What dogs are used to find missing people? What to Know

Their sense of smell is unbelievable

It is said that if a dog’s sense of smell extended the area of a football field, the equivalent in humans would be one postage stamp. Lars Moe, a professor at the Veterinary College at NMBU, says that’s probably about right.

“This may well be true. A dog’s ability to smell is extremely good, a few molecules are enough,” says Moe to sciencenorway.no.

“Dogs can even be trained to smell people who have been infected by COVID-19, even before they have clinical symptoms,” he said.

Moe is a veterinarian and professor at the Department of Companion Animal Clinical Sciences at NMBU.

Part of the sense of smell is innate ability. Bird dogs are good at finding birds by catching a scent in the air from grouse lying on the ground. Hunting dogs can look for other prey by following tracks on the ground.

In addition, people have further developed their ability to find things by training them to search for specific odours and to signal that they have detected them, he said.

But how is a dog taught these skills? What does it take for dogs to understand what to find?

“The training begins with markers in the form of people lying down or hiding in the landscape. The dog is encouraged to find the person. It gets a reward in the form of a treat or a favourite toy when they find the person,” Olsrud from Norwegian Search and Rescue Dogs explains.

Gradually, the dogs are given more difficult tasks. The coaches build on the training, step by step.

“They get to train in more difficult environments, where the markers are more well hidden,” Olsrud says.

The dogs are also trained to signal when they find clothes, backpacks and other things that people have worn.

They signal either by standing on the spot and barking, or return to the owner with a leash that it bites.

When they make discoveries, they are always rewarded.

“We are looking for dogs that like to work for hours, so rewarding them is important,” Olsrud said.

The vast majority of searches are for people with dementia who have died, or psychiatric patients.

“These are depressed people who may be considering taking their own lives,” Olsrud said.

But a few searches are for ordinary hikers who have gone missing.

Search and rescue dogs can also be used in disaster areas such as collapsed buildings or landslides, if the crew has been approved for that specific type of search.

Search and rescue dogs on land can get additional training, such as for avalanche searches and rescue and disaster training. These require separate courses that the dogs and their handlers must pass. During the tests, people are buried in large cavities, large enough so they have space to breathe.

A dog’s sense of smell is so good that they can find people buried deep in the snow.

“Even in snow, there will be air pockets that allow dogs on the surface to smell people who are several metres under the snow. The human body is warm, and the smell rises,” Olsrud said.

Searching in landslides is far more difficult.

“In the case of landslides, the area of the slide is almost like a vacuum, and it can take a long time for the dog to identify odours,” he said.

Copper, Carline, Isabelle and Hiccup are the four most important members of Bloodhound Man-Trackers, a nonprofit founded in 2014 by three law enforcement officers in Colorado to help law enforcement agencies throughout the state.

“There arent any agencies in Colorado that have a full-time bloodhound unit for tracking down bad guys and finding the lost and missing,” said Brian Eberle, vice-president of Bloodhound Man-Trackers. “If theres a need, theyll call Bloodhound Man-Trackers.”

The handlers and their dogs train every Monday for a few hours to hone and maintain the dogs remarkable ability to find human remains and living humans.

When people go missing in Colorado or certain crimes are committed, one of the first calls from law enforcement is often to a non-profit based in Kiowa.

Over the past eight years, the four dogs and their four handlers, none of whom gets paid, have worked for about 65 different agencies on nearly 200 cases, many of them high-profile murder cases.

To teach “track,” have your runner create a trail about 25 feet long. Cue your dog to “track” and praise it when it follows the scent. Eventually lengthen the trail and the age of the trail (such as from one hour to five hours, etc.)

Bond with your dog. Creating a strong bond between you and your bloodhound will ensure it can trust you and you can trust it. Spend as much time with your dog as you can.

Introduce scent articles for your bloodhound to track. Have the dog smell the article and place it out of sight but not far away. Tell your dog to track. Praise the dog profusely when it finds the object.

Bloodhounds have been used to track missing people for centuries. Their keen sense of smell and physical features such as long, floppy ears and loose skin help them find and follow scents humans cannot. Training a bloodhound to track people can be challenging, but with persistence and the right techniques, any bloodhound can be trained to do this.

Teach your bloodhound basic commands such as sit, stay, come, heel and lie down. These are commands every dog should know, and the training process is fairly easy. It involves repetition and positive rewards.

How search dogs find missing people | RTÉ Brainstorm