Air-Scenting Search and Rescue Dogs for Dive Teams

By Douglas Fishel Jr.

Scenario: Your dive rescue team has been dispatched for an overturned boat on a large body of open water. Witnesses tell you that the occupants were treading water about 100 yards from the shore before they went under. At best, the point last seen (PLS) is vague, and the search area is vast.

You begin with a normal standard operating procedure (SOP) by diving and running search patterns or grids near the reported PLS. The water is dark and murky, and visibility is very poor—conditions encountered in most emergency dive situations. After about 40 minutes in water temperatures above 60°F, the rescue has probably become a recovery. How many times in the past have you encountered this or a similar situation?

The percentage of rescues vs. recoveries differs for many reasons, most of which are out of your immediate control. These variances include water conditions, inaccurate reports of the PLS, the size and resources of the dive team, and the availability and response times of these dive teams. How can a team safely improve the rescue/recovery ratio without substantially increasing the size of the team and without spending a great deal of money on technical equipment? The answer is simple: by recruiting an air-scenting search and rescue (SAR) dog and handler team trained for water rescue.

The air-scenting dog is specially trained to detect human scent from the air and follow it to the source. This concept differs from a tracking/trailing dog that smells scent and finds humans by following a “track” on the ground such as the Bloodhound.

The air-scenting dog does not require a defined track from the PLS to begin the search nor does it require a “sent article” such as the victim’s clothing. It merely needs an area near and downwind from the PLS to enable it to pick up the scent. The dog follows the wind-born scent directly to the victim.

SAR dogs have been used for years in wilderness, avalanche, and disaster search situations. Many SAR dog teams are trained for water work in addition to their “normal” SAR environment.

This concept is very simple. You know from the work of William G. Syrotuck from his book Scent and the Scenting Dog that scent (in this case, human scent) has certain physical properties. In the water, the billions of epithelial cells, secretions, and oils that the human body looses every minute gives rise to the surface because of diffusion. When they surface, these cells and secretions evaporate into scent to be carried by the air currents.

As this scent moves away from the person, it spreads to form a cone shaped pattern and is intercepted by an eager air-scenting SAR dog. The dog is trained to alert on any human scent and will show you the area of the submerged victim, usually within 10 feet in still waters. The proximity of the alert depends on water and air conditions such as depth, temperature, and direction and velocity of currents. The handler will know his particular dog and what its alerts look like.

Marian Hardy, a founding member of Mid-Atlantic DOGS, a volunteer SAR team based near Rockville, Maryland, and a well respected search dog expert, has published the results of her research on SAR dogs used in water rescues. This data has been compiled from the search reports submitted to the National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR) from 26 SAR dog units across the United States and one in Canada.

Hardy’s study concludes that of 130 drowning victims, 84 were found by dogs, 24 were recovered out of the search area, and 22 were not found. Dog alerts in nine cases could not be followed up by divers or conventional recovery procedures.

The depths ranged from 10 to 150 feet. The data supports a high find ratio by the dogs at 100 percent in tidal areas to 82 percent under normal flow velocities in river creeks and streams. Flood conditions represent a very different and complex search environment; victims may be found in excess of 40 miles from the PLS. The maximum number of days missing was 192 days.

The SAR dog team should be deployed prior to rescue divers entering the water. This will limit the amount of extraneous human scent at the PLS. If the PLS is close to the shore, the dog can be used on foot, near the water, or on piers.

(1) Rookie works the bank and boat landing area. (Photos by author.)


(2) Rookie alerts and then dives into the water from the bank. This is such a strong alert that

even the bystanders were able to “read” the dog.


(3) Rookie returns to me after the “find” to be rewarded for his work. For the dog, searching is

fun, and he knows will be well rewarded when he finds the subject.


If the PLS is on a body of water such as a lake or river, a small boat or canoe is the vessel of choice. Generally, an electric trolling motor or paddles provide for the best forward movement without any distracting gas fumes from internal combustion engines.

(4) The team rows into the wind and upstream to allow the dog the best

opportunity to get his nose into the scent cone.


The SAR dog is trained to sit in the front of the boat with its handler behind it. A second person will handle the boat and follow the direction of the handler.

The handler must be constantly aware of changing water and wind conditions and compensate for any change. The SAR dog will find the scent cone evaporating from the water surface and will react to the scent; this is called an “alert.” Different types of alerts include putting its nose into the wind, biting or licking the water, and barking. These strong signals indicate a person is submerged nearby. For this exercise, a diver was submerged in the lake and was diffusing plenty of scent for our demonstration.

(5) The initial alert.


(6) Rookie almost jumps out of the boat.


(7) Rookie’s strongest alert: biting the water. There is no mistake in reading these alerts.



(8, 9) In addition to biting the water, we also see the use of the small trolling motor to

reduce the extraneous and scent. There is also no danger of injury from the outboard

propeller for the victim—in this case, our diver!


Place a floating marker in the area of the alert or, in case of moving currents, visually triangulate the alert location from the shore or dive platforms. Ideally, a second dog and handler should be sent to the alert area to confirm the findings of the first dog. If only one dog/handler team is available, bring them to the area of the first alert from a different direction, i.e., upstream/upwind and come past the alert area to solicit a second alert to verify the location of the submerged victim. This is demonstrated by the photo below. Our team came in from a different direction and Rookie alerted within six feet of the original alert location. After you have a confirmation by one or more dogs, send the divers to begin the rescue.

The benefits of having a SAR dog team to respond with the dive team are evident. Just a few follow:

  1. Allows for a much larger safety margin for your divers. Imagine not having to run search patterns in low to zero visibility. The risk of becoming trapped in unseen debris is always a safety factor. Additionally, not having to dive into polluted, contaminated waters to clear an area saves time and exposure to the divers. Large areas can be cleared by the SAR dog much faster than divers. Knowing where the victim is NOT will help narrow the possibilities of where he is. There is no need to send divers in an area cleared by dog teams. By using SAR dogs, your dive team becomes more effective and, by design, more efficient.
  2. The response of a SAR dog team initially will improve the rescue/recovery ratio. The dog/handler team can be deployed while the dive members are amassing and preparing to initiate the dive. Some dive teams are composed of individuals responding separately from a large geographical area. Deployment of the SAR dog, while waiting for an adequate number of divers to arrive at the emergency, enables an incident commander to define the PLS.
  3. In today’s budgetary climate, saving time and resources also saves money. SAR dogs complimenting dive teams will increase efficiency, reduce actual diving hours, and staffing requirements. More importantly, if deployed immediately, the SAR dogs will save lives that otherwise may have been lost.


For additional information concerning water search with dogs or a list of SAR dog teams in your area, contact:


National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR)

PO Box 232020

Centreville, VA 20120-2020

(P) – (703) 222-6277

(F) – (877) 893-0702


Visit the Mid-Atlantic DOGS Web site for Marian Hardy’s archived articles at



Syrotuck, W. Scent and the Scenting Dog. Barkleigh Productions (2000).

Hardy, M. NASAR lecture and personal interview, 1992.


Douglas G Fishel Jr is a retired firefighter/paramedic with the Anne Arundel County (MD) Fire Department, where he served as an acting battalion chief of special operations. He is a volunteer and life member of the Gettysburg (PA) Fire Department with more than 30 years of service and volunteers with the United Hook and Ladder Company (New Oxford, Pennsylvania). Fishel is a master instructor with the Pennsylvania Fire Academy and has a BA in organizational management and an AA in EMS Administration. He is also a National Fire Academy alumni.


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