Search and Rescue Dogs in Disaster

Search and Rescue Dogs In Disaster

By Jan Harkner-Abbs

In the past months, earthquakes have been reported around the world with devastating effects. Rescue teams were deployed to help search for victims. Within those teams were dogs trained to locate the buried victims of those disasters. To the families of the earthquake victims, the dogs are another sign of hope that their loved one may be rescued alive.

When one thinks of a disaster dog, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) usually comes to mind. These dogs are specifically trained to a standard ensuring that the dogs are able to work well in a disaster situation. Must all disaster- trained dogs have this title behind their name to be a competent working dog? The answer is no. There are many dogs that are very competent animals that have not been afforded the opportunity to test under these standards for one reason or another. Any dog that is trained to work in disaster should be following some standard to assure it’s working ability and safety. Disaster work is very dangerous work. If you don’t know what you are doing, you endanger yourself, your dog, and other rescuers.

How do they work?

Dogs are used to find victims that may be trapped or buried in various rubble situations. This can range from a major earthquake to a small-scale tornado that has destroyed a trailer court. When dogs are initially called in, they are looking for alerts on live victims only, not deceased. The priority is to access the people who are still alive. The efficiency of these dogs not only saves lives but also the time, energy and equipment of the rescue teams. These dogs are a very efficient resource.

Dogs are expected to comfortably climb through the rubble to locate the scent source using their nose to alert by barking and digging. Some handlers may use other alerts but the bark alert seems to be the most common. They may need to access small spaces and should be stable enough to tolerate the noise and movement of the rescue efforts and machinery. Once the rescue effort turns to recovery, then separate cadaver dogs are brought in or handlers may have cross-trained dogs for cadaver work.

Where are these dogs located?

Many of the disaster teams are located on Task Forces throughout the United States. Not every state has a task force. There are approximately 150 FEMA certified dogs in the nation. If requested, officials deploy the task force. The time it takes for the team to arrive can vary. Your State Emergency Management Agency should be well aware of this resource should a disaster strike. They also need to research local dog teams that have the same ability and training for immediate resources.

Testing Because the testing for FEMA is generally for Task Force members only, many are not able to test their dogs to the FEMA standards. Unfortunately, this limits the ability of FEMA to access the absolute best teams possible because they have a small pool of dogs and handlers to choose from. If a team is not within distance of a task force or cannot belong to a task force, they may have an excellent working dog, but not be able to use it in a FEMA situation. There is a need to investigate the possibilities of a national competency testing for anyone who wishes to test their dog for use in disaster situations. This would provide our nation with the very best dogs. It would also allow us to make very good use of excellent dogs that are unable to access a task force due to distance constraints.

Requirements of a disaster dog

Obedience is tested to be sure the dog has the ability to be controlled when working in a disaster situation. The dog is expected to work off leash with no collars or equipment. Without collars, vests or equipment, the dog is less likely to be snagged and injured on the rubble. Obedience is expected from a distance as well as in close proximity to the handler.

Social skills are tested to assure stability of the dog. Dogs need to be able to work loose around other dogs without distraction or aggression. They also need to be safe around people in general, as they will encounter not only the rescue workers and public, but also news media. An unstable dog can be a disaster to the teams as well as to the reputation of the breed. Completion of the BH in schutzhund completes many of the tests that the dog would need to pass the social and obedience skills in search work.

Alerts are critical. The dog must be able to pinpoint the source of scent in order to give the rescue team an exact location of where to begin the digging. Alerts must be consistent and very clear. The hold and bark training can easily be transferred to a bark alert in disaster work. Resources can not be wasted on false alerts. The dog must know and understand its job.

Directional work is needed to direct the dog on the rubble to places that need to be searched. Visual and auditory cues are allowed to be sure the dog moves to the correct area or away from a danger area. Running of the blinds is an excellent start to teaching the directional work.

Agility is very important in order for the dog to be able to traverse horrible conditions and not lose the drive for the victim-find due to stress. The dog must be very agile and physically sound. Structure is just as important in this respect as drive. A dog with poor joint condition or very poor structure will stress quickly and lose the ability to continue working. Size also makes a difference, as a very large dog may be more at risk. Climbing in rubble is very difficult and dangerous. It is unfair to place a physically unsound dog in this situation as it usually spells disaster for the dog and the victim. It is not recommended that young puppies be exposed to rubble situations often. My recommendation would be to let the puppy mature physically. Very low height agility and simple terrain training is fine. Focus most on building drive.

Handler skills are also required and will usually be decided by your team. Not only will you need to have specific technical skills but you will also have to have a stable temperament! A disaster situation is very tough to deal with. Most teams have programs to assist personnel in dealing with the stress but it is up to you to stay in good shape physically and mentally in order to do your job when you are called.


Training of a dog in disaster can be very useful. It takes a great deal of time and effort as well as patience. Not only does the dog need to complete a great deal of training, but the handler needs just as much training. The goal is to be able to locate a victim in a very safe manner for everyone involved. Disaster work is very dangerous and the work is not to be taken lightly. Become a well-trained handler, train your dog well and you will be a credit to your community, your country and possibly the world.

Jan Harkner-Abbs has been involved in Schutzhund since 1983 and in Search and Rescue since 1993. She has trained her retired Schutzhund dogs for SAR work, and has certified them in wilderness area search and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) urban disaster work. She is a member of Northern IN SAR, IN Task-Force-1 and is a Firefighter/EMT for the Rome City, IN Fire Department. Jan is a member Michiana Working Dog Assoc. in the Mid-Eastern Region. For more information Jan can be contacted at:

Email: or
8188 N 175 E, Wawaka, IN 46794

This article has been republished with the consent of the United Schutzhund Clubs of America who originally published this article in its bi-monthly magazine. For more information on Schutzhund or membership with the United Schutzhund Clubs of America please visit their website

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