Leonbergers At Work – Search and Rescue Dogs

The mission of the Search and Rescue Dog - ‘SAR Dog’ for short - is to find lost people.  As you can imagine this is not an easy job, and not just any dog can join in the search.  It takes highly specialized training with a handler, sometimes for as long as two years, before qualifying to become a SAR dog.  These K-9 teams are cross trained for multiple tasks and have saved many lives as a result.  They work in a wide variety of emergencies, from finding a wandering Alzheimer’s patient to searching in the aftermath of tornadoes, bombings and earthquakes. 


Italian CH Aron van het Hof vanEden ("Zac")


The reason dogs are able to work in so many different situations is because they are such versatile and trainable creatures.  This doesn’t mean though that they all perform the same tasks.  Just like people, SAR Dogs have different skills.  Some of them are good at one thing, while other dogs are good at several things.  Quite often the skills depend upon the breed of dog; however, all canines have the skill to smell with their nose in a way that humans cannot, which is what makes dogs an important part of the Search and Rescue Team. 

Search and Rescue dogs are generally classified as Air Scenting, Tracking or Trailing.  Lots of people assume that all SAR Dogs sniff the ground to find people but, in actuality, this is not the case.  For example, Air Scenting dogs smell the air for a human scent, hence their classification.  How they do this is quite fascinating.  All humans, alive or dead, constantly emit millions of microscopic particles or cells bearing human scent.  The bigger cells fall to the ground while the smaller particles float in the air and are carried by the wind for considerable distances.  Even though these cells need a microscope to see them, dogs can smell them since their noses can be up to 10,000 times better than humans!   

When looking for people, Air Scenting dogs follow the scent of any human, rather than just a particular person.  For this reason these types of SAR Dogs work best in large parks or private lands closed off with no other people around.  Early mornings or late afternoons on cool, cloudy days when there is a light wind is best for their searches. 

Tracking Dogs, also known as Trailing Dogs, are the dogs who sniff the ground.  They work at a fast pace and follow the scent of the lost person.  To find someone who is missing, Tracking Dogs need to smell something which belongs to that person, like a shirt or socks, or even a hat.  When they know the scent, they look for just that smell.  Their nose is used to find the exact scent, much like you would use your eyes to find a red crayon in a box of crayons.   

Tracking Dogs give both negative and positive responses along the scent trail.  Negative responses tell the handler the scent isn’t as strong or is gone.  Positive responses mean the dog found the trail and is working it. 

Another search and rescue canine skill is the Water Search Dog.  Looking for drowning victims, Water Search Dogs work along the shore and in boats to locate the scent as it rises through the water.  Often when the dog senses a person under the water they will lean closer and closer to the water, then slap and bite at the surface when they find a person underwater.  The handler then drops a marker into the water and the boat returns to shore.  Divers return to where the marker is to locate the drowned victim. 

In addition to wilderness, drowning search and rescue or recovery, another application for SAR Dogs is when disaster strikes.  These ‘Disaster Dogs’ are used to locate victims of catastrophic or mass-casualty events such as earthquakes, landslides, building collapses, and aviation incidents.  Many disaster dogs in Canada are trained to meet the National Search and Rescue Agency standards for domestic or international deployment.   

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.  Given this challenge, there is a need for dogs specially trained to find lost people who have died.  Although this doesn’t sound pretty, it is an important job to families of the victims and to the justice system if there was a crime involved.  Human Remains Detection (HRD) Dogs, also known as Cadaver Dogs, are trained to detect the body’s scent as it rises from the soil the same way dogs find where they buried a bone.  As such, they can locate entire bodies, including those buried or submerged, decomposed bodies, body fragments including blood, tissues, hair and bones, or skeletal remains. 

The final application of the SAR Dog is the Avalanche Dog.  In areas where skiing is a big sport, these dogs are vital as they search for people who are trapped under the snow.  Their skills are quite remarkable as Avalanche Dogs can find someone buried under as much as 15 feet of snow!


Training : 

As you can appreciate, given the nature of the work conducted by SAR Dogs, high standards in the qualifications of search and rescue teams are essential.  Training is a life-long, time-consuming and comprehensive process for both the dog and the handler.  The dog and handler function as a team and spend a great deal of time training together to prepare.  In most cases the team is part of a larger team to provide each dog and handler with the necessary help to become and stay “mission ready”.  While some Search and Rescue handlers function as volunteers, in most cases they are part of professional organizations, police or other governmental agencies.   

Given the different situations they may find themselves in, handlers must be capable of bush navigation, wilderness survival techniques, and be self-sufficient.  For the dog, training is best begun early in life and must include obedience training together with socialization to all types of people, animals and situations.  As such, every SAR Dog has to pass the Canine Good Neighbour test so that when they are around other people and dogs, both members of the team are able to conduct themselves courteously and safely.  Naturally this means they cannot chase wildlife or stray dogs while they are working. 

In addition, they must be obedient at all times and capable of working for several hours without distraction.  Because SAR Dogs and their handlers must be able to safely and calmly travel to the search site in a hurry, this may include something as dramatic as riding in a helicopter and being lowered from one.  As a result, SAR Dogs must be steady and calm in stressful and changing situations, and be unflappable to loud noises that would scare many other dogs.  This is partly a matter of training, partly a matter of getting the dog used to situations, and partly choosing a dog with the right genetics.  Fear of loud noises is to some extent inherited, and temperament testing includes testing for this trait. 

As mentioned previously, the skills required for searching include tracking and/or air scenting (most dogs learn more than one style and all learn at least one).  In addition to this, they must have the ability to maneuver into position to do the job.  As such, SAR Dogs need to be in good shape to climb, run and jump.  Since much of the training includes working on obstacle equipment and real-life obstacles such as rubble piles, advanced agility training and off-lead training are crucial prerequisites. 

Now you know what it takes to be a Search and Rescue Dog, you may be wondering what breeds can be SAR Dogs.  Remember that the dogs need to be able to climb stairs and ladders, be comfortable in the water and be able to walk around in the woods for long periods at a time.  Sometimes they even need to climb over logs or fallen trees.  As such, smaller dogs are not well suited to this type of work.  Dogs with traits for sporting, working and herding are the top picks.  And of course the temperament – that’s the way the dog acts – is paramount. 


The breeds best suited to search and rescue work are : 

Bloodhounds, Newfoundlands, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherd, Australian Shepherds, Rottweilers, Leonbergers and large mixed breeds.  Other breeds like Border Collies, Boxers, Dobermans, Golden Retrievers, Malinois, Tervuren, Australian Cattle Dogs, Schnauzers, and even Poodles can do great work too!


If this work appeals to you, and you think your Leo has the “right stuff”, click here for more information :






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Page Last Updated

 March 19, 2008

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Leonberger Club of Ontario

Leonberger Club of Ontario