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Golden Retrievers are amazing dogs. In addition to being very smart and great at retrieving objects, they are very good at scent-related activities, such as tracking.
While most people associate Golden Retrievers with service-related activities such as guide dogs, and rightfully so, would you be surprised to learn that Golden Retrievers are good at search and rescue?
As a whole, Golden Retrievers make great search and rescue dogs. The breed is highly intelligent, obedient, and trainable and it can focus for hours without distraction. In addition, Golden Retrievers like to play and retrieve objects, which is helpful in training search and rescue dogs.
Most would agree that what search and rescue dogs and their handlers do is nothing short of extraordinary. However, we often do not precisely understand what is involved in search and rescue, and what makes the Golden Retriever uniquely suited to this task.
Search and rescue operations are often thought of as locating a missing person. Still, search and rescue operations encompass so much more, including cadavers, evidence, and water searches.
In the following sections, we’ll discuss the role of search and rescue dogs and what they do, plus some interesting facts about these fantastic dogs.
But first, we start with what makes the Golden Retriever a good fit for the search and rescue dog role.
What Makes Golden Retrievers Such Good Search and Rescue Dogs?
The selection of a good search and rescue dog requires specific traits. Like any task, some dogs are better suited to certain roles than others.
In terms of search and rescue (SAR), particular characteristics seem to lend themselves well to the task of finding people in emergencies. Qualities that are often found in the Golden Retriever.
Breed of Dog
Not all dog breeds are well suited to the role of search and rescue, although it doesn’t really matter if the dog is purebred or a mixed breed. What is essential is that the dog can do its job.
For example, whether it is herding sheep or retrieving downed game birds for sportspeople, these tasks require the dog to be alert, focused, and patient.
Not surprisingly, the dogs in the sporting and herding groups are regularly ranked in the top tier of intelligence and obedience, traits which certainly lend themselves well to being trained in search and rescue.
Generally, the working and herding breeds are the best prospects for SAR dogs, particularly Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, who are a very popular choice among SAR Dog handlers, says Michelle L. Limoges, SAR Dog Handler, Search & Rescue Dog Association of Alberta.
In addition to Golden Retrievers, other popular choices are German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Border Collies.
Hold up. While the Golden Retriever’s temperament is well suited to search and rescue, they do not make good guard dogs. If you want to find out why, plus the differences between guard, sentry, protection, and watchdogs, then take a few minutes to read this article:
She also notes that one of the most important traits that a potential SAR dog can possess is the desire to play with toys and people and retrieve objects of any type. SAR dogs need to be friendly and enjoy being touched.
Why would traits such as play and retrieving be so important in SAR training?
Because SAR training is basically a game where the dog is playing with its handler to find a hidden object using its scent, it is important that the dog enjoys playing.
And as most Golden Retriever owners can attest, Golden Retrievers are highly energetic dogs with a strong innate drive to play and retrieve things.
The game of SAR for the Golden Retriever: using your super doggie sense of smell and all that doggie energy to go find the toy (person or object). Golden Retrievers love to play, have focused energy, and can direct that energy for hours on end when it aligns with their innate drive to find and retrieve objects.
Golden Retrievers are one of the most trainable dogs. According to canine researcher Stanley Coren, they rank in the top four of all dog breeds for intelligence and obedience.
Combine all these traits together, and you have a perfect recipe for a trainable dog in the game of search and rescue.
Size is an essential aspect of search and rescue. Typically you’ll see search and rescue dogs that range in the medium to a large spectrum of dog size.
While other attributes are equally or more important, search and rescue often occur outdoors, around water, and in inclement weather like snow. Therefore, the dog must be big enough to deal with these varied environments.
The search and rescue dog should typically be in the range of 50 to 70 lbs. However, larger dogs that possess the other vital attributes discussed are acceptable choices too.
The breed standard for Golden Retrievers is 55 to 75 lbs, depending on gender. However, that range is specific to show dogs, and many Golden Retrievers grow larger than that.
Generally speaking, however, the Golden Retriever’s size falls nicely within the range for search and rescue dogs.
Structurally, you want a well-balanced dog. Unlike show dogs, the emphasis for SAR dogs is on agility and endurance.
Search and rescue can be physically demanding and require the dog to perform its task for hours in often challenging terrains.
Michelle L. Limoges recommends “a sound dog with good, balanced angulation front and rear, while shoulder placement and strong rear assembly are essential for jumping and climbing.”
Golden Retrievers were bred as outdoor companions to hunters and sportspeople. Their initial purpose was to retrieve waterfowl and game birds, often for hours.
Those tasks required the dog to be agile and to be able to endure long hours of focused and patient activity.
Often the retrieving activities require a Golden Retriever to retrieve waterfowl from water bodies and in colder temperatures, which they are aided in by possessing a double coat.
Search and rescue activities often require dogs to operate in similar situations as those described. Outdoors in cooler temperatures and challenging terrains, remaining focused and patient for hours on end, agility, and endurance.
So, yes, Golden Retrievers possess the physical traits to be good SAR dogs. They are strong and agile dogs, bred to be physically active for long durations if necessary.
What is the most critical aspect of a good SAR dog? Temperament and character are the most important stress Michelle L. Limoges.
Of course, the dog must be focused and patient; characteristics that often come when given a task aligns with its natural instinct.
