SMART - Summit Missing Animal Response Team -
Summit - The English Setter who started us all
Search Dog FAQs
SMART DOES NOT CURRENTLY HAVE ANY WORKING SEARCH DOGS. That said, most missing pets are found WITHOUT a search dog, but through the use of other 'tools' and methods.
When do I need a Search Dog?
We evaluate each missing animal case as it comes in. Generally speaking we do not recommend the use of a search dog until you have done all the things you can do on you own to locate your missing animal -- this includes notifying ACO's, Vets, Emergency Vets, making and putting up POSTERS, and doing your own hard physical search (especially for cats). This can take you 1-2 days to accomplish. Many of these steps lead to the recovery of your missing pet - and you did not need a search dog. Also, lost pets are often scared and hide - using a search dog could potentially scare them even more... and away from where they were hanging out. While waiting seems hard, it is often the best situation. Lost pets will exhibit many different behaviors depending on species, personality and situation which is why we evaluate each case individually. If an animal has a special need, depending on what that is, we may determine that a search dog is needed quickly and make arrangements if possible.
How do Search Dogs work?
There are two (2) different types of Search Dogs - Air Scenters and Tracking. The two types of trained dogs are used in different situations.
Air Scenting dogs are directed by their handler to check for the scent given to them (or for generic cat). They work similarly to dogs trained to find birds for hunters. The handler creates a search pattern so as to completely search a given area - this depends on factors such as wind, terrain, and of course type of area (houses, woods, etc). The Search Dog is using it's nose to find a 'big pool' of the specific scent that they have been asked to find. Until they 'sniff' it, they are just out looking, and may even look like they are taking a walk. When the Search Dog detects scent, the handler who is trained to read the dog, will have the Search Dog work out which direction the scent is coming from. When a large scent pool is reached, the dog then alerts. Air Scenting dogs can alert to the actual animal, something that smells like the animal (feces, hair, collar, etc.), or a place they have spent significant time (bed down spot/hiding spot).
Tracking dogs are asked to follow the 'track' of the animal they have been given scent for. Think like the bloodhounds you see in the movies tracking down fugitives. It is the same process. In order for them to be able to work, you must have some idea where the track starts - the tracking dog cannot wander around looking for the track. This is why it is important to get specific information from people if they have called in sightings - we try and start at the last viable sighting, as it may cut miles off the track. The tracking dog's ability to follow a trail as it ages, depends on the surface/area that the track is on. In the woods, rural areas, and suburban areas (but not necessarily a lot of road), the scent can last for 14 days or more. In urban or very suburban areas, where there are a lot of roads and traffic, the scent does not usually last that long for the dog to reliably follow. Weather conditions do play a role, but rain does not matter - it does not wash the scent away. A tracking dog can only follow a trail where the missing animal has not already spent a lot of time recently. For example, if you have woods behind your house and your pet is always in there, the tracking dog will not be able to track as your pet's scent is everywhere and which trail should they follow. Tracking dogs have the ability to distinguish between old and new trails, but if the scent is everywhere, they tend to have difficulty picking up the 'newest' trail.
When do you recommend which kind of Search Dog?
That depends. We tend to recommend Air Scenting dogs for indoor/outdoor or outdoor only cats that go missing. This is because there is no specific spot that the cat left from and their scent is everywhere. If there has been a confirmed sighting away from the house, it is possible a tracking dog may be used to see if they can pick up the trail. However indoor/outdoor cats are very difficult to look for, as you can only air scent search a defined area - which may or may not be where you cat is. An air scent dog may be recommended for a dog that goes missing from its home - or someplace else it has walked from as well.
Tracking dogs are generally used for dogs and indoor only cats, and other animals as there is a specific trail that they can follow. However, if your dog regularly leaves your yard (freely), a tracking dog might not be able to pick up the one particular track that leaves your property.
Will the Search Dog hurt my cat? dog? turtle? other animal?
No. Search dogs have been trained to be careful when doing their searches and their behavior is very different than should you encounter them when they are not working. Most are trained to alert several feet away from your pet. Generally speaking, search dogs only tell you where the animal is likely "hanging out" or a hotspot (bed down area), or in the case of trackin dog, which direction it has traveled, you then still need to recover your animal. This may be as simple as picking it up or require more patience and resorting to luring it in, trapping, etc.
Will a Search Dog definately find my missing pet?
No. There are no guarantees. Usually search dogs just find where the animal is "hanging out". And in the case of tracking dogs - often its just what direction they are continuing to travel in. You still need to recover them. With cats, sometimes this is just as easy as reaching in and grabbing them. But often with cats and dogs, they really don't want to be found (which is why you have to look for them in the first place - or they would have presented themselves to the first human they encounter and give themselves up). Think of you missing companion animal as a FUGATIVE rather than a lost hiker. Unless the animal is hurt/injured or trapped in some way, they are still mobile, and often hide and can keep moving from the search team and never actually get spotted. If your animal wanted to be found by a random person walking their dog, they would have already been found and home, and you would not need a Search Dog.
Normally when a search dog team finds an area that they believe the lost animal is hanging out in, the search dogs are pulled out - as it is BEYOND RARE that a lost animal will walk up to a search team. Rather it is likely to move if scared. You would rather know where the animal is hanging out and go into recovery efforts, than only know where it was because it was pushed away to some spot you don't know. Remember when your pet goes missing, they are scared and act completely different than they normally do. Recovery efforts take different forms and can take some time (sometime days or more). SMART walks you through the different steps you can take to recover your animal.