History of Search and Rescue Dogs

While search dogs were used to locate wounded soldiers as early as 1899, their use was not formally documented until World War I and World War II, when they served as military medic dogs on the battlefields. Search dogs have also been used down through history in the European Alps to locate victims of avalanches. The first successful disaster dog training program was developed in Switzerland by Urs Ochsenbein in 1969.

In the United States, the first search and rescue dogs were disaster dog units formed in San Francisco, Calif., due to bomb threats during World War II. However, these units were disbanded after the war. The first volunteer search and rescue dog unit was formed around 1969 by Bill Syrotuck in Seattle, Wash. Over the next decade, other search and rescue dog units were formed, primarily in the western United States. Other units followed in the early 1980s in the Northeast and South.

When a huge earthquake struck Mexico City in 1985, a canine disaster unit operating with USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance was formed. This team was also used following earthquakes in El Salvador, the Phillipines and Armenia. In the latter part of the century, the formation and use of canine disaster teams increased exponentially. Today, these dog teams respond to homicides, disasters, lost persons, and even drownings. In fact, from 300 to 500 canine search and rescue units are estimated currently to exist in our country. 

In 1992, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) program, which includes dogs specifically trained to locate subjects trapped in the rubble of natural and man-made disasters. These FEMA USAR task forces have been deployed following such disasters as the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks in 2001, and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

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