One of the most essential characteristics of a good SAR pup is the desire to play with toys and people and retrieve objects of any type, adds Michelle Limoges.
No wonder Golden Retrievers are well suited to search and rescue. It’s almost as if they were tailored-made for the activity.
Gender does not play a significant factor in a good search and rescue dog. More important than gender is if the dog possesses the other traits discussed.
Male or female is more of a personal choice and has little bearing on the dog’s ability to do the job.
I wrote a detailed article on whether the female or male Golden Retriever is the better choice of dog and the differences between the two. So if you’re interested in reading about that, you can find that article here:
Tracking and Nose Work
Tracking is an essential part of search and rescue. After all, it is how a SAR dog finds the person it is tasked with finding. Simply, tracking is locating a specific object by using its scent.
And, yes, Golden Retrievers make excellent trackers, as well as excelling in nosework. In fact, I wrote an entire article on how well-suited they are to tracking and air scent work. To read that article, you can find it here:
However, if you don’t want to read the entire article, here’s a snippet summarizing the jest of the article.
Notice that many traits that make Golden Retrievers good at tracking are the same ones that make them great at search and rescue. And that’s because search and rescue require a dog to search out a person by using the scent of said person. That’s it.
Many SAR dogs are trained in nosework or “air scenting,” These dogs are trained to locate human scent in an area. For example, a tracking dog will track along the ground by keeping its nose on the footprints.
In contrast, air scent dogs are trained to locate anything with human scent by using the scent molecules in the air. As such, they’re not as limited by environmental conditions that can degrade the scent of footprints over time.
Air-scenting dogs are often used in specialties such as cadavers, water, disaster, and evidence searches.
In other words, in the Golden Retriever, you have a dog well suited to search and rescue, be it for tracking or for more specialized air scent work.
Training for the dog is critical in SAs, and as discussed earlier, the Golden Retriever is an intelligent and easily trainable dog.
What Areas of Search and Rescue Do Golden Retrievers Specialize In?
Search, and rescue has many specialties, and where a Golden Retriever, or any dog, is used depends on its training. As discussed, training can be in tracking and nosework (air scent), and additional training may focus on the following areas.
Often, many areas of search and rescue are not rescue-related per se but more “search” related. SAR dogs can also be used to locate objects for evidence or recovery.
Contrary to misinformation or myths, dogs can locate bodies and objects in the water. However, water search requires extensive training and can consist of shoreline searches and boat searches.
In addition, dogs and handlers must be good swimmers (cue the Golden Retriever).
Water searches are as much art as science. The handler’s ability to observe and interpret the dog’s behavior during a water search is essential. However, a dog can locate a body in up to 30 feet of water.
A cadaver search is locating the remains of a deceased individual. The dog detects the deceased individual by the person’s scent, if recently deceased, or by using decomposition gasses.
Locating the deceased for recovery is important. Not only for investigators to determine a cause of death (if necessary), but also to bring closure to families.
Disasters can fall into multiple areas. For example, in urban disasters, individuals may be trapped under buildings or debris. Tornados, hurricanes, and earthquakes are examples of urban disaster scenarios.
An avalanche is typically the most common disaster scenario in the wilderness, where dogs are employed for search and rescue purposes, although flooding and mudslides would be other examples.
Regardless of the disaster scenario, SAR dogs are utilized to locate survivors by scent, whether trapped or snow, debris, or buildings. Therefore, dogs trained in air scent detection (nosework) would most commonly be used in such situations.
Often when people think of search and rescue, they immediately picture a lost person. And, yes, SAR dogs are very often used in these situations.
It could be for a lost child and escaped fugitive, abduction, or any other scenario where someone has gone missing and needs to be located.
Dogs trained in tracking are valuable in these situations, especially if the scent is recent and has not been affected by the weather. However, dogs trained in air scent are often employed to detect scent through air molecules.
Whereas a SAR dog may be utilized to locate a missing person, it may also be used to find essential objects in evidence of a crime. For example, it could be to locate a discarded firearm, bullet casings, or other significant evidence for recovery purposes in evidence-based searches.
For example, dogs are also utilized to locate narcotic evidence in luggage, packages, containers, or individuals.
So there you have it. Golden Retrievers make great search and rescue dogs.
However, I thought it would be interesting to end with some interesting facts about search and rescue dogs. Facts that many of us are not aware of and that provide a greater appreciation of just how amazing SAR dogs are and the amazing job they and their handlers do – true heroes.
The Search and Rescue Foundation of Alberta provides these facts:
- SAR handlers can spend up to $30,000 on the care and training of their dog.
- SAR dogs can work upwards of 6-8 hours a day (and yes, they do get breaks).
- SAR pups typically begin training at eight weeks old, and a typical SAR dog has a working life of about ten years.
- A SAR dog can search up to an acre of light brush and trees in about 20 minutes – that’s fast!
- SAR dogs can quickly locate small objects like bullet casings in short grass or even blood platter in a car.
- A SAR dog can locate a body in 30 feet of water.
- SAR dogs and their handlers are on call to aid police agencies 24/7.
- Training is involved and extensive. Certifications can take up to 2 years and can include 2,000 hours of training time.
Let’s finish with a video on Buster, an adorable 12-week-old Golden Retriever pup. Buster is undergoing training in search and rescue for avalanche patrol.
Notice the training involves lots of play and games, as well as being handled by and meeting many people. Go, Buster!