SARDUS has been around for 25 years with many of its handlers bringing even more years of experience to the table. This rich history has allowed us to compile an incredible amount of experience within our ranks, handlers logging thousands of call-outs across the country with many lives saved and some searches left uncompleted. We would like to share some patterns that have been observed over the years. This is a practical discussion, coming directly from observations and debriefings from searches, not an academic venture. We present this as a way to best serve the interest of the lost or missing person.

Why do dog teams fail?

What makes a search successful? Searches are huge efforts that can involve hundreds of people from dispatchers to helicopter pilots. A successful search reflects on each part of the effort from IC to skidoo operators. As we look at “our part”, we need to answer the questions of what happened when dog teams do not find a subject. Here we look at these reasons the perspective of the overall system, resource allocation and individual handler strategy.

Subject is Out of the Search Area

Perhaps the most common reason that canine teams do not locate a subject or do not locate a subject in a reasonable time to rescue them is due to the subject being out of the initial search area. Time and time again individuals are found weeks or months later 7-10 miles from their last seen point. There are many factors that contribute to a subject being out of a search area, many of these factors are outside of the control of SAR dog teams or search managers. However, we do need to be mindful of the factors that we can control such as deploying resources immediately upon learning of missing person.

  • Subject is not reported missing for an extended amount of time
  • Subject last seen point is not known
  • Subject's location is intentionally hidden due to criminal event
  • Search is not initiated immediately
  • Not enough resources are initially deployed in the field
  • Reliable intellegence is not obtained on behavior of subject

As we know the possible search area is defined by how far a person could have traveled in the time since he/she went missing. An elderly male who left his home who “was not very mobile” ended up walking ten miles after five hours. A teenage runner traveled seven miles into the backcountry possibly within only a half-hour of leaving the trailhead. Since there was no information on the direction of travel for either of these searches in order to find the elderly male the total search area was minimum of 100 square miles (10 miles in each direction), for the teenage runner the search area was 49 square miles. Time exponential expands the search area. Anything we can do to reduce the time by deploying resources immediately can reduce the total area required to be searched.

In moderate mountainous terrain a canine area search dog team can effectively cover perhaps a half-square mile (120 acres) in the first operational period (2-3 hours in field.) This means if the subject travels an unknown direction for more than one-quarter mile (15 minute hike) from the last seen point he will not be in the search area of the first SAR dog team. If the subject travels 1/2 mile in an unknown direction it will take approximately 5 canine area search dog teams to locate him/her. Recently, SARDUS teams spent weeks (hundreds of resource hours) successfully eliminating 1,000 acres of mountainous terrain but ultimately the subject was found outside of the search area.

SAR dog teams and search managers must rely on developing operational intelligence with the help of dispatchers, law enforcement and EMS personnel in the field to better define the search area. This intelligence can be used to greatly reduce the size of the search area or perhaps move the last seen point closer to where the subject is located. We have observed good operational intelligence developed through the following methods on searches:

  • Use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter
  • Use of reverse 911 calls
  • Review of subject's cell phone location
  • Interviews with subject's friends and families
  • Searchers having photos in hand of the subject to present to possible witnesses in search area
  • Scent evidence from canines

Canine teams can assist with developing intelligence utilizing scent-specific trailing teams. To start, canine trailing teams have been used to determine the direction of travel the subject took from the last seen point. This can narrow down the search area by perhaps 50%. Scent-specific trailing teams have been used to check major trail junctions interior to the search area to see if the subject has passed through that point. In an urban environment trailing canine teams have been used to check intersections radiating out from the last seen point. This scent evidence can move the search in the direction of the subject where search resources and area search dogs have a chance to locate the subject. Additional dog teams can also be used to verify witness accounts, increasing the value of those sightings or in some case discounting an account when a witness actually is a suspect.

Scent evidence degrades with time and with environmental factors so time is of the essence. Once a search enters into the third operational period the reliability of scent evidence starts to decline. How much can you rely upon scent evidence from a dog team? This evidence is an interpretation of the handler based on what a canine is doing in a situation where scent is very complicated. Has this team trained, tested and certified to provide the expertise needed to determine the direction of a search? The evidentiary value garnered from a dog team increases exponentially if verified with an additional dog team. Evidence gathered from a dog team is perhaps 20% reliable, a third team verifying the same evidence can bring the certainty up to 80%. Gone should be the days of calling one dog team.


The main reason subjects are not found is because they are out of the search area. How can we change this?

