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Barks & Mewsings

The Trupanion blog

Search and Rescue Dogs: How to Get Involved

By: Kelli Rascoe

Dogs have some amazing abilities, not just as our companions, but as working dogs that help save lives. Such as search and rescue dogs (SAR), with intensive training, they are tasked in extreme circumstances to do the unimaginable. Working alongside a trained K-9 handler, they work together as a team, against insurmountable obstacles to find, rescue, and save people from tragedy around the globe.

Do you have the desire and skills to train for search and rescue? Does your best friend have the ability to become a search and rescue dog? How do you get involved with the world of search and rescue dogs training?

We sat down with Trupanion claims manager, Aaryn Peterson, a SAR K-9 handler and trainer of five years to discuss the world of search and rescue dogs, her retired SAR pup Aspen, and how to get involved in the search and rescue field.

Black & white search and rescue dog wearing a vest

What are search and rescue dogs (SAR)?

Search and rescue dogs are working dogs that are used in the field to track and find people in extreme circumstances. Also, they work as a team, alongside their K-9 handler. These pups are highly skilled in a specific set of disciplines to help in their mission. Also, they’re just one important part of a search and rescue tool kit.

A Personal Story from the field: the search and rescue journey

The beginning of a search and rescue dog’s story can start from an unlikely circumstance. Aaryn Peterson’s story is no exception. “I just moved to a new town with my husband and Aspen, and I didn’t know very many people yet. Likewise, one day the then-leader of the search dog team in my area showed up at the veterinary hospital where I worked at the time. Later, the topic came up, and before I knew it, I had been invited to visit training, and pretend to be a “lost” person. Naturally, from there, I was hooked and began getting all the training I needed to order to start as a general SAR volunteer, and as a K-9 handler,” states Peterson.

The essentials of search and rescue dog training

An essential component of search and rescue dog training is first and foremost working as a team. “If you already have a dog you’d like to train, it’s always a good idea to have a solid foundation of obedience and a relationship of trust that you can build upon” points out Peterson.

If you have an interest in search and rescue dogs training, consider these necessary factors:

  • Find a search and rescue team to learn from
  • Teach your dog to be confident in many different situations
  • The handler decides the work hours
  • Make sure it is a good fit for you and your dog

Also, it’s important to know the different types of disciplines in the search and rescue field. If you are deciding if search and rescue is a potential fit for you and your canine, consider the following.

Black & white search and rescue dog in the snow

Disciplines of search and rescue dogs


Airscent working dogs use their nose to track the air and are more likely to be off-leash when area searching. In addition, this is typically done in a wilderness setting. Also, airscent searches are influenced by:

  • Weather
  • Time of day
  • Terrain
  • Vegetation

Avalanche (AVI)

Avalanche search and rescue dogs are the most known discipline of the search and rescue dog’s hierarchy. Additionally, they’re similar to airscent dogs in that they work off-leash and grid up the avalanche on their mission. Also, they typically have the most sponsors and are often employed by ski resorts.


A tracking/trailing working dog is trained to focus on the individual scent on the ground when on a mission. Additionally, it takes a longer time to search and follows the direction that the person travels in. For instance, tracking/trailing working dogs are used a lot in law enforcement as police dogs.


Disaster search and rescue working dogs are sent into an area after a natural disaster has taken place. Likewise, their job is to locate the scent to start the rescue efforts. Additionally, these canines are typically off-leash, and the handlers follow into the situation with the dog. Likewise, this can be a treacherous environment for the canine, as such the surroundings might be unstable.

Human Remains Detection (HRD)

A human remains detection (HRD) canine identifies different types of deceased odors in an environment. Further, these working dogs are often used in water to indicate the deceased. For instance, while on their mission a positive search an HRD canine might indicate:

  • Dog points in wind
  • Jumps in water
  • Laps in circles
  • Divers will go in to further investigate

Black & white search and rescue dog in the forest

What a successful K-9 and handler team looks like

Preparation is a key indicator of success for K-9’s and their handlers. Naturally, each team member has their own skill-set that they must acquire before becoming a part of the team.

Peterson weighs in on what makes for a successful K-9 team-mate.

Consider the following:

  • Breed
  • Physical Ability
  • Desire to work
  • Drive
  • Ability to learn and respond
  • Courage
  • Tenacity

In addition, the dog’s breed might not always play a factor in their ability to be a successful teammate. For instance,” a smaller dog, such as a cocker spaniel or beagle, can fit in small spaces and can be less alarming to kids,” states Peterson. It may be worth something to consider when choosing your K-9 teammate.

Beginning the role of K-9 handler

If you are pursuing becoming a K-9 handler, dive into volunteering and become familiar with search and rescue programs near you. Also, you will need to attain certifications and acquire any/all gear needed to negotiate the outdoor elements common in your region and the types of rescues you will perform. For instance, consider emergency tools such as maps, compass, and GPS to add to your search and rescue kit. Once you are certified, have your kit and car ready to go, so you can accept a mission as soon as you get the call.

How to get started in search and rescue

  • Educate yourself on search and rescue, interview veterans in the field, and study what you can
  • Cultivate necessary skills and start training
  • Start volunteering
  • Prepare yourself (physically, emotionally, and mentally)
  • Find a search and rescue team
  • Acquire a mentor/trainer in search and rescue
  • Evaluate your dog
  • Build a solid foundation for your dog

From the field: lifetime teamwork

“Aspen and I have always done “teamwork” activities together, such as sheep herding when she was younger and had always been adventuring in the mountains. Also, I’ve always had a passion for volunteering and giving back. So, when I had a chance to take the teamwork relationship Aspen and I had built over the years to the next level, and do some real good for people in the process, there was no decision to make. Naturally, it was the obvious next step for us,” says Peterson.

Consider teamwork activities as a way to strengthen your bond and test your canine’s abilities. Also, you can personalize your activities based on your pet’s skill level. For example, some activities may include dog agility, scavenger hunt, or bonding over a walk.

Black & white search and rescue dog standing in the snow

Search and rescue dogs: true teamwork

If you choose to get involved with a search and rescue dogs team, take into consideration the time commitment it could have on your schedule. For instance, a call could come in for a mission in the middle of the night. Also, be mindful of the impact it can have on your dog. Granted, your pup will let you know when they are ready to retire. Certainly, if you have the drive and determination, have an interest and passion to learn the craft, and have a strong bond with your canine, a search and rescue team might be a wonderful fit. In essence, search and rescue is a further way to bond, learn, and grow with your canine teammate.

Additional resources for search and rescue

During their search and rescue career, Peterson and Aspen, logged over 2500+ mission training hours from 2012-2018, with over 400+ hours per year. We thank this team for invaluable rescues and appreciate the dedication, hard work, and determination that was shown on and off the field.

For more from our team members, read How to Create Your Own DIY Dog Agility Course.

A dog and cat snuggle

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Welcome to the Trupanion blog. A place to celebrate pets, pet health and medical insurance for cats and dogs.

This blog is designed to be a community where pet owners can learn and share. The views expressed in each post are the opinion of the author and not necessarily endorsed by Trupanion. Always consult your veterinarian for professional advice.

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