Welcome to the Western Australia State Emergency Service Canine Unit

Area Search Dogs vs. Tracking Dogs

When people think of a search and rescue dog in Australia, the most common image that springs to mind is a German Shepherd or Bloodhound on the end of a long lead.  That would be true in the case of a tracking dog, but the SES Canine Unit also employs the use of area search dogs.  Both are effective when searching for missing people and excel in different areas.  Both types are also resource friendly as a team consists of only the dog, handler and a navigator.

Air Scenting Area Search Dogs

Area search dogs work off lead and away from their handler.  They can cover large amounts of ground rapidly and are trained to find airborne human scent in an area.  This may be a person, an article of clothing or item that has fresh human scent on it or even the recently deceased.  Upon finding the source of human scent, they then return and alert their handler and lead them to the source.

Area search dogs tend to work best in large areas of bush, farmland and parks.  They can also easily search car parks, shopping centres, golf courses and stadiums after closing times.  Area search dogs are most useful at quickly clearing large areas or for going back and re-searching an area if the missing person may be mobile 

Although the majority of searches that the area dogs are deployed on are in bushland, a recent search that the unit attended was in the urban area of Fremantle.  The dogs were deployed at night and areas searched included the football grounds, buildings and roads near the prison and hospital, a lawn bowls club and its surrounding ovals.

Area search dogs work especially well at night and are useful in areas that are difficult for foot teams and vehicles to access such as dense bushland or hillsides.  Even if the search dog can't directly reach the missing person, they will be able to alert their handler and lead them to the closest point of contact. 

Scent Specific Tracking Dogs

Tracking dogs work on a long lead and harness and are trained to detect a specific human scent.  After smelling an article from the missing person, they will search around the point last seen to find the track or path the person walked and follow that path to the missing person.

Because they are scent specific, they can work in populated urban areas.  Even if the dog loses the track (the missing person may have been picked up in a car or ended up on public transport), they can give a direction of travel which can then narrow down the possible areas that the missing person has gone to.

Tracking dogs work best when there is an uncontaminated scent article and a point last seen.  In the instances where a car has been abandoned by the missing person, handlers have used the car seat as a scent article for the dog and have tracked on from there.

Which type is best for a search?

When in doubt, it is best to speak to the unit as they will be able to give an objective assessment as to whether or not they will be useful.  The two types of dogs are often used in conjunction with each other and some handlers have dual purpose dogs.

When there is a missing person, time is often of the essence and what may take a foot team several hours to search methodically, a search dog can systematically search the same area in a fraction of the time.

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