  • Educational PSAR programs that ask people to not wait to call for help if they think a loved one is missing, encouraging individuals to tell others where they are going and when they are expected to return. Stress to the community that SAR is a service provided to individuals without charge, to reduce the reporting time.
  • Automatic protocols need to be put into place when a search is initiated to reduce human error in recognizing the potential life-threatening situation. Naturally, there seems to be a pattern of minimizing the urgency of a search, which can result in a hefty price tag for agencies and more importantly loss of life.
  • Intelligence gathering procedures must be initiated as soon as possible.
  • Multiple canine resources need to requested during the first operational period to investigate scent evidence

Improper Resource Allocation

For many years search managers and law enforcement were lucky to get one trained search and rescue dog team to respond to a search. There are still many parts of the country where canine resources are in short supply. Even today in areas where there are more SAR dog teams available the old habit of ordering one dog team still happens and it has been a fatal error. Canine teams are not best deployed as a single resource. Can you imagine an IC asking for only one engine for a house fire, one EMT for a traffic accident, one officer for a bank robbery, or one technical climber for a wall evac? Canine resources should be thought of and deployed as a group consisting of area search dogs, trailing dogs and perhaps speciality dogs such as water search, cadaver or disaster teams. These teams need to have a Task Force leader that help manage the team. There are folks who complain that search and rescue dogs have too many specialty areas. It takes a different skill set for a dog team to work in an urban environment compared to a wilderness environment, a different skill set for a dog to locate a buried body as compared to a live body. True these are all dogs but they are a tool that is being used in a very specific way.

One area search canine team may be able to locate a person who hiked a 1/4-mile from the last seen point. How many people go missing after hiking 15 minutes? Yes, maybe this fits suicides but does it fit other types of searches? One trailing team may be able to cover 1-2 miles of trail in the best of conditions through a city but as we learned multiple teams are necessary to process and validate scent evidence. Multiple canine teams are required to locate lost and missing people, while one is better than none it is not better than a Task Force working together.

Why were not enough resources ordered?

  • I did not think the subject was really lost or missing
  • I did not want to have to manage a bunch of resources
  • I thought one dog could do the job
  • I did not want to make a bigger deal out of the situation then what was needed


SEARCH IS AN EMERGENCY!! SAR dog teams need to respond as a Task Force within the incident command system, not as single resources. In areas where agencies do not have enough resources to form a Task Force on their own they need to reach out to surrounding dog teams to work together. The goal is to get a canine Task Force on scene within the first operational period or by the latest the second to have the best opportunity to save a life.

Subject is Located in a Scent Pool

Scent can be imagined visually like water coming out of a hose. Put your thumb on it and it forms this nice cone. An area search dog hits the edge of the cone and follows the spray up to the origin, the hose. A trailing dog follows where the spray has landed on the ground. Imagine what happens when the hose is placed in a pool. To the eye, the water coming out of the hose disappears. To find the water coming from hose you have to get close enough to feel the water coming out of the hose, no longer can you see it from any distance. Say the hose is filling up the pool from the outside, flowing over the edge. If you are underwater in the pool, visually you are not going to be able to distinguish the water entering the pool from the water already in the pool. It is clear you would need to get up out of the pool and search the edge of the pool to find the water entering the pool. This idea has consequences for SAR dogs.

For trailing dogs... if you are starting from a individual's house, the house becomes a fountain of sorts continuously spraying scent for years, our experience shows that the spray may extend a block or two in all directions. You can see the difficulty if a trailing dog is trying to follow the spray from a hose on the ground when the ground is already wet from the fountain coming from the house. To be able to find the trail leading from the house teams may need to get a block or two from the house. This becomes an issue asking one dog team to cover a start that may have the circumference of 4 square blocks. To get a really good trail from a house you need 4 trailing teams, which also allows teams to follow different aged trails as people are coming and going from their house all the time. In cases where a subject does not go far enough to exit the scent pool from the house, area search dog can be successful if trained in urban environments. This is why it is in the best interest of the subject that a Task Force of canine resources should respond to all calls.

A common problem that people have when their dogs are having issues with locating a subject is assuming that it is the lack of scent that is causing the issue, when in fact it is the opposite there is too much scent. Consider this very common example of a person who parks her car at the mouth of a canyon. She enters into the canyon or valley and gain elevation as she proceeds. At some point she runs into trouble, falls and become unresponsive. It takes a relatively small amount of time before a scent pool begins to develop. Depending on the size of the valley or canyon and wind conditions the whole system can fill up with her scent, as in a pool. Typically rescuers respond to the last seen point, in this case the subject's car, and this is where IC is established and where rescuers enter the field. Only in this case all the dog teams are starting from the bottom of the pool. Remember how hard it is to visually find the water coming out of the hose if you start looking from the bottom of the pool? It is the same for detection dogs; it is much harder for a bomb dog to find a bomb in an explosives factory. For trailing dogs the task becomes almost impossible if the concentration of the scent in the pool is higher than what was left on the ground by the subject passing through.

