Working with a Search & Rescue Dog and K9 Handler on SAR Missions
Assisting a Search Dog Handler: The Ultimate Test for a Multi-Tasker
We were searching for a young child. It was very dark -- no moon -- and getting colder by the minute in those early morning hours. There was snow among the prickly pear, pinon/juniper and ponderosa pine, and a bitter wind was picking up. It was mid-winter in the high desert.
The child had been missing since late morning the day before, so the 24-hour mark was fast approaching. He was last seen wearing blue jeans, a t-shirt and a hoodie when he disappeared while playing outside the house in a very sparsely populated area surrounded by National Forest. He was not dressed for the conditions. He was also autistic and might not respond to searchers ... if he could still respond.
There were hundreds of trained searchers in the field, including ground-pounders, mounted units, ATV drivers on Forest Service roads and unmapped two-tracks, a helicopter, even a fixed wing aircraft. And there were multiple K9 units too.
I was the backer for one of the dog handlers and her three Golden Retrievers, all air-scent area search dogs cross-trained in both live searches and HRD (Human Remains Detection). We'd worked together many times and had really gelled as search partners, something that had taken time, training and experience to achieve -- a very rewarding challenge ... especially for two rather intense women who really want to do the best they can.
Here, I'd like to share with you what it's like to back a K9 team -- meaning, a handler and his or her dog or dogs -- along with the skills you'll need to work on and some details and how-to. I'll also share some photos from my own experience, some related videos I recorded, and links to more information and good reading about K9 Search and Rescue.
Oh, and that boy we were searching for -- he was found, hiding, cold and scared but otherwise okay, under a small abandoned building in the forest.
Image Credits: All photos on this page were taken by me with my abused little point-and-shoot that I carry with me on SAR missions.
...walk over rocks, roots, logs, humps and bumps and other obstacles while looking at a map, a compass, and a GPS while operating a handheld radio while looking forward, backwards, and side-to-side while communicating with your partner while thinking ahead while keeping your mind on what you're doing?
Great! You'll make an excellent K9 backer!
(As long as you like dogs too.)
A Passion for Search & Rescue
It's almost a requirement, I would say.
Yes, I am passionate about being a SAR volunteer and have participated with a very active team for going on six years now. I'm a ground-pounder with some decent man-tracking skills, a member of our team's technical rescue unit, an "ops leader" trained to assist our coordinators with mission start-ups and help with Incident Command during extended missions. And a few years ago, I began working with our dog handlers as a backer.
On all teams that I'm familiar with, SAR members never go out alone.
But Search and Rescue calls aren't usually scheduled. They come in day and night, weekends and holidays, year-round and in all types of weather. They happen when we're at work, at the movies, or just sitting down to dinner. And when we're fast asleep too, warm in our beds during snowstorms. But the volunteers get up and go when they can, often leaving fun and comfort and other plans behind.
And we train. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but training is never done. Most of the skills we use in Search and Rescue are "perishable" -- you don't use them, you lose them -- so practice is crucial. Technical rescue folks train even more than the rest of the general unit, of which they're also a part on our team. Then there's Ops leader training on top of that for those who wish to put in the time.
But you know who puts in more hours than any of us? Yep, the K9 handlers. The handlers on our team -- who own and love their search dogs as pets too -- train, on average, about 10 hours per week in addition to any missions. So, they certainly have to be passionate about what they do.
About the photo above:
That's Cindy, one of the handlers on our team. We're about to begin our search assignment, so she's giving her dogs their command. First in a soft voice, she's saying, "Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is..." and then in an excited, louder tone, "Go find!"
Then three happy, wagging, barking Goldens with amazing noses start running ahead of us as we begin walking to our search area.
What is a K9 Backer's Job?
I'll give you my perspective after showing you this photo taken on a cold, wet mountain during a search, from my vantage point as the backer.
