Sunshine Service Dogs, Inc.,

Search and Rescue K-9 Unit

Facts About Search Dogs & Our SAR K9 Unit

Call-out: 715 857-5095 or 715-501-9094 CELL 


Thank you for your interest in K9 search and rescue. Sunshine Service Dogs Search and Rescue K-9 Unit is pleased to be part of the emergency response community in northwest and central Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Our goal is to provide well-trained handlers and canines that can assist law enforcement and other emergency service personnel in the search for a lost or overdue person. We also assist law enforcement in locating drown victims, cadaver and evidence search.

Our Training Director / Operations Manager, Lori Peper-Rucks, has professionally trained dogs for 30 years. (See Lori’s Biographical page).  Lori and most of the team took part in the “Fundamentals of Search and Rescue” (FUNSAR) class offered by the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR).  This training covered the Incident Command System, basic survival, map and compass, search resources, search tactics, clue consciousness, and handling evidence.  The knowledge gained allowed us to test and certify through NASAR as Search and Rescue Technicians: Level II (SAR TECH II). 

We are frequently asked questions about search and rescue dogs and our organization. We thought the following would be beneficial to all agencies involved in search and rescue. 

This list of things to consider is based on our training, studying searches, years of experience in training and handling dogs, and search and rescue K9 operation management.    

  1.  How search dogs can be used.

Search dogs fall into three main categories; 1) tracking dogs, 2) trailing dogs and 3) air-scenting dogs:

1) Tracking dogs work by keeping their nose in the actual footprints of a person and following them footstep for footstep.  They work on lead. Our dogs will also indicate articles by lying down next to the article to keep from disturbing any potential clues or evidence.

2) Trailing dogs search by following the route of the person.   Trailing dogs are generally started at the last known point of the lost person.  They can work either on or off lead, but we find it more efficient to work them off lead.  Unlike tracking dogs, trailing dogs do not follow foot-step by foot-step; rather they key in on traces of scent left on the surrounding ground and vegetation and may work several feet from where the subject actually passed. The dog’s head is generally held between shoulder and ground level when trailing. 

3) Air-scenting dogs find people by picking up on traces of human scent that are drifting in the air and following the scent “cone” to its source where it is most concentrated.  Air-scenting dogs are usually assigned to a search area.  The handler works the dog through the area using air currents to the dogs’ best advantage (generally upwind).  When air scenting, the dog’s head is held high.  Air-scenting dogs assigned to search specific areas can easily be worked into the overall search effort by splitting the search area into sections and assigning each dog/handler team a different section.  Air-scenting area search dogs also work well with other search resources because the most effective resource can be assigned to search different environments (example: planes for large open marshy areas, dog/handler teams or human ground searchers for woods and fields). They are trained to work from a scent article to discriminate from other scent that other searchers may have left. The scent article needs to be collected correctly to be used efficiently.  A trained searcher should do this.  If a scent article is not available, the dogs will find everyone in their assigned section.

Dogs that can multi-task by trailing and air scenting are very efficient in search operations.  Sunshine Service Dogs Search and Rescue K-9 Unit work dogs that trail and air-scent in wilderness and urban situations.  We also have dogs that are capable of searching for and indicating the location of cadaver, both on land and in water.  These dogs are also a valuable tool for locating evidence.

2. Timing and age of trail.

Time is a factor in the availability of scent for trailing dogs.  In general, the more time that elapses, the less trail scent is available.  The sooner the trailing dogs are brought in the more likely we will be to find the missing person.  That said, we have had dogs pick up on scent and follow a person’s trail 18 hours after the person had walked there.  One of our dogs was able to pick up a 1 week old trail.  Regardless of how old the trail is, it is generally worth trying a trailing dog from the Last Known Point.  At the least the dog may be able to indicate a direction of travel.  This information gives area searchers a better idea of the higher probability areas that should be searched first. 

The level of contamination from other people’s scent is also a factor in the performance of trailing dogs. If many people have gone into the search area, the scent from the lost person’s trail can become obliterated.

Time is much less of a factor for air-scenting dogs working an area search.  These dogs are keying in on the scent from the “scent-generator” (the person), which can be carried long distances on air-currents (easily ¼ - ½ mile on a steady breeze). A scent article gives the dog the scent information he needs to find the specific person he is searching for.  Contamination from other persons can be handled by allowing the search area to “air-out” for 30 minutes before sending an air-scenting dog in.  The strongest scent that remains will be that of the lost person.

  1. Weather conditions that may affect search dogs.

Very hot weather can affect a search and rescue dog’s performance in two ways: by leading to overheating and by making trail and airborne scent less available to them.  Scent theory indicates that during the hottest and driest part of the day the trail scent can become very weak.  Later in the day the scent becomes stronger with cooler temperatures and higher humidity (dew).  Scent that was not available to a dog in mid-afternoon may become available again later in the day even though more time has passed since the person passed through.  Hot, still days can also create a problem for air-scenting dogs since they create a condition handlers call “lofting” where the scent from the person rises straight up instead of being carried horizontally where it is available to the dog.  For these reasons, during hot weather, it is best to work SAR dogs in the morning hours, evening hours, or at night.

