Allegheny Mountain Rescue Group

A SAR Dog Lexicon

For those conversant in the demands of search and rescue operations, but perhaps mystified by the powers of canine SAR professionals and their inscrutable handlers


For those conversant in the demands of search and rescue operations, but perhaps mystified by the powers of canine SAR professionals and their inscrutable handlers

airscenting dog -- A SAR dog who searches across the prevailing wind for airborne human scent, and follows it to its source. This dog does not normally scent discriminate or use a scent article, but will detect and follow any human scent. She normally works off-lead, and may range well out of sight.

alert -- An indication that an airscenting dog has detected scent. This is usually expressed by the dog's body language. Some handlers use this term to refer to the signal that the dog gives upon finding.

avalanche dog -- A dog trained to locate human beings buried under snow avalanche. The dog should discriminate between living and dead persons, and must be deployed to the avalanche area within minutes. Of limited use in the eastern U.S.

cadaver dog -- A dog trained to find human remains. Most airscenting SAR dogs have some cadaver training, and will find dead subjects without hesitation. A dedicated cadaver dog normally searches a relatively small area for buried or fragmented remains. Not all cadaver dogs are qualified for wilderness SAR.

contamination -- Scent that interferes with a SAR dog's ability to work. This can be the "wrong" scent on a scent article, a profusion of cross tracks, or excessive residual scent in an area. Can also refer to overpowering or damaging non-human odors, such as chemical fertilizers or motor exhaust.

cross-training -- Is used in at least three conflicting ways by dog handlers, and can refer to:

-- training an animal in SAR and police work, or protection sports, or possibly some other activity, such as drug detection

-- training in airscenting and airscenting "specialties" -- cadaver, water, evidence, disaster and avalanche

-- training an animal to both trail and airscent

disaster dog -- A dog trained to locate humans buried under rubble/collapsed structures, and to signal her handler. The dog should discriminate between living and dead persons in this context.

evidence dog -- A dog who is trained to search a relatively small area intensely, and indicate "evidence" such as discarded clothing, weapons, blood spots, etc. May scent discriminate. Many police canines are highly trained in this speciality. Also referred to as article search.

refind -- The mechanism by which most off-lead SAR dogs inform their handlers of a find; the dog returns to the handler, and either gives a trained signal or communicates with body language, then leads the handler to the found person. A few handlers train a barking signal instead of a refind.

residual scent -- human scent that originated from a person or persons no longer in the area -- e.g. a prior search party or a moving search subject. Its presence changes the behavior of airscenting SAR dogs, but is not a serious impediment to a well-trained dog and handler team.

scent article -- An object that was in contact with the search subject and contains his personal body odor. It is used by a trailing or tracking dog to discriminate the correct scent trail from those left by others. A scent article that also contains other people's personal body odor is said to be contaminated, and is less desirable than a clean article, or in some cases useless.

scent clues -- Indications by a dog, short of an actual find, that can lead to the missing subject. These include a pattern of inconclusive alerts in a certain direction, apparent alerts on residual scent, and partial trailing that gives a direction of travel. More people are found by intelligent human interpretation of scent clues than by canine heroics.

scent discrimination -- The power of a dog to distinguish one individual human from all others by his unique personal body odor. The dog may locate a person based on the odor of his belongings, or vice versa. Also refers to the power of a dog to distinguish dead humans from live.

trailing dog (tracking dog) -- a dog who follows an individual's scent trail on the ground, walking on top of (tracking) or parallel to (trailing) his actual footsteps, and ignoring the cross-tracks of other people and animals. This dog may work on-lead or off-lead. Bloodhounds are the "classic" trailing dog. This dog ordinarily must have a scent article in order to work.

water search -- many SAR dogs are trained to locate human remains underwater, working either from shore or from boats. After the dog alerts on the correct location, the body can be brought up by divers or other means.

How to become a SAR dog handler

Interested in training and handling a search dog? Find out how about the challenge and committment of canine SAR.