The History of Search Dogs in the United States
Search Dogs have been used to find lost people for over three hundred years. The first search dogs were the St. Bernards of the Monks of the Hospice in the Swiss Alps. The dogs were trained to locate travelers who had become stranded or lost in winter storms while crossing the passes between Switzerland and Italy.
In World War I German and French dogs were trained to go through the battlefields at night to lead medical corpsmen back to them.
During World War II dogs in England were trained to indicate people buried under rubble. By the strength of the alert, the handler could tell if the victim was alive or dead.
In the United States a volunteer civilian organization, Dogs for Defense, helped convince the military to use dogs by training sentry dogs for the military to try out. In 1942 the Army authorized DFD to train 200 sentry dogs. Later the military took over the training and DFD was appointed the sole procurement agency for the Armed Forces.
Dogs were trained as sentry dogs, message carriers, sledge dogs in the Arctic and scout dogs. The scout dogs and their handlers led patrols. Most were worked on lead. When the dog got the scent of an enemy he quietly alerted his handler by tensing, or crouching, or pointing like a bird dog, or raising his hackles and growling under his breath. They were taught never to bark. These dogs were so successful in alerting patrols to the presence of the enemy that they were also used during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
An order regarding the K-9 Corps in the Pacific Theater during World War II read as follows:
- “No individual will attempt to touch or feed a scout dog, nor will he speak, whistle, lunge at, or in any manner, either by voice or gesture, attempt to attract the dog’s attention.
- “Dogs give silent warning in the following manner: by lunging on their leash, pointing in the manner of a bird dog, or by raising the hair on their back and neck. They do not bark and seldom growl.
- “The handler is the sole judge of what the dog can do. He will not be ordered to work a dog if he says that the dog cannot work.
- “One factor, such as the wrong direction of the wind, will cause a dog to be useless on a mission.
- “Dogs work best for from 4 to 8 hours. If a mission requires a night vigil all night, it must have two dogs.
- “The use of scout dogs is a matter of common sense, mixed with a fair understanding of animals.
- “These dogs are not super-weapons nor will they work miracles. They have been trained for special work which they can do with the help and understanding of all concerned, and will more than prove their worth by giving timely warning of the approach of the enemy.”2
In the United States the tradition picture of a dog looking for a lost person is that of a bloodhound following tracks. Bloodhounds have been used by police officials for years to track and find criminals and escaped prisoners. They are still used today to track lost persons and criminals.
In 1962 members of the German Shepherd Dog Club of Washington State, particularly Bill and Jean Syrotuck and Hank and Janet Wilcox, decided to start a Search Dog Committee. Hank had been a military dog trainer while the others were dog trainers in the club.
Tracking was the best-known method and was tried for a short time. However, tracking dogs had to be utilized early in a search before the trail had dissipated or the point where the subject had gone mission was not known. Dogs were rarely called in early on in the search so after several days and many preliminary searchers, the ground trail could be non-existent. (The unit had been in operation for at least ten years before they got to the status of being called first.) Hank Wilcox had worked with air scent dogs during World War II training them to search for aircraft by locating high test fuel. He pressed the members to try air scenting. So they developed a “searching” dog, one that would look for the airborne scent of a human being, much like a hunting dog looks for game. These dogs would still work a ground scent if one were fresh and available, but most of the time they would be searching the air for direct currents of human scent. In addition, tracking takes one or two dogs, while air scenting can use several dogs at the same time to search different areas. The dogs worked off-lead. If the dog found the subject while out of sight, he was taught to come back to the handler and lead him into the subject (the refind).
Dogs were being used in Europe, but in a somewhat different manner. In Europe there was little wilderness in which to get lost, and the forests did not have underbrush like the dense Pacific Northwest rain forest. Europeans worked their dogs next to each other in tight corridors with very high coverage. This would not work in most places in the United States as the areas are so much larger. Members developed the concept of terrain analysis, using terrain and wind to decide how to cover an area, each dog and handler having their own area to search. This was a new concept in how to utilize dogs.
Because searches in the Pacific Northwest were often in vast wilderness areas, the search dog handlers had to develop non-grid way of covering the areas while still giving high probability to finding the subject. This involved using terrain contours and wind currents to lay their search plans. Non-standard search patterns involve statistical probabilities of detection and are not widely understood even today.
After three years of training, they announced they were available to agencies and set up demonstrations for the sheriff’s departments. In July 1965 they were called to their first search. Officials thought someone might be missing from a train wreck. It turned out that no one was missing; the German Shepherd Search Dog Committee had had its first search. The first success came in May 1966, when they found a 14-year-old boy who had been missing in a rural area for four hours. He was found in 20 minutes. According to Bill Syrotuck, “That was the spark that we needed and it provided great encouragement for the handlers and their dogs to perfect their search methods.”2 A number of successful searches followed that convinced agencies that this was a workable concept.
In March 1969, Jean Syrotuck’s dog Bismarck found the body of a missing skier under five feet of snow at the 6,700 foot level on Mount Rainier. This was their first avalanche find.
In April 1969 the Search Dog Committee left the German Shepherd Dog Club of Washington State forming two groups: Search and Rescue Dogs Association (SARDA) under Bill Syrotuck and German Shepherd Search Dogs of Washington State (GSSD) under Hank Wilcox.
