Dog talk with Uncle Matty: Up in the air

By From page A9 | June 28, 2013

For search-and-rescue dogs, saving lives is all in a day’s work. But these furry heroes don’t all work the same.
Nose to the ground. Nose in the air. Not to oversimplify things, but up or down, it’s all in the position of the nose.
Trackers, or tracking dogs, put their nose to the ground and get busy. These dogs work from a “last seen” starting point and require something with the missing person’s scent. Trackers don’t search; they follow. They are the dogs you call when a child goes missing on the way to school, when a dementia patient wanders off, when a prisoner escapes.

For air-scenters, it’s all up in the air — especially the nose. These highly trained hounds pick up human scent in the air and follow it to its source, whether that be “somewhere” in a national park, in the wilderness, in a body of water or buried under 20 feet of snow in the case of avalanche victims.

Air-scenters also are the dogs brought in for what is considered the most challenging of search-and-rescue missions: the urban disaster. In this sense, urban is as much Moore, Okla., in the wake of the recent spate of tornadoes as it was Ground Zero on 9/11. “Urban disaster” refers to a large-scale search for survivors or casualties after the collapse of a building or buildings for any reason — earthquake, flood, hurricane, tornado, fire, accident or terrorism.

After an EF-5 tornado ripped through Moore this month, more than 100 people feared dead were rescued from the rubble and debris. Many of them have an air-scenter to thank for that.

FEMA’s certification requirements are the only national standards for search-and-rescue teams wanting to specialize in urban disaster work, and those standards are very difficult to meet. According to “How Search and Rescue Dogs Work” by Julia Layton, “Fewer than 100 dog/handler teams in the country are FEMA certified. Local SAR organizations have their own standards for ‘mission ready’ qualification, typically based on guidelines developed by organizations like the American Rescue Dog Association and the National Association for Search and Rescue.”

Generally speaking, in order to get anywhere near the rescue end of an urban disaster, a dog must demonstrate competency in the areas of basic obedience, professionalism, mental and physical ability, and tracking skills. But more than size or breed or physique, success as a SAR dog depends on obsession. Toy obsession. The toy is the reward. The deeper the obsession the more devoted to the mission.

Whether working with noses down on the ground or up in the air, SAR dogs do things we humans simply are not equipped to do. For that and for them, we should be grateful.

Dog trainer Matthew “Uncle Matty” Margolis is co-author of 18 books about dogs, a behaviorist, a popular radio and television guest, and host of the PBS series “WOOF! It’s a Dog’s Life!” Read all of Uncle Matty’s columns at, and visit him at Send your questions to [email protected] or by mail to Uncle Matty at P.O. Box 3300, Diamond Springs, CA 95619.

Copyright 2013 Creators Syndicate Inc. 

Matthew Margolis

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