About this photo: That's Cindy again, with her fuzzy team at more than 11,000 feet near a summit. I'm keeping downwind of the dogs, as we search for a missing hiker while freezing rain falls and we begin to hear early spring thunder. We've paused to discuss whether or not to go higher, where we'd be even more exposed. I consult my map and GPS to give her some information about our current location and where the best place would be if the lightning gets any closer.
What is a Backer?
A backer is....
- ...a support person for the handler, who's working the dog (occasionally multiple dogs like you see here, but most often one dog at a time).
- ...also a searcher, looking for footprints and other clues and of course for the missing person/s
- ...the person who handles the navigation while the K9 handler concentrates on the dog.
- ...the person who usually handles most radio communications with base and other searchers.
- ...the person who communicates information to the handler -- ie. directions for keeping on a search grid if applicable, current location, important updates via radio communications, hazards in the area, changing conditions, etc.
- ...one who can assist the handler in keeping an eye on the dog, watching for changes in body language (ie. a head pop) and other indications the dog is on scent or, on the other hand, may have lost the scent.
- ...the person who keeps written notes of any significant events during the search, potentially important waypoints, and any clues found.
- ...someone who needs to keep an eye out for hazards and clues -- to maintain situational awareness. The handler usually has eyes on the dog, so the backer needs to look elsewhere as much as possible.
Skills You Need to be a K9 Backer AND a Searcher Too
There's a lot more to it than walking and looking around.
I've already mentioned a backer's "job description," but here I'll break it down to the nitty-gritty skills and tasks you'll probably need to rely on when you're not only searching using your own eyes (and sometimes nose) but also responsible for your teammate, whose focus is on watching and working the canine/s.
As a backer, you will need to....
- Understand your search assignment and translate that to action in the field
- Be able to effectively and often quickly read topographic and planimetric maps
- Use a compass
- Navigate and record information with a GPS
- Use other "alternative" navigation skills to read the terrain and keep a clear mental picture of where you've been, where you are, and where you're going
- Operate a handheld radio and communicate clearly with base and other searchers in the field, including the ability to relay your exact location, direction of travel, and progress in the search
- Communicate information, instructions, ideas and intentions to the handler -- your partner
- Keep accurate records to turn in to Incident Command
- Be able to navigate and communicate while on the move, often negotiating tricky terrain which can present plenty of hazards, from ankle-twisters to significant fall risks
- Keep an eye out for changing conditions, such as weather, and make suggestions as to how your plans should perhaps change to accommodate those conditions
- Be able to spot tracks and sign and other clues, just as any ground-pounder would, and know how to "process" them if you do (ie. how to record information about the track or clue, how to communicate specific information to base, and how to follow that track or clue to get a good handle on direction of travel). There are skills related to "seeing" that you can learn and practice.
Speaking of which, here's an interesting article about seeing and another type of professional searcher: Why Even Radiologists Can Miss a Gorilla Hiding in Plain Sight from NPR.
- Carry your own 24-hour pack and other supplies as needed ... and possibly extra water and snacks for the dog
- Bivouac in the field if necessary
- Understand how the type of search dog the handler is working with does its job (I go into that below) and the types of body language and other indicators the dog will give if scent is detected and being followed. The better you understand the dog and can recognize its communication, the better you can assist the handler. Sometimes the signs are subtle, and even a seasoned handler can occasionally miss or misinterpret the dog they know so well. Another pair of understanding eyes can really help.
- Recognize when it's time to rest, get a drink and a snack. Sometimes searchers in general, and often K9 folks, can get so focused and motivated that it's important to look out for each other and occasionally impose at least a brief stop.
Types of Search Dogs: How they work and how that affects a backer's job
About this photo: That's another of our team's K9 handlers with her NASAR-certified tracking/trailing Bloodhound mix.
First, I'll explain a bit about different kinds of search dogs and then return to backer skills.