Canine dog teams should keep this in mind when working with IC to design a strategy. In this situation where the subject walks up into a canyon or valley system teams should start high on the edge of the basin or valley walls and work their way down. Clues can be garnered when a dog team enters the scent pool as there will be a change in behavior of the dog going from no scent into scent. The elevation of this change in behavoir should be shared with IC as it could provide valuable scent evidence. There is no typical indication from dogs when teams move out of scent, so the boundary of the pool must go from no scent to possitive scent, which is usually described as "my dog was having interest". Eventually, if the dog teams can cover enough of the edges of the scent pool they should be able to locate the subject filling up the pool. However, the deeper within the pool the subject's location the more difficult it will be for dogs to locate him. The size and shape of the scent pool is defined by the wind, topography, vegetation type and amount of time the subject is missing.


Search dog teams must recognize when they are starting or entering into a scent pool. Dogs will act like there is scent somewhere but give no indication or go in a specific direction. Scent pools can be very large, it does not take too much for the scent of a body to fill up a valley or canyon. For trailing dogs to be successful they must find the trail leaving the scent pool, which in the circumstance of starting at the mouth of a valley may mean getting up higher into the valley. For area search dogs they also should start above the scent pool and work their way down, hopefully locating the source of the pool, or if the hose is filling up the pool from the bottom the dogs will need to get close enough to the subject to feel the movement of the water coming out of the hose.

Too Hot To Trail?

This past year SARDUS resources have been asked to perform in some extreme weather conditions. As we found necessity is the mother of invention and if you live in a region of the US that is hot and dry please consider some options that may keep you in the field. We were presented a case when a child was abducted within a city; the child was last seen on foot and may have left with the perpetrator on foot. The temperatures were reaching 98 degrees with humidity in the single digits. As we know the statistics say that a child has a 60%-80% chance of being murdered within the first 3-hours of being abducted by a stranger. SARDUS urban trailing dogs were asked to help search for the missing child, one resource is never enough.

A German shepherd and a bloodhound were fielded with law enforcement support. Experience has shown us that our dogs could only work in an urban environment in mid-90 degree weather for maybe 15 minutes, which may be enough to indicate whether the child was truly in an area or perhaps give a direction of travel. Experience has also shown that we had to limit to searching to non-blacktop areas, such as sidewalks, lawns and natural areas as crossing roads would burn the dog’s feet. We later received a donation of dog booties that would provide protection to the dog’s feet from the heat.

As we started out, we closely monitored the condition of the dogs watching respiration rates, heart rates and color of their gums. After 15 minutes they started to show some heat stress. The nice thing about the suburbs is everyone has a yard with hose. With law enforcement support we would hose the dogs down every 15 minutes or so, let them rest in the shade and continue on. We found that the dogs worked comfortably in this heat until they started to dry off. When the dogs started to dry off was our cue to hose them down again. This strategy would not work in hot humid climates where the evaporation of the water does not occur, as this is what allows for cooling of the dog. Teams were able to search for hours and cover miles of trail using this strategy. This requires that trailing dogs be comfortable with stopping and starting trails and taking some direction as walking on the pavement for long is not an option.

The teams had multiple assignments during this search. Another strategy on the same search was developed utilizing rotating vehicles. Two dogs were used on the same trail, alternating and leap-frogging through the trail. One handler/dog team would work the trail while the second team would follow in a vehicle. When the working team reached a point of needing a break from the heat, the other team would take over. This would allow the team to water down the dog and offer a break in the air conditioned vehicle, while following the working team. The key to success was stopping when the dogs were showing moderate heat stress, so they could recover and be ready to go and take over from the other team. This leap-frogging progression with the canine teams allowed for long sections of the trail to be covered. We found for this to be successful but you must train for it. Your dog must be experienced leap-frogging a trail. The vehicle also must be set-up to accommodate any dogs, a big benefit is you can carry the 20 gallons of water necessary to keep the canines and their handlers cool. This procedure was practiced later at a trailing seminar. It is not as easy as it sounds, make sure to practice!

As a side note, this story did not have a good ending, the child’s body was found by a member of the public. The suspect was arrested and charged with the murder. There are times when waiting for a cool down at night is not an option.



Banner image provided by Rich Boyan, Dash for Daylight Photography.