Search and Rescue Dogs Serve Community Part 1

Guest Author: Debbie Sorber Rosch ’80 (Hall of Fame 2019)

On a glorious Sunday morning in May 2022, several members of Burning River K9 Search and Rescue met at Pheasant Run Airport in Leroy, Ohio, to train search dogs. One of our teams, John Swaney and K9 Hogan, were also attempting to earn certification from the National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR) in live find area search.

Other team members would have different training objectives. Sheila Hullihen, RHS class of 1978, would be serving as Hogan’s search subject, hiding in a wooded area amidst the 45 acre search area. Teammates Jennifer Folkman would be training her Human Remains Detection (HRD) dog in preparation for her certification two weeks later. Jacqui Graebel, our newest teammate, would be practicing her navigation skills with a compass, and assist Jennifer in setting up search boundaries for the HRD dogs and placing scent sources within them. Debbie Rosch, RHS class of 1980, set up John’s large search area using SARTopo mapping software; she placed Sheila in her location, and would proctor the NASAR evaluation for team Hogan. She also works her two Australian Shepherds, Spin and Twist on the HRD exercises.

This day is the end result of years of training and diligence. SAR professionals must train their dogs, of course, practicing twice a week to develop skills. The human end of the leash must be proficient in scent theory, navigation/GPS, clue consciousness, managing the physical and mental status of both themselves and their dogs, wilderness first aid, and many other skills. In John and Hogan’s case, experience is a real strength. John has been in SAR for more than 15 years, and Hogan is 10 ½ years old and has worked in SAR most of his life, with several earlier certifications to his credit.

It’s been about 15,000 years or so, since humans and dogs cast their lots together, though ongoing studies keep pushing that milestone further back in history. They shared the need to hunt for their subsistence, and both species flourished due to their partnership. Later, as humans added agriculture to their resume, dogs worked beside them guarding homes, protecting flocks and gardens, herding livestock, and serving as beasts of burden. Selective breeding, both intentional and unintentional, occurred, selecting for better social interaction, trainability, and specific behaviors that are mutually beneficial.

Now, 15,000 years later, few dogs or humans hunt or herd for a living, and seldom does our safety depend on their guardian skills. Most are companions, enriching our lives in that way. Some dogs, however, do use their instincts and capabilities to serve humans. Search and rescue dogs, essentially, “hunt” humans. Area search dogs, such as Hogan and the HRD dogs, search a defined area for their target odor: Hogan looks for the smell of any live human, and the HRD dogs are trained to detect the smell of human decomposition. Trailing/Tracking dogs detect and follow a specific person’s foot route based on a scent article from the missing person. We practice and work in all environments, urban and wilderness, snow and heat, day or night, rain or shine.

With Sheila comfortably situated in a wooded area, with her folding camp stool, a communication radio, water, a snack, insect spray and proper clothing, Hogan and John are briefed on their search area. They will have 90 minutes to complete it. John’s job is to remain mindful of the boundaries and guide Hogan through the area, assuring that they go everywhere necessary, in a systematic manner, in order for Hogan to have accessed all the odors.

Above is a map of John’s area, and how he and Hogan covered it. Having no idea where Sheila is, John selects a central position at the intersection of the two runways, and elects to go into the wind starting immediately upwind of his hidden subject, and then searching each quadrant. As a result, he covers all the way around his area before he enters the quadrant downwind of Sheila.

The dog, handler and evaluator are hot, tired, frustrated, and concerned that the search is taking longer than usual. Hogan often finds his subject in a very short period of time, but the search boundaries in this test are hard to define and follow, the area is large, and John doesn’t have a GPS because it is not permitted for the certification test.

Mental toughness is necessary for both human and canine searchers; we must be able to problem-solve on the fly, change strategies to meet changing conditions, stay oriented, and move efficiently; and the clock is ticking. John finds a shady area to rest his dog and himself, drink some water, check his topographic map and determine if there are any areas he missed or would like to re-visit, based on his observation of Hogan’s body language in a potentially “hot” area. John develops a new strategy, finds reserves of determination, and gets back to work with nine minutes left on the clock.


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