There are basically four types of search dogs, and I'm not referring to breed. In fact, it's not really breed that matters; it's much more about a dog's "drive" -- for chase, for play -- and other characteristics that lend themselves to being a good SAR dog. But I'll leave more on that to some resources I can point you to in a minute.
Just keep in mind that, for all search dogs, the search is a game. It's fun. They're having a good time out there.
Meet a young, happy little SAR dog who loves LOVE as a reward....
I recorded this short video at a K9 training, where the trainer is showing the handler how to REALLY reward his girl after a find. Some dogs prefer play with a favorite toy as a reward, while others respond better to something yummy delicious (Do I hear "hot dog"?). But there are some who just want over-the-top love and cuddles, like this young dog who turned out to be an excellent searcher.
And, see, she's not your typical-looking SAR dog, is she?
Okay, so here are the main types of SAR K9s....
This is a scent-specific (or scent discriminating) searcher, who uses a properly-collected scent article to pick up the smell he's about to "look" for. The dog can isolate that scent from others. Once he picks up that scent on the ground, the dog follows the exact path of that person, footstep to footstep, without air-scenting. This type of search dog works in a harness on a long, loose lead, as the handler follows (sometimes at a run if the dog is quickly following a track).
- When working as a backer with a tracking dog....
Your scent won't really interfere with the search, but it's best to stay either somewhat behind and off to the side of the handler or directly to the side of the handler. The dog will be on a long, often loose lead, so take care not to trip over or get tangled in it. Be ready to pick up speed, because you'll need to keep up or at least quickly catch up if the dog and handler start to run.
This is another scent-specific searcher, also working on a long lead. Now the dog is following scent that's been cast off by the person as he or she moved through an area. The scent is carried on skin cells, which are heavier than air particles so they're usually close to the ground or on nearby foliage. This means the trailing dog will often have its nose near the ground, but you'll also see the dog sometimes pick its head up to detect the scent in the air. The person may have walked nearby, but the scent has blown onto objects such as grass, the side of a building, a bush, etc.
- When working as a backer with a trailing dog....
The same applies to this situation as it does with a tracking dog.
Note: There are dogs who use a combination of tracking and trailing techniques. We have one on our team, a Bloodhound/Lab mix named Tank, who I'll introduce you to in a minute.
Area Search Dog:
This dog searches off lead, ranging back and forth ahead of the handler to detect scent in the air. This dog is not usually scent-specific, so she'll find anyone who is in the area and alert the handler, running back to give the alert and then leading the handler in to the person, sometimes making many trips back and forth, handler to subject to handler to subject, as the handler gets closer.
If it's not the person being sought, the dog is rewarded and then asked to continue searching.
Area search dog handlers are given -- you got it -- an area to be searched (a/k/a to be "cleared") and that area is usually grid-searched, with the direction of the grids dependent upon the direction of the wind. Air-scent/area search dogs are also used to search along cliffs and canyons, to detect scent coming up from below if the wind conditions are right.
- When working as a backer with an area search dog....
Stay slightly behind and to the side of the handler, keeping downwind of the dog so he doesn't "find" you. If you've been searching for awhile and the dog knows you, he may ignore your scent, but it's still best to stay back and downwind. The less scent "contamination," the better.
You'll most likely be doing a grid search, so be prepared to navigate the grid and sometimes convey verbal information to the handler to keep on course (ie. "Angle a bit to your right" or "It's time to move 20 meters to the north, then reverse our grid.").
HRD (aka Human Remains Detection or Cadaver) Dog:
These canines are trained to locate human bones, blood, decaying tissue and whole deceased people. These dogs can differentiate between bones from humans and bones of other animals and are taught to ignore -- or at least not give an alert for -- non-human remains.
Note: The handlers on our team don't use the term "cadaver dog," because the dogs aren't just searching for the person but for body fluids, tissue and bones, and clothing and other objects that have the scent of human decomposition on them.
- When working as a backer with an HRD dog....
