Searching for a person lost in the bush involves gathering information and then acquiring and applying appropriate resources to specific areas. NZ qualified SAR search dogs with experienced handlers can be a valuable supplement to other search resources. Effective deployment requires an understanding of how a search dog works – their strengths and limitations.

Wilderness search dogs are trained in two areas, tracking and/or area search (air scenting).


These dogs are trained to follow ground scent where a person or persons has walked. The ground scent is made up of some personal scent from the person as well as scent created by the crushing of soil, vegetation and organisms on the ground.
It is important that the tracking dog is called early as time is the biggest enemy of ground scent. It is also important that the area is not contaminated by other searches as the dog will follow the most recently laid line of scent.
Tracking dogs can be a very useful tool in the hands of an experienced handler. They can track much better and quicker than a person using visual sign and can be used to sign cut tracks, ridges, creek beds etc.
The limitations of tracking dogs are determined by time delay, weather conditions and the surface they are asked to track on. When conditions get tough the handler will call on his, or his team mates visual tracking skills to supplement the dog’s ability. The dog’s air scenting ability will always be there, no matter the conditions and the Handler will be aware of this.


All humans emit microscopic particles bearing human scent. By the millions, these particles become airborne and can be carried by the wind for considerable distances. Airborne scent is concentrated near its source and follows the air currents, and becomes more dilute the further it travels. The handler will determine how the area is to be searched, no matter which direction the wind is blowing. A NZ qualified air scent search dog will ‘follow up’ the scent to the lost person, through heavy bush, along beaches, lake shores, over farmland and parks, during the day, evening and in the dark. These dogs can search long after the track is obliterated and contaminated, zeroing in on where the person is now, regardless of how they got there.

Wilderness Search Dog
Wilderness Search Dog
Wilderness Search Dog

Ideally the callout should occur the moment it is suspected a person is missing, especially if they are lost in bush/wilderness/farmland/park/beach.
Most search dog teams welcome early deployment, even if the search is resolved before they arrive. If in doubt, discuss the situation with the dog handler direct.

Search Dog Teams
Each handler requires 1 to 2 other team members who are experienced SAR members, good navigators and can cope easily with communications. It’s ideal they have trained with the dog team so they understand how the dog team works to be most effective.
Dog teams will need to take breaks as people teams do and are capable of working multi-day searches. All SAR dog teams will carry dog 1st aid, dog food, dog helicopter lifting harness, map, compass and GPS.

Search Managers:
Search Managers cannot be expected to be experts in the deployment of search dogs and must get to know their dog teams.
Know what they are capable of and not be afraid to ask them how the team can be best deployed.