How to Volunteer for Search and Rescue

By: Eleanor Duse

Do I Need a Dog to Work for Search and Rescue?

By now, it should be clear that SAR efforts involve far more than the standard image of the intrepid mountaineer with a trusty bloodhound. People can get into trouble in just about any environment, and a dog won't always be able to help.

That said, the National Association for Search & Rescue (NASAR) estimates that a single trained dog can be as effective as 20 or 30 human SAR personnel can. A dog's extraordinary sense of smell can locate a person's characteristic scent, and dogs are often at their best where human senses are most limited [source: NASAR].


Again, the key here is training. SAR dogs and their handlers must go through training for at least a year -- and sometimes 18 to 24 months -- to obtain certification. Some dogs learn trailing, which involves following a specific scent across the ground [source: U.S. SAR Task Force]. Other dogs learn a method known as air scenting, or finding an airborne scent. If authorities fear the worst, they'll bring in a dog trained in finding human remains [source: Western New York Search Dogs]. Additionally, dogs must learn scent discrimination -- the ability to distinguish one person's scent from among hundreds or thousands of others.

Aspects of SAR dog training are similar (in some cases, identical) to the training required for the K9 units of police and fire departments. In other words, it's a major commitment. As the saying goes, you can't teach an old dog new tricks, so many trainers prefer to start with puppies -- essentially creating career SAR dogs [source: NASAR].

If you haven't put your dog through SAR training, it's a bad idea to bring your pooch along on SAR efforts. Not every dog is disciplined enough to stay calm in a group full of panicky people. A nervous dog can be a safety hazard for volunteers and victims alike. If the SAR team has a trained dog, the untrained dog could create problems of discipline and aggression. And if your dog bolts from the scene, what do you do -- continue with SAR work, or search for your beloved best friend?

Being an SAR volunteer -- with or without your dog -- provides you with an opportunity to help people and learn many new skills.

To learn more about volunteering, visit the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Equine Detection Services. "Air Scenting Horses." EDS. 2008. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • Federal Emergency Management Association. "About Urban Search & Rescue." FEMA. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • International Association of Fire Fighters. "HazMat/WMD Education and Training." IAFF. 2009. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • National Association for Search & Rescue. "SAR Dogs," "SAR Dog Fact Sheet," "Mounted SAR," "Education," "SAR Trackers." NASAR. 2009. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • The National Association for Volunteer Search and Rescue Teams. "So That Others May Live," "FAQs," 2007-2008. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • National Fire Academy. "Browse Online Courses." NFA Online. 2009. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • Red Cross. "CPR, First Aid and AED." Red Cross. 2009. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • U.S. Search and Rescue Task Force. "FAQ," "Requirements to Join the Task Force," "Why Search and Rescue?" USSARTF. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • Western New York Search Dogs. "Glossary." WNYSD. (Accessed 4/30/09)