Featured Stories

Search and Rescue

…is the word that is music to Drake’s ears. He’s six years old and is naturally exuberant. Just the probability of a search gets him wired up. He jumps, runs around in circles. He’s ready and raring to go. What’s more, when the search is completed he’ll get to play with his stuffed toy.


Say, you’re out hiking alone and begin to feel light-headed. You have no cell service, are running out of water, and you’ve come to the fork in the path and can’t remember which trail to follow. What’s more, you’ve committed the ultimate “no no” – as in not letting anyone know, beforehand, where you’d be hiking, what time you left and when to expect you back.

This is where a Drake, a Labrador retriever, comes in: a search-andrescue (SAR) dog who has a “play drive” that will have him looking though rain, sleet, snow, rock slides – really anything and anywhere – just to be rewarded with a chance to wrench and wrestle with his favorite plaything. His only job is to follow a scent and let his handler know where it leads.

According to experts, a Search and Rescue (SAR) dog, like Drake, can accomplish the work of about 25 human searchers. In fact, Drake is trained in avalanche, tracking, trailing and air scent. In addition to his sense of smell, a dog’s excellent night vision and exceptional hearing comes into play. In the end, however, it’s his ability to find a victim – whether alive or not – through scent. And this scent can come from an automobile’s door handle, a piece of paper, an article of clothing. Anything that the “victim” has touched, or even brushed against, as a dog’s sense of smell is about 40 times stronger than a human’s.

Drake’s handler, Anne Marie Cooper, is a member of Vail Mountain Rescue Group (VMRG), a volunteer organization that provides backcountry search and rescue as well as public education about backcountry safety in Eagle Country. Cooper is not only very specific about the qualities she wants in a dog to train for SAR, but how she trains them, as well. “When they’re puppies, I look for the “play” drive and “hunt” drive. I like the more dominant dog as I train “scent” specific. I like to begin training when the puppy is about ten weeks old, as soon as I get him from the breeder.”


To begin, Cooper does very short “three-foot runaways,” as she calls them. She has someone hold the puppy, then runs away, and has the puppy run to her. “Then I extend that to someone the puppy knows, for instance, my husband,” explains Cooper. “Then I extend that over to people who the dog doesn’t know at all. And after that to all kinds of age groups and different ethnicities. I have the dog, in training, find as many different people as possible.

“Then, I train the dog to ‘chase,’” continues Cooper. “Once they’re happy chasing, say, 25 yards without any other command but ‘search,’ they watch the subject run away. Then I have the subject leave, but the dog doesn’t see that. Perhaps the dog can hear the direction in which the person has gone. That’s when I present a scent article. At first, the dog may not know what to do with a scent article, but through repetition, it begins to understand, ‘Oh, I’m looking for this scent.’

“Finally, I have someone hide when the dog isn’t even around. I have somebody run away a short distance and then I bring the dog to the spot where the person started and have it find the direction of travel.”

Cooper feels that it takes about two years before a dog should go on a search. “When you have a search dog, you want it to mature. Their brains mature. So if you let him grow to two and keep training and searching with him, he should be a pretty reliable and stable dog.”

And the dog usually trains four days a week, perhaps only five or ten minutes at a time, especially when the dog is young. “I’m constantly reinforcing that ‘I want you searching’ and ‘I want you telling me,” Cooper points out. “The first part of the search, you tell the dog what you’re looking for, so you give them a scent article. The next part of the search is telling them to ‘go search.’ Then, whether the dog does air scent or trailing, the next part is that he gets to the subject. And the next part is that he comes back and tells me in some way. So my dog goes to the subject, turns around and comes back to me and then takes me back and forth until he gets me to the subject. That’s called a ‘refind.’ “So all of those bits have to be trained individually before you put it altogether for a search. There are a lot of things, like building agility, confidence and nerve. Agility and confidence is easy. Nerve is something else. For example, you can have a dog that knows exactly what to do. But if you put barriers in the way, they stop ‘finding.’“

Cooper explains that, for instance, how a dog might charge right through a thorn bush to get to a subject. Others will stop on the side of the bush and won’t go through at all. She certainly doesn’t want her dog to get hurt, but she doesn’t want it to give up just because there’s an obstacle in the way. So, in another part of the training, people are hidden from the dog – in a tree, a tent, under a tarp or an underground tunnel.

“So, if the person isn’t walking, will the dog still tell me? If the person isn’t sitting still, will the dog still tell me?” asks Cooper. She continues, “Sometimes, I’ll have a person in the tarp suddenly stand up, and I watch to see if the dog gets spooked.

