How Search Dogs Search

Hampshire Search and Rescue Dogs are called out by the Police, Coastguard or other Emergency Services to search for missing, vulnerable people. They often work closely with Lowland Search foot teams to search specified areas (sectors) near to where the missing person was last seen and are directed by the Search Controller. Hampshire Search and Rescue Dogs are primarily based in Hampshire although assist other counties’ search teams where resources allow. The dogs and Handlers are trained and assessed to national standards under the umbrella organisation ALSAR. The human beings in the team also qualify as Lowland Search Technicians through their local Lowland foot search team and the Association of Lowland Search and Rescue (ALSAR). The team has qualified operational dogs and Handlers available 24/7 all year round.

 The dogs at Hampshire Search and Rescue Dogs are non-specific air-scenting dogs. That is, they roam freely within their given sector to search for any human scent which leads to a human being. They will often combine working with their heads up and ‘smelling’ the air with their noses down as they follow recent human scent paths on the ground. The dogs do not therefore need a scent article from the missing person to begin to work and can cover large areas at high speed. They will use their natural hunting abilities to work off-line and quarter the sector for scent, and, with the help of their Handler, will work either into or across the wind. Once human scent has been found the dog will return to their Handler and ‘alert’. Each dog has their own alert which the Handler will recognise but very often this consists of a ‘sit’, jumping up and down or barking. The dog will then take their Handler back to the missing person or ‘Misper’. All the dogs at Hampshire search and rescue dogs work for ‘play’ as their reward for finding humans and each dog has their own favourite game!

The type of terrain that the dogs can work in is wide-ranging and in rural environments can include woodland, moorland, down-land, fields, common-land or farm buildings. Trained and assessed to national standards under the umbrella organisation Association of Lowland Search and Rescue (ALSAR). The human beings in the team also qualify as Lowland Search Technicians through their local Lowland foot search team and the Association of Lowland Search and Rescue. The team has qualified operational dogs and Handlers available 24/7 all year round.

The dog teams can also work urban terrain that is not occupied by people such as rubble, industrial sites, derelict buildings or quarries. They will find unconscious, hidden or trapped people in almost any situation including up trees and in gullies or ditches.A dog team during a search consists of dog, their Handler and an Operational Support. The Operational Support handles all communications, navigation, first aid and health and safety issues and is essential to the success of a team. The team is also trained in crime scene protection, search theory and Misper behaviour.At Hampshire Search and Rescue Dogs the dogs normally work as a single unit within a dog team. However, they can also work in a line with the other dogs so as to cover a very large area or in partnership with another dog. The dogs can search for one to two hours and rest for twenty or thirty minutes before being deployed again.

Types of Search
There are two main types or ways in which a dog and Handler search – the first type is a ‘route and path’ or hasty search and the second an ‘area’ search.

During a route and path or hasty search the dog team will work down a central path or track and the dog will search up to 25m either side of the track. In order to qualify for this type of search the dog team must find up to three ‘bodies’ down a two kilometre track within 60 minutes. This qualifies the dog and Handler as Level 2 assessed.

An area search is where the dog works more freely within a given sector and roams further away from the Handler. The dog will naturally cover the area and does not work in such a linear fashion as with the route and path. This is a more advanced type of search and the dog and Handler need to find up to three ‘bodies’ in a 50 acre size area within 90 minutes in order to qualify as an area or Level 3 assessed team.

How are Air Scenting Dogs best deployed?
Air Scenting Dogs are best deployed in a sector that is fairly clear of human scent contamination. This may mean that they work an area before or after a foot team is deployed, or, that they work in an adjacent sector. An adjacent foot team should not necessarily interfere with a dog’s ability to work although this can depend on the wind direction and distance. The dogs excel at searching large areas quickly and are also useful in covering areas of difficult terrain.Air scenting search dogs can be used at any time of day or night but are particularly effective when used in the early morning or evening when scent conditions for the day are ideal for them. Dogs pick up scent carried on the air by the wind or by air convection currents and can pick up human scent from 100 metres in the right conditions. The optimum search conditions for a dog are a day with humidity in the air and a light to strong breeze or strong convection currents. Poor conditions for searching with dogs include mid-day on hot, sunny days in summer with no wind. In these conditions there is little or no scent transport.

Risk Assessments and Hazards
During a search there can be many factors that contribute a hazard to either the dog or the Handler and Operational Support. These can be cliff tops, roadways, water courses, collapsed buildings or unstable ground. Large animals with young can also be dangerous. In any of these situations the hazard is identified and assessed through dynamic risk assessments and the risk managed through the use of personal protective equipment or by working the dog on a line. If during a search an unexpected hazard is encountered where the risk cannot be managed then that part of the search area is not searched and is reported back as such to the Search Controller. All of the dogs at Hampshire Search and Rescue Dogs are tested for safety with stock and wildlife on a regular basis.