We are not aware of any research on how cold temperatures affect scent.  We train year round and have worked the dogs in temperatures as low as 12 degrees below zero.  Our experience indicates cold temperatures do not affect the dogs scenting ability.  And, as long as the dog is acclimated and stays active, the cold does not seem to cause them discomfort.

4. Things to consider while waiting for arrival of a K-9 SAR team.

Gathering scent articles

When starting a dog on a search the handler will show the dog the lost persons scent article and give the “find” command.  The find command means, “Find the person that smells like this.”  Therefore, it is important to be sure the scent article actually belongs to the lost person and is not contaminated with the scent of other people.  Scent articles should only be collected by trained persons and kept in clean, unused zip-lock bags for each dog/handler team. 

Gathering pertinent information

We recommend use of NASAR’s Lost Person Questionnaire.  This is a useful tool for the person taking the initial report of a lost person. ( Please contact Lori if you would like to receive a copy of this).

5. Things to consider when organizing search teams.

Technical/Medical Training

The ideal would be to have each search team consist of a dog/handler team, radio operator, a navigator, and a medically trained person.  Each member of our team has training in each of these areas.

Search Gear

Our team members carry the items recommended by our standards for a 24-hour Ready Pack.  It includes items for first aid, shelter, navigation, and improvising.  At minimum each team member should have water, flashlight, extra batteries, food, compass, radio, some first aid supplies, flagging tape, and clothing appropriate for the climate. 

Search Area Containment Procedures

Teams assigned to provide the containment perimeter are crucial to the search operations.  Their function is to insure that no one leaves or enters the search area unknown.  Without containment the lost person could unknowingly leave the search area. The eclipse motion detection system is known to be an effective tool.  Knowledge of lost person behavior is important to knowing where to place the containment perimeter. 

Other lessons learned from our experience and training

One of the most important lessons we have learned is to maintain a positive attitude.  To be effective on a search you must believe that you are going to be the one to find the lost person or the clue that leads to the lost person.  Equally important, you must not make assumptions about where the lost person is capable of going.  Search your assigned area and don’t jump to the conclusion that the lost person could not possibly be in it.  Other things that contribute to a successful search include early notification of the search team, quickly containing the search area, gathering pertinent information, gathering scent articles properly, good planning to identify high probability search areas, hasty searches of areas most likely to produce the lost person or clues, searching for clues as well as the subject, and using well-trained, well-rounded search teams.

6. Things to consider when finding a person or body.

According to our training standards, the first responsibility of someone arriving on the scene is to determine if the person is deceased, alive or critically injured.  Proper emergency care is the first concern.  At the point that responders determine the person is deceased every attempt should be made to preserve the surroundings and the exact position of the deceased and associated evidence.  The area surrounding the scene should be secured with rope, string or tape.  Write down a description of the scene as you found it.  If at all possible, even if alone, remain at the scene until official help arrives.  Always try to have a witness to any activity you are involved with around the scene of a death.  Do not search a deceased person for identification.  That is an official function that must be carried out by the responsible authorities as well as any photographing or evidence gathering.  

7.  Things to consider when dealing with the media or public.

Questions from the media, the public, or the family should be referred to the Incident Commander, usually the Sheriff or his/her designee for the search.  They are the best trained to decide what information to release.  Radio codes should be used for reporting the serious injury or death of a person, and this should be set in place before the search begins.  

8. Summary.

This is the protocol for our Sunshine Service Dogs, Inc., Search & Rescue K9 Unit.  Unlike many search and rescue teams, we do not run after our dogs.  We allow them to work.  We believe running is unsafe, putting the handlers and others in a situation where injury could create another victim and waste valuable search time. After a SAR K9 makes an indication, we then bring in another of our K9’s to verify that indication, before sending in other personnel and/or divers. Lori (our Training Director / Operations Manager) also trains Police K9’s, giving her knowledge of what law enforcement are needing from trained search teams. Our K9’s are all obedient and have good temperament, Lori holds all of us to high standards, and no K9 or handler, not meeting these standards are allowed on searches. We are in clean uniform, respectful of law enforcement and other search personnel, act responsibly and can be depended upon to do what is needed to assist in searches. We feel these protocols are important to assure Law Enforcement and other Emergency Service Organizations that we are a trained SAR K9 unit that holds to a high standard. 


Respectfully submitted by:

Lori Peper-Rucks
CEO / Operations Manager / Training Dir.


The Sunshine Service Dogs is a non-profit organization.
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Sunshine Service Dogs Inc.
2019 - 100th Street
Luck, WI 54853
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