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Canines’ Role in Urban Search & Rescue

Canine search teams play a critical role in supporting local and state response efforts with the capability to locate disaster survivors and human remains using canine teams (dog and human handler). 

Canine Search Team Facts

  • Canine search teams are trained to work and detect in any environment and are not limited by noise, equipment or distractions. 
  • Due to their heightened sense of smell, dogs can detect live human scent, even if a survivor is buried deep in rubble.
  • The canine teams specialize in two key areas: detecting survivors (live find search) and detecting people who are deceased (human remains detection).
  • Each canine has a trained handler. 
  • At least four canine search teams deploy with each 70-member, Type 1 US&R task force.
  • The most common breeds in the system are Labrador, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Malinois, and Border Collie. Canines are a minimum of 18 months old and the average age of our canine team members is about 7 years old. 
  • As of March 2020, there are 284 canine search teams that specialize in searching for survivors and 90 teams that specialize in searching for human remains.  

Human Remains Detection 

Human remains detection teams are brought in to search after live find searches for survivors have been conducted. They work in close coordination with federal, state and/or local law enforcement and coroner’s offices that are responsible for identification and processing of detected remains.

These canines are able to distinguish between human remains, animal remains and a wide range of other distracting odors. The canines’ ability to detect human remains is not limited to a specific timeframe after a person is deceased.

An Urban Search & Response task force’s support for this capability is voluntary. 

Canine & Handler Certification

Each canine/handler team must pass a rigorous national certification in urban search and rescue, and must be re-certified every three years. The canine must be at least 18 months old to attempt the test. Most canines test after they are two years old when they have been well trained and are physically and emotionally mature enough for search and rescue.

Handlers are tested on search strategies and tactics, mapping, search and victim markings, briefing and debriefing skills, in addition to canine handling skills.

Canines are tested on command response, agility skills, a focused bark alert to indicate a live find, and willingness to persist to search for live victims in spite extreme temperatures and animal, food and noise distractions. The canine must also be confident enough to search independently and be able to negotiate slippery surfaces, balance wobbly objects underneath its feet and go through dark tunnels.