If the dog is cross-trained to find live humans, be sure to stay downwind of the dog, since you want to reduce any possibility that your scent will contaminate the area. Make your grids tight, particularly if there's very little wind and if you may be searching for small bones as opposed to a whole body.
Some "but" and "and" notes about those designations:
- There are some area search dogs that are trained as scent-specific.
- There are plenty of dogs that are cross-trained to find both live humans and human remains.
- While most dogs are trained either as tracking, trailing or area searchers, some of them have a combination of skills or were trained first one way and then another. So you may see an area dog occasionally put its nose to the ground and track or, conversely, a tracking dog pick its head up to air-scent, depending on its training history.
- Dogs can locate objects that have human scent on them, not just the actual people. I saw a dog find a set of car keys a searcher had dropped in the forest while on a mission.
- There are dogs that are specifically trained for the urban environment, often referred to as disaster dogs.
- There are dogs that are specifically trained to detect scent coming from under the water. These dogs and their handlers often train on boats or along shorelines. (But I've also seen area and tracking/trailing dogs who've not had this training detect scent in water.)
A SAR Dog in Training - He's rearing to go...
I shot this short video during a K9 Search and Rescue Conference hosted by our team here in Flagstaff, Arizona, with handlers and their dogs coming from all over the state and from other parts of the country. This German Shepherd is being trained as an area search dog.
Watch what happens after her comes back to alert his human about a find.....
Read More About the Different Kinds of Search Dogs - ...and how they do what they do so well.
- Dogs in Search & Rescue
An article by the U.S. SAR Task Force, comparing the various types of search dogs
- Training a Search & Rescue Dog
An article from the Pedigree Database
- Common Dog Breeds for Search & Rescue
An article from the Animal Den
- Choosing the Right Dog for SAR
An article by by Laura England, the Vice-President of MASAR (Mid America Search & Rescue)
This is Tank, a NASAR-certified tracking/trailing dog on our team.
Learn More About Tank, the Tracking/Trailing Search Dog
Two Very Good Books About Search and Rescue Dogs
Written by the handlers who trained, worked with and loved them
I've read and enjoyed both of these books, and both made me laugh and cry. Even if you're not interested in buying, check out the Scent of the Missing Amazon page, which has some great photos of the search dog named Puzzle and a Q&A with author/handler Susannah Charleson.
The basics of how to do it with a map, a compass, and a GPS
I wish it were as easy as just walking back and forth.
But when you're doing a grid search for SAR, you want to be more precise. Unfortunately, you can't always rely on obvious terrain features to guide you, so you'll need to frequently consult your navigational tools as you walk, negotiate obstacles, assist the handler, and search at the same time. Sometimes I feel like a moving, stumbling mass of arms, legs and STUFF. Amazing I haven't fallen on my face (more often).
The basic idea is to walk grid lines perpendicular to the direction of the wind, so the scent will be blown across the dog's path. An air-scenting area dog will range out ahead of and around the handler, so the handler, guided by the backer, is really guiding the dog.
So, okay, here's how I generally do my grid work....
- First, I use my compass and my eyes to orient my map and my head, getting a solid mental picture of the area and how we'll search it.
- I plot the corners of the assigned search area on my GPS and on my map. Sometimes there are more than four "corners," because area boundaries rarely end up rectangular or square.
- I do a GPS "go to" and take us to the first corner of our area and then, once we get there and depending on the direction we're searching, I do a go-to the next corner and walk that heading. I can glance at the map feature on my GPS to keep on the (invisible) line as much as possible, also using the terrain and my compass to guide me. Yep, multi-tasking.
- I use my compass as a protractor to set the correct heading and then choose a visual feature (ie. a recognizable tree or large rock) in the distance to walk to, then do it again and again until I get to the far corner. This keeps my eyes off of my GPS screen and more so on the area in front of and around me, where I'm searching. I continue to use my compass on subsequent passes, using a back bearing too (adding or subtracting 180 degrees).
- Sometimes I'll use some biodegradable flagging to tag a grid line, particularly if I think others might come along later to search the same area.