At this point there were only these two air scenting search dog groups in the United States. SARDA members went on many out-of-state missions, usually flown by the Air Rescue and Recovery Service, from Alaska to New York. Handlers were trained to coordinate with local search units. After searches in different areas they were often invited back to talk with interested German Shepherd club members on how to start a local search dog unit. Bill and Jean also gave seminars around the country. One seminar they gave in New York helped start the Adirondack (NY) and Ramapo (NJ) units. Another time they gave a seminar to a Texas group that the newly-formed New Mexico unit also attended.3 In 1972 these five units formed the American Rescue Dog Association. The founding officers were: Bill Syrotuck, Washington State; Don Arner, New York; Marty Miraglia, New Jersey; Margaret Lilley, New Mexico; and Bob Koenig, Texas. The goal was to share training techniques and to develop high-level uniform standards and a national alerting system for major emergencies. The similarly-trained units could coordinate available personnel and dogs for large search and rescue missions. Agencies could expect a consistent quality of service across the nation. SARDA developed standards and tests that were incorporated by ARDA. ARDA units and its standards, training, and people has had an influence – direct or indirect – on most of the hundred of search dog units in the United States today. ARDA now accepts all breeds of dogs, not just German Shepherds.
In addition, Bill wrote several books on search work: Scent and the Scenting Dog, Analysis of Lost Person Behavior, An Introduction to Land Search Probabilities and Calculations, and Some Grid Search Techniques for Locating Lost Individuals in Wilderness Areas. Bill died in 1976, but his influence can be seen in many of the search units throughout this country.
In December 1984 SARDA disbanded.
German Shepherd Search Dogs (GSSD) during this time was serving local Washington State and today is the oldest search dog unit in the United States.
When Mt. St. Helens erupted May 18, 1980, similarly trained search dogs from three Washington organizations – the sheriff’s department, GSSD and SARDA – were called to the disaster. The first dog on scene was Houser, a K-9 from Lewis County. He and his handler were the only ones finding victims. So the call went out for avalanche trained dogs from the two volunteer search dog organizations. Dog handlers from GSSD (Jim Giedon, Pat Goddard, Skip Graham and Tom Davidson) and from SARDA (Jeff Doran and Doug McClelland) went on several missions from two days after the blast to several weeks after.
The first missions were the scariest. No one knew what to expect. The helicopter pilots were having difficulty finding their way around as all the landmarks had changed. First they saw a line of demarcation where trees on one side of the line had green needles, while those on the other side had brown needles. Further on were standing trees without needles, and then further still were trees without needles lying down like matchsticks. Finally, there was total destruction – no trees at all. They had been blasted away by the intense heat and shock waves.
Searchers were flown in by these helicopters and were supposed to stay within thirty seconds of the helicopter in case the mountain erupted again. A C-130 flying above the area acted as a communications link so every searcher could remain in constant touch with what was going on. However, staying within thirty seconds of the helicopter and still searching was really impossible, but fortunately, there were no problems with further explosions from the mountain.
The work was exhausting. Officials had the dog search in areas where there was evidence of people having been – around vehicles and cabins. Ash was not as much of a problem for the dog’s noses as the handler has expected because the ash was coarse in the areas they had been working. And some of the time it had rained and the ash set up like concrete. The dogs did have trouble with the ash being kicked up in their eyes by the helicopters, so their eyes had to be frequently washed out with water.
In June, Jim Gideon, his dog Gus and others went back to Mt. St. Helens to look for a man and woman who had been fishing at Fawn Lake. Searchers had found their rubber raft and the bumper from their truck. Jim and Gus went around the lake but did not pick up anything. The team then went to the runoff area from the lake where Gus alerted and ran to an enormous pile of logs approximately 20 feet high and 400-500 feet long. Gus tried his best to get into the log pile. Jim worked for quite a while trying to help his dog get into the pile of logs, but there was no way in. However, he did find the wheel from their pickup truck in this pile. On the slope one of the other searchers found the cab of the truck. The truck’s bumper, wheel and cab made a straight line right up the slope, so Jim worked further up the slope.
The team just started working when Gus alerted on what looked like a patch of darkened ash and started pawing at it. Jim called to the sheriff’s deputy that his dog had something, but he wasn’t sure what it was. The deputy sent one of the other searchers to the spot to start digging while Jim and Gus worked further up the slope toward the lake. Ten or fifteen minutes later Jim received a call over the radio saying that a gold tooth had been uncovered at that spot. Everyone converged at the darkened ash and started digging. Three feet below the ash they found the body of the woman trapped under a log.
Jim believes that the missing man is in the log jam, but it would take heavy equipment to get him out, and ten years later there are still no roads into Fawn Lake.
Today there are nearly 1004 search dog units in the United States. Search dogs are being used in wilderness searches, on avalanche searches, water searches, and disaster searches. It all started in the sixties with the vision of a few members of the German Shepherd Dog Club of Washington State.
Marcia Koenig December, 1989 © 1989 & © 2009
King County Search Dogs
K9 Specialty Search Associates
1 From Dogs for Defense, American Dogs in the Second World War, 1941-1945, Fairfax Downey, Daniel P. McDonald, © 1955. Pp 91-92.
2 "Service Dogs," Philip H. Warner, The German Shepherd Dog Review, January 1968, p. 60.
3 I got started in search dog work at this seminar, June 10, 1972. Marcia Koenig Rebmann
4 I expect it's over 500 in 2009. MK