How Does a Dog Track a Missing Person?

Dog Tracking a Scent

Teaching a dog to track takes a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding

The last time I wrote, I discussed  the amazing talent of the canine nose. With such a powerful tool, it is no doubt that dogs are invaluable Search and Rescue workers. What is a Search dog? Simply, a search dog is trained to locate missing people. They perform these tasks in the wilderness, avalanches, disasters, waters and many other situations.  So how does a dog know where to look?

The nose knows!  Remember Pigpen from the Peanuts gang?   Pigpen was always surrounded by a cloud of dust.  No offense but so are we. Most of us are not surrounded by some visible aura of filth and stench (or so I hope), but by microscopic particles (referred to as raft particles) which are shed by the human body at a rate of 40,000 per minute.  They reside where they fall for a while, and about 50% stay airborne.  Eventually they decay and the canine’s olfactory abilities can detect their scent.  The trained nose can track a scent footprint to footprint, by following the highest concentration of ground particles, or through air scenting.  Here’s an interesting fact- a trained search dog can detect a mere 3 particles of human scent per trillion particles of air! I have issues detecting (at least by smell) the nutmeg in my seasonal pumpkin ale.

How Effective are Search and Rescue Dogs?

  • In Leasburg, Missouri  a hunter was missing for 24 hours before dogs were brought to the area.  After a 12 mile search the man was found alive, though he had suffered an aneurism and could not walk.
  • After the massive 2010 7.0 earthquake in Haiti, a Golden Retriever located a person trapped in the rubble for 17 days.
  • A child was abducted in Salt Lake City in 1994 by automobile.  A Rottweiler trailed her by air scenting and led police to her over 40 miles away!  These are just a few  of thousands of similar stories.

What Types of Dogs Work Best as a Tracking Dog?

Sure- certain breeds are predisposed to conducting search and rescue work but this group is not exclusive.  More importantly, the dog should possess a particular type of personality- whether it’s a Golden Retriever or Heinz 57. Some chief characteristics include: a desire to please, the ability to be well socialized around people and other animals, and a strong prey/play drive. Puppy selection can involve methods such as the Volhard Aptitude Test (Tests to pick your dog/puppy can be found here in our two part series on picking the right dog for your home:  Part I | Part II).

There are helpful physical characteristics as well.  The dog should not be too small or large.  Both may have a difficult time navigating rough terrain requiring a good deal of agility. Double coated dogs are more comfortable in extreme temperatures and wet situations, as searches are often conducted in unfavorable conditions.  “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”  doesn’t just apply to mail carriers!

Learn More About the Dogs That Save Lives

Search and Rescue dogs are a critical part of many missing person operations.  They receive numerous hours of training- both for the dogs and their handlers. They are generally non-profit volunteer organizations and do not receive compensation for their work.  For more information on Search and Rescue teams and events in your area check out these pages:

Homepage of the American Rescue Dog Association

Search and Rescue Dogs of Maryland

John Capek

Certified Master Trainer

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