- I use pacing and my GPS to move perpendicular (90 degrees) from the end of one grid line to the start of the next, so each pass is spaced apart as agreed with the handler prior to beginning the search. That spacing largely depends on what or who we're looking for. For example, if we're searching for human remains or a person we believe may be unresponsive (by condition or by choice), our grids will be tighter than if we're searching for what we believe to be a responsive person.
Beginning of a K9 Area Grid Search - It's convenient when one boundary of our area search is along a road, as you see here....
Whenever an area is bordered at least on one side by some type of easily recognizable feature -- a road, a powerline, a creek, cliff, etc. -- it's obviously much easier to use that feature as a guide, at least on one pass or as the end point and start point for grid lines. Once you move away from that feature, however, you'll need to rely much more on your navigational tools to keep your grids on course and relatively evenly spaced.
I like to make "pretty pictures" on the map on my GPS. They look really nice when downloading onto the mapping software back at Incident Command.
Seriously, though, the more accurate your grids, the more thoroughly an area will have been searched and the better you can be at determining your "probability of detection" based on multiple variables (like terrain, the amount of brush and other obstacles in your search area, the weather and wind conditions, the spacing of your passes, etc.). If you veered too far off course or left your grid line to check something out and then didn't get back on your grid where you left off, then you're leaving "holes" in the area.
Read more about the concept of Probability of Detection (or POD) -- what it means and how to determine the POD value you'll report back to Command once you've completed your assignment.
Communicating - ...in more ways than one
About this photo: Cindy, the dog handler, calls to me as we try to figure out how to get through thick brush on steep terrain. The three dogs are actually between us, searching and pushing their way through the bushes. We had to communicate constantly as we kept coming up on dead ends, hazards and other obstacles.
As mentioned, the backer for a K9 team in the field usually handles all or most of the radio communications with Incident Command and with other searchers if necessary. The handler is focused on his or her dog/s.
But there are other types of communication going on that are just as important to the search. And that's the communication between the backer and the handler, not to mention the communication between the dog and the handler which you, as a backer, would come to recognize the more you'd work with the K9 team.
Verbal Communication with the Handler
While you're busy searching, you'll also be talking from time to time. In my opinion, it's important to keep most of the talk on the topic of the task at hand, but even that can be more or less effective depending on how well you convey information and how well you and your teammate understand each other and what you're doing out there.
- Navigational directions: The way you as a backer navigate will change depending on the type of search dog you're working with. If you're working with an area search dog, you'll likely be navigating in a grid or at least in a pattern or direction that places the dog in the best position to detect scent depending on the direction of the wind. So, you'll need to discuss this strategy with the handler, advise the handler if your direction of travel needs to be altered to stay on course, or if you notice the wind has changed.
It's important to know your navigational "language" and to give clear instructions and suggestions. As we see it in our unit, the handler is the leader of K9 team in the field and ultimately makes the decisions, but that handler will rely on the backer for directions and advice. So it's important for the backer to communicate their thoughts.
If you're working with a tracking/trailing dog, the dog is essentially going to lead you wherever its nose takes it. But, as the backer, you still need to keep tabs on where you are and sometimes communicate your current location to the handler, explain what's around you and up ahead that might not be visible, point out hazards, and possibly let the handler know about radio traffic (conversation), if the handler has her own radio turned off.
- Being on the same page: It's one thing to talk, and it's another to be understood. And there are times in SAR when meanings can be ambiguous. For example, if the handler tells me our grids should be "10 paces" apart, that might mean 30 yards to me and 10 meters to her, which is a big difference. There was a time when I misunderstood that type of information, and some of our grids ended up being too far apart for what the dog would have effectively been able to detect, and our probability of detection (of the human remains) went way down.
Even words like "up," "down," "right" or "left," "here" or "there" can be unclear, depending on where you're standing and other variables.
