephone, SMS text or message pager. Call-outs within mountainous areas will see Search Dogs working alongside members of Mountain Rescue Teams, forming an invaluable part of the search operation. In urban or rural areas Search Dogs work through their unit or directly with the Police as an autonomous unit.

In mountain areas provision is commonly made for dogs and handlers to be deployed by aircraft to cut down on the walk in times.  Likewise in lowland areas 4×4 vehicles will be used for the same purpose. The NSARDA enjoys a very good relationship with the RAF and Navy Rescue squadrons, with the dogs soon becoming accustomed to being winched into and out of the helicopters for speed of deployment.

Further information on the work of Search and Rescue dogs within and from the UK can be found here: