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K-9 SAR: The Big Creek Search Dog Team

This article is reprinted with the permission Of Mike Fields, executive director of the National Water Safety Congress.

Ever since dogs were domesticated, they have been assisting humans with hunting, herding, protection, as well as providing companionship. The relationship has evolved along with man and beast, and dogs are still beloved and valuable participants in our lives.

Searching for missing persons is among the many tasks canines perform for us. Search and Rescue/Recovery is commonly referred to as SAR, and you likely have volunteer K9 SAR teams that are active in your area. There are many different SAR specialties, including tracking/trailing, and air-scenting dogs who can detect the odor of live humans or human remains.

Detection Dogs

One of the sub-specialties of human-remains detection dogs are water-recovery dogs, who can locate the position of submerged drowning victims in slow or swift water. There are documented recoveries of subjects submerged more than 100 feet, but variables such as length of time

submerged, water temperature, air temperature, current and wind speeds,

size and condition of the drowning victim, and other factors make it difficult

to provide exact capabilities.

These dogs are highly trained to detect the odors of human decomposition as it rises up through the water. The various molecules that comprise human tissue rise to the surface in the form of gases or liquid, and evaporate from the surface into the air, where they can be smelled by a trained dog. The dog performs a trained behavior to tell the handler when/ where the odor is detected.

ON TASK - Jordan's body language and trained behaviors alert the handler when a scent is detected.


Once the odor is detected, the handler must analyze factors such as current and wind direction and speed to estimate where the actual drowning victim might be, which may quite a distance away from where the odor is detected by the K9.

Boat Handlers, Operators

Another important component of the water recovery team is the boat operator. Dogs are trained to use their noses to sniff the wind and evaporation gases off the water surface, but they rely upon a skilled boat operator to effectively drive the boat in a grid pattern, at the appropriate speed and direction to allow the dog to use the wind to his advantage.

Based upon the dog's behavior and body language as the boat moves through the search area, the handler and boat operator will direct the boat to where the odor is strong enough that the dog can perform its trained indication. The spot is marked with a GPS, ideally, or a marker buoy

(which we don't like because it looks like a ball, and can be a distraction to

subsequent dogs working the area).

The boat operator approaches the area of interest from several directions, and the handler and dog continue to narrow down and eventually pinpoint exactly where the odor is emerging from the water. Teams practice this coordination between dog, handler, and boat operator frequently to make communication, operation, and detection safe, smooth and efficient.

Handlers and boat operators must have demonstrated proficiency in a basic swim test, boating safety, and basic lifesaving techniques.

Often, another dog or dogs are brought to search the same area to confirm the area to searched by divers. Divers must still be used for the actual physical recovery, but accurate K9 water recovery teams limit the amount of time and area divers must search and, therefore, reduce their risks.


The dogs, their handlers, and boat operators must be comfortable wearing Personal Flotation Devices, and must be comfortable riding in various designs of watercraft such as inflatable craft, flat-hull and V-hull boats, of varying sizes and height above the water. The dogs must comfortably move around the boat to access the scent coming from the water, and must be patient enough to remain calm in the boat for an hour or more while still actively working.

Big Creek Team

Big Creek Search Dog Team has four teams certified in water recovery by the National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR). Will Rosch and K9 Jordan (German Shepherd), Debbie Rosch and K9 Libby (Dutch Shepherd X Doberman Pinscher), Jeremiah Trench and K9 Rocky (Yellow Labrador Retriever), and Sue Harding and K9 Louie (Black Labrador Retriever), have all trained and participated in water recovery certification and searches.

More Information

For more information about the team and their work, contact Debbie Rosch at (440) 251-0796; or visit them online at http://www.bigcreeksearchdogteam.com or on Facebook – Big Creek Search Dog Team.

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