Another issue can arise if some underlying information is not the same between handler and backer. For example, the handler may have plotted some points on her own map or entered them into her own GPS -- points you relayed to her -- just as you did on your map and GPS. (Most handlers I know know how to navigate and use their maps and GPSes to help make strategic search decisions.) But if you and the handler were using different mapping datums but didn't know it, your points won't be in the same locations.
What other ways or examples can you think of that might cause misunderstandings -- miscommunications -- between the handler and the backer?
- Communicate what you need:If you're a backer and are feeling a little overwhelmed -- ie. you're walking through tricky terrain, at night, while trying to read your map, compass and GPS by headlamp, and figure out where exactly you are -- tell the handler you need to stop for minute if possible. (If the dog is hot on a scent, well, you might just have to shove your navigational tools in your pockets and just keep up.)
If you're not sure you're clear on what the plan is, say so.
If you see a safety issue or don't feel right about something, speak up.
Non-Verbal Communication with the Handler
- Sometimes it's a little like having a dance partner, where you don't have to tell the other person what to do and when. It's the same for a K9 handler and a backer, especially when you've been working together for awhile.
For example, if I'm navigating, particularly for a handler with an area search dog, I stay a little behind and to the side of her, and I know that she's keying off of me by using her peripheral vision, focusing mostly on her dog but also keeping me in sight. That way, I don't constantly have to give verbal directions.
- We've also just naturally developed some hand signals for quick and easy communication.
- And we've learned to detect when the other is getting fatigued or maybe even frustrated and needs a break (body language and expressions, of course), even though neither of us are that quick to say so ... which is just one example of how you and your search partner -- handler and backer in this case -- can communicate by keeping an eye on each other and learning to read each other's behavior. Sometimes it takes our partner to say, "Hey, let's stop and sit down for a few minutes and re-group."
Me, I find effective, efficient communication during a SAR mission ... well, exciting, especially when I realize there's been improvement over time. Whenever the handler and I hit a little snag and don't quite have a meeting of the minds, we usually talk about it in a personal mission debrief and figure out how we can make it better in the future. Cool!
Search Dogs in Different Types of Terrain - A photo montage from some of the searches I've been on as a K9 team backer......
Part of our search area was along a rocky cliff band. Here, you see Cindy, the handler, climbing up to her dogs. I followed closely behind.
Searching the muddy, rocky banks of the Little Colorado River
We were searching in a canyon at the base of Grand Falls. See more of that area, including what it looks like during a flash flood, in Chocolate Falls: Photographing a Flash Flood on the Little Colorado River.
Grid searching an open field with many hidden nooks and crannies where human remains and other evidence can "hide"
In addition to the tall grass and depressions, there were also surprisingly deep gullies filled with water running throughout this huge meadow. The walking was also more difficult than it appears due to lots of holes, soft ground, and rocks.
Searching the slopes and summit of a mountain at more than 11,000 feet
Our search area included high altitude meadows, steep, densely forested slopes and the rocky summit, all during a cold rain and sporadic thunderstorm activity. It was early spring but felt more like the middle of winter, only minus the snow. It was freezing!
Boulder-hopping with the dogs....
We were looking for a missing person in a canyon, where he could have fallen or been hidden in a crevice or space among the large boulders, where we humans couldn't see him, but the dogs would smell him.
A K9 search in a populated area....
While the dog is scent discriminating, there are obviously very different challenges and hazards when searching in an urban area as opposed to the backcountry. This tracking/trailing dog needs to be kept on a long, loose lead so he's free to follow the scent; however, we were often right next to a busy road, and that scent had been blown towards, into or across those roads, so the traffic hazard was a big one.
There were two of us backing on this search, and we often had to keep an eye out for and sometimes stop traffic, because the handler was focused on the dog, who was of course focused on the scent.
And sometime SAR dogs give demonstrations to their adoring public.....
Please share your comments, experiences, opinions and suggestions here....
© 2013 Deb Kingsbury