Search and Rescue K9 Units

By N. M. Cedeño



A representative of the Travis County Texas Search and Rescue K9 unit was kind enough to come and speak to Sisters in Crime, Heart of Texas Chapter this summer. She provided a wealth of information for crime writers on the workings of Search and Rescue K9 Units.

Most Search and Rescue group members are unpaid volunteers. The volunteers go through training and must pass a fitness test in order to qualify to join the team. Dog handlers train their dogs to participate in the searches following training guidelines. There are three different kinds of S & R dogs: live find, trailing, and human remains detection (HRD). Searches may be categorized as wilderness, urban, or disaster. Police in cars or on foot handle most urban searches. Dogs are mostly used for wilderness and disaster searches.

The human remains detection (HRD) dogs are not referred to as cadaver dogs anymore. HRD dogs must be able to identify hundreds of odors that come from decaying human remains and be able to differentiate those smells from those of decaying animals. Training the dogs to identify these odors requires the handler to obtain appropriate materials for training exercises. These materials may be donated to the trainer by dental surgeons, midwives, and other doctors or organizations with access to amputated or removed body parts. Places such as the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, also known as the Body Farm, at Texas State University’s Freeman Ranch, will allow dog handlers to use the facility for training only once a year. The dogs can identify these smells even when underground or mixed with other smells.

My dog, Petra, who is not a S&R dog. Picture by N. M. Cedeño.

Trailing dogs are usually on leashes and are following a scent trail looking for a missing person. These dogs are used when authorities know exactly where the missing person was last seen, giving them a starting point for using the dogs. The dogs are given a sample carrying the missing person’s scent to smell, such clothing the person wore recently. Then the dog is told to find that specific scent. Each person’s individual scent is distinctive, created by soaps, sprays, detergents, shampoos, conditioners, and their own skin particles. Relatives in the same home who use the same products may have similar scents. The dogs are trained to distinguish between the missing person and close relatives.

Live find, or live search, dogs are trained to find a person in a large area of land. They can be made to work in a grid pattern or can be sent to search an area independently, off leash. The dogs are fitted with GPS trackers so that the area they search can be followed and mapped. These dogs love their game of search and find so much that they will not stop unless their handler forces them to rest. Live search dogs are trained to find the missing person’s scent as it drifts in the wind. If the dog is working independently and locates the subject, the dog can be trained to either stay with the subject and bark, or run back and forth between the searchers and the subject, leading the searchers to the missing person.

Research has shown that lost people tend to follow specific patterns depending on their age, mental state, and what they were doing when they got lost. Search and Rescue operations will begin their search for a missing person based on what the research says the person is most likely to do. For example, small children, ages 1 to 3, tend to walk in circles. When they get tired, they lay down and go to sleep where they are. Children ages 3 to 6 get scared when it gets dark, find a protected area, and curl up in a ball.  Hunters who think they know the area in which they are lost tend to keep walking, reasoning that if they keep walking, they will find their way back.

If a missing person stays still in one place, their scent will build up around them like a puddle or pool. When the wind blows the scent pool, it will be stronger, allowing a dog to find and follow the scent more easily. If the person keeps moving, the scent will be harder for the dog to follow, a small scattered trail, rather than a concentrated pool. This is why it is important to stop moving if you know that someone is looking for you. A search dog will find you faster if you stop moving.

Finally, if an area has been thoroughly searched by Search and Rescue and the missing person is not found, the search ends with the missing person declared “R.O.W.,” rest of world. The searchers know the missing person isn’t in the search area, therefore, he or she must be somewhere else, out in the rest of the world.


N. M. Cedeño was born in Houston, grew up in the Dallas Metroplex, once lived in Amarillo, and currently lives near Austin, Texas. She writes mystery short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her mysteries vary from traditional, to romantic suspense, to science fiction. She is working on the second novel in her Bad Vibes Removal Services Series.

8 thoughts on “Search and Rescue K9 Units

  1. This is a fabulous post! There are many unsung heroes in the Canine Community and their handlers that spend countless hours in search and rescue. Kudos to all who volunteer and to their canine companions for the work they do. Thank you for this post animals do so much for humans – they deserve to be noticed!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A few years back I belonged to the local writers group that met at a local church. Sometimes there would be guest speakers including some with expertise that would help crime writers. The Henderson Writers Group holds a writers conference in the spring. It gets attendees from all over the U.S.

    Liked by 1 person

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