There are eight SAR dog units in the German Red Cross Niedersachsen. I had the honour of following the unit of DRK Peine during one of their weekly training sessions for my photo series “Dogs in service of people”.
Dogs have the invaluable skills to find buried people even in the most difficult of circumstances. No equipment comes close to the precision of a dog’s nose. The rescue dog groups offer invaluable work in crisis areas, during catastrophes or in the search for missing people.
The enthusiasm the dogs work with could lead you to think this is a game for them, but it is much more than just a hobby. The human dog teams of the rescue dog groups train intensively at least twice a week, because during an emergency it is a matter of life and death. Then the experienced teams are searching for missing old or ill people, children or potentially suicidal people.
A rescue team made up of human and dog has to go through approximately three years of training followed by passing several difficult examinations until they are qualified. The fail-rate is 50%. Many human dog teams give up early, because not only is it a time-consuming activity but absolute discipline, precision and dedication are essential. The examination has to be repeated every 24 months. There is no time to rest. It is a responsible and also important role.
We meet in a woodland area near Hildesheim. The approval to hold this training here has been granted in advance. The huge vehicle and the high-vis red clothes of the people in the middle of the wood attract attention. The SAR dog unit of the DRK Peine is made up of 12 humans and their dogs. They train in all weather because in an emergency you can’t choose the weather. In winter it is especially important to find the missing person quickly. But the spirits are high. It is a team of friends. Refreshments are available. There is coffee and muffins because even with all the seriousness of the task, community spirit is also important.
The dog is part of the family and therefore there is a strong bond between dog and master. The common pursuit is not only a worthy duty but also enhances the bond and challenges the mind.
Most dogs are used for the so-called area searches. For this, each team is assigned their own search area. During an emergency, a larger area in which the missing person is presumed to be, is split into smaller sections and then meticulously searched. After checking the wind direction, it is decided in which direction the area is searched.
The dogs have a small bell on their harness. This echoes through the woods as long as the dog is on the move. So the human knows which way to go to follow the dog. The harness also known as a SAR safety dog vest identifies the dogs as SAR dogs, which protects them from getting shot by hunters.
As soon as the dogs have the vest on they are in “work mode”.
One by one the team members hide in the woods. All kinds of different situations are simulated.
The dogs are highly concentrated and watch all instructions from their human closely.
The dog is released and independently searches the area.
This is not an easy task. The path to the missing person leads over stones and other obstacles into the thickest of undergrowth. But the more action the more enthusiasm the dogs seem to develop, even though every animal has its own personality. There is the focused Labradoodle Vegas or the seemingly out-of-control Tschako, who even with his fiery temperament makes it to the finish.
Every dog waits for its turn. You can see the delight on their faces. They are focused on the task.
After finding the missing person, the dog stays with him and now shows the direction by barking.
Tschako expresses his delight about the find through jumping high into the air. While doing so he barks to inform his human. But the found person is never touched.
Pumpkin, a black Labrador mix, is a so-called “Bringsler”. Let off the lead and sent on the search he is looking for the missing person. As soon as he has found a person he takes a piece of string attached to his collar into his mouth and goes straight back to his handler and owner. From a full run he jumps to her at chest height. The string in his mouth and the jump show he has undoubtedly found someone.
Then he guides his handler on a lead to the missing person.
Finley is a sporty Magyar-Vizsla mix, who shows a lot of physical commitment:
The reward is of course also important. These are matched to the preferences of each dog. The greedy Labrador might prefer his favourite treat, while the mover is happier with a tug-of-war after an endurance run through the forest.
Charly, a 12-year old Labrador, who used to rescue people for the DRK for years, is now a pensioner but gets a chance to show his skills in every training nonetheless. He wouldn’t understand if he’d suddenly had to stay home alone while the younger family member Arcon goes to an emergency with their master. Instead Charly bounds in total commitment through the woods and gets his lap of honour. And he still has the same precision, enthusiasm and concentration of his younger colleagues.
Of course in a real emergency the rescue of the missing person comes after the find. The position is established and the operations manager is informed.
First Aid is administered followed by the transportation of the person.
An exciting and long day comes to an end. Human and animal are tired – but happy.
Unfortunately not every search has a happy ending but several times a year teams save lives and their work is an important and often crucial part of rescue missions.
The SAR dog units in Germany are urgently looking for committed human-dog volunteer teams. It doesn’t matter if the dog has a pedigree, is purebred or a former street dog. The dog should be physically fit, socialised and have no anxieties. If you are looking for a useful activity for human and dog this could be your thing.
The German Red Cross is a charity financed by donations.
Further information about the SAR dog unit of the DRK Peine:
And here are a few more impressions.
Trying to get a team shot with Charly and Arcon:
Babou is a tracking dog who follows a track with the help of his nose. For this he stays on the lead:
Linus is one of the seniors of the team and a highly-experienced SAR dog:
Of course the well-being of the animals is also important:
Hansen is sent off:
Hansen is a Labrador from a working line. The rescue work is a wonderful occupation for this young and sporty dog, who is fully committed:
Of course he also gets his treat:
Hansen and his human:
Vegas has just passed his examination:
At the end there is, of course, always some time for messing around:
A big “Thank You” goes to the humans and dogs who volunteer worldwide to rescue people.