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Search-and-Rescue Dogs Love Their Work

A canine career with job satisfaction
By Karen B. London PhD, March 2018, Updated June 2021

A student of mine was wearing a T-shirt that said, “Make a Search-and-Rescue Dog Happy—Get Lost!” and there’s something to that sentiment. Dogs love to work if you define work generally as something to do that keeps their mind or body (or both) active. For search-and-rescue dogs, the work is interesting by just about any definition.

Search-and-Rescue (SAR) dogs locate the origin of a human scent and alert their partner—the human handler—to where it is. Human scent can take various forms—it can be alive, dead, or it can be on clothing. SAR dogs can find people lost in avalanches or other natural disasters, they can detect human scent at crime scenes and they can find lost children or even lost older people with dementia. A dog can accomplish as much work as dozens of human searchers in a variety of contexts, though it requires a considerable amount of both physical and mental effort. SAR dogs are strongly motivated to search, in part because the reinforcement for a find is play.

Most SAR dogs love what they do so much that they can suffer when they are too few emergencies to satisfy their desire to work. Sometimes handlers or organizations who manage SAR teams set up practice searches so that the dogs can do what they are trained for despite limited actual work opportunities. These fake searches are valuable in another way because both searching and successful finds are necessary for many dogs’ well-being and job satisfaction. It’s important that they don’t have too many unsuccessful searches in a row—which can happen in real-life settings—because it can upset many dogs and even make them lose confidence in their abilities. Planned searches offer a chance for dogs to have the success so necessary for them to continue to excel in their work.

That’s why it really does make SAR dogs happy if you get lost—as long as they succeed at finding you. If you get so lost that even the dogs can’t find you, you are not really helping out, and you may be in danger. So, to help SAR dogs as much as possible, you need to both get lost and get found.

Photo: Bianca Ackermann / Unsplash

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life