That’s a really good test of a dog’s nerve. You don’t want them so spooked that they don’t come back and tell you ‘There’s my person, but it’s being weird.’ You absolutely want the dog to tell you whatever the circumstances.”

Rusty, a 12-year-old red-coated, yellow lab and his owner, Lee Bendel, are also members of the VMRG. Bendel began training Rusty, who is certified in trailing and area search, when he was five months old.

“There were six siblings, and I was told by the breeder that Rusty was the leader of the pack,” says Bendel. “At first, I considered doing obedience or agility work with him. But, Rusty is not the most athletic dog, so agility was out and obedience didn’t seem like a lot of fun.”

One of the key words Bendel uses is “find.” For instance, that would be used when a person has walked away from a car at a trailhead and they are going to “trail” them. “During an area search,” explains Bendel, “where we don’t know when the person walked, but we think they’re out there somewhere, the person who is running the search mission might say, ‘Lee, we want you to search the area on Cross Creek for about 100 yards on the extreme right.’ And we would search there.”

Bendel, an engineer, explains how our skin cells play a part in a search. “We all give off skin cells,” he says. “In the canine world, we refer to than as ‘rafts of skin,’ and under a microscope they look a little bit like a corn flake. What we know happens to them is that bacteria will act upon a skin cell, digest it and give off a gaseous profile, so as the bacteria is acting upon that skin cell there are some gases given off.

“The profile of those gases is different for you and me, and perhaps everyone else in the world. And that’s how the dog is getting its scent. That’s what the dog is following. So, in the case of an area search, I give him a command ‘to look.’ And I put a bell on him, because he will be looking far ahead of me, going back and forth. I direct his effort, somewhat, keeping him in my search area but, otherwise, he is free to roam. Sometimes he can get out of sight, but I can hear the bell.

“Now, the rafts of skin that come off the lost person can be floating in the air. Think of how the Cottonwood floats through the air. So for an area search, the dog should pick up the scent, the gas coming off of the rafts of skin that are floating in the wind. And the dog can tell what direction it’s coming from and it will go towards the subject until they find him.“

Like Cooper, Bendel works with his dog almost daily. It’s simply a way of life for all SAR dog handlers.

“One of the important things with dogs, is that the dog can be a considerable help in telling where the person ‘isn’t,’” Bendel says. “If we have one of those searches that goes on for days at a time and involves dozens and, at times, hundreds of people, the dog can be very valuable in comeback and saying, ‘Well, you gave me this area to search and I can tell you with high probability, they’re not there.’ You can’t guarantee it, but that can greatly influence how the search will be done. After you eliminate some areas, because of a dog saying that, you go and search elsewhere.”

Essentially, the owner is always listening to what the dog is saying. And it’s the art of their communication that makes the relationship between the SAR dogs and owners so intriguing: they speak the same language. Body language. The dog senses innuendos in his owner’s voice and watches for signals in his handler’s movements.

Seemingly, it’s the dog that is the “star” of search and rescue efforts – yet it’s the handler that’s calling the shots and is always in control. Each handler is highly trained, physically fit and always on call. Most importantly, each one knows how to manage in a myriad of conditions and environments.

So, if at some time you find yourself in a precarious position – out in the elements, weather coming in, night falling – and in the distance you hear, perhaps, some panting, the ringing of a small bell– know that help is on it’s way, and that you’ll soon be in good hands – and paws, too.


Each SAR dog has its own specialty – and yet, the types of searches a dog does, such as tracking or air-scent – overlap. The distinction lies with the handler’s training process.

+ Tracking Dogs work with their nose to the ground and follow a human scent, typically heavy skin particles that fall quickly to the ground or on bushes. These dogs are not searching, they are following and need a “last seen” starting point, an article with the lost person’s scent from which to work.

+ Air Scent Dogs work with their nose in the air to pick up a human scent anywhere in the vicinity. They don’t need a “last seen” starting point. They pick up a scent carried in air currents and seek its origin and might be called in to find a missing hiker located “somewhere in the park.” They specialize in a particular type of search such as:

+ Cadaver – Dogs specifically search for the scent of human remains, detecting the smell of human decomposition gases in addition to skin rafts. They can find something as small as a tooth or a single drop of blood.

+ Water – Dogs search for drowning victims by boat. When a body is under water, skin particles and gases rise to the surface so dogs can smell a body even when it’s completely immersed.

+ Avalanche – Dogs search for the scent of human beings buried beneath up to 15 feet of snow.

+ Urban Disaster – Dogs search for human survivors in collapsed buildings.

+ Wilderness – Dogs search for human scent in a wilderness setting.

+ Evidence/article – Dogs search for items that have human scent on them.