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Sniffing for the Missing: the Dogs of Search and Rescue

Sit. Stay. Search.


It begins with the test.

"You have to take something your dog is really motivated by, whether it's a treat or a favorite toy, and hide it," said Leanne Thurston. "Then, your dog has to look for it for at least two minutes."

Thurston's amped-up puppy surpassed five minutes without slowing down. After that, she had to make a commitment, too.

Thurston and her dog are members of the Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit, Idaho's only stand-alone, nonprofit search and rescue group. There are 12 dogs on the team, each owned by volunteers willing to spend hours training not only their dogs but themselves.

It takes about 18 months to train a dog for certification in search and rescue through the National Search Dog Alliance, and their duties are intense: Dogs in IMSARU follow scents in the air and tracks on the ground to locate people lost in rugged terrain. In a worst case scenario, they are trained to find cadavers—even in lakes and rivers. They—and their owners—are committed to as many as 30 rescue missions a year.

Not every dog can become a search and rescue dog. Thurston said it takes something that can't be trained—it's a drive not found in most of our pets.