Digging through the rubble, tracking in deep snow, or even jumping into floods, dogs who seek out people trapped in often life-threatening situations go above and beyond the role of BFF. They require extensive training for all involved, humans included.
Search and rescue dogs have to undergo specialized courses in both search technique and scenario type and adhere to agreed-upon standards before certifying a dog as qualified. But are there specific breeds that are more suited to the role than others? Read on to discover the best search and rescue dogs who just might have been born for the role.
9 Best Search and Rescue Dog Breeds
This list of the best search and rescue dog breeds contains familiar names and, perhaps, some surprises.
Charismatic Labs, known by many as the quintessential family dog, are also adept at search and rescue. The breed originated in Newfoundland as a sporting dog and has a deserved reputation for dispensing endless affection.
But potential pet seekers are advised to give them plenty of exercise and stimulation to ensure they stay happy and healthy.
The same temperament that might exhaust a new dog owner (sometimes especially if that person is also a newer parent) simultaneously makes the Lab ideal when employed in SAR operations.
This breed has an innate craving to “do jobs,” the ability to learn commands and follow directions, and high energy. Those qualities serve Labs well in the demanding environment of search and rescue.
If someone says the phrase “K9 unit,” there’s a good chance you picture a German Shepherd. Like all workaday dogs, they have smarts to spare and, with proper training, perform well in high-stimulus situations that would distract the average pup.
With their history as herding dogs, German Shepherds are excellent for search and rescue operations, which require physical and mental stamina.
Still, that doesn’t stop the German Shepherd from enjoying popularity as a companion animal, too. In 2021, the statisticians named these faithful friends the fourth most popular dog to own.
Unlike many other noted search and rescue breeds, the Bloodhound isn’t known for its boundless energy. These famously droopy-looking dogs are also more sedate behavior-wise when compared to their peers. Sometimes, they’re even considered resistant to training because of their autonomous natures.
However, one task they take naturally to is tracking scents. Once set on the trail, the average Bloodhound won’t be swayed from its mission. With their long, muscular necks, Bloodhounds can tirelessly follow smells on the ground for hours, despite their tall stature (their typical height is around 23 to 27 inches).
The Bloodhound’s determined nature, combined with one of the keener senses of smell makes them a popular search and rescue choice. Researchers estimate a Bloodhound’s nose contains about 230 million scent receptors (known as olfactory cells), one of the highest among canines.
Border Collies, typically black and white and a bit squatter and shorter than Rough Collies, are more frequently mentioned as potential search and rescue candidates than their Lassie-like counterparts.
These high-energy dogs, like Labs, need lots of stimulation to prevent boredom and stress. Yet, those needs make them perfect for a life as a herding dog and the challenges of search and rescue missions.
Commonly regarded as one of the most intelligent breeds, the Border Collie is extremely responsive to training and performs well on tracking trials. These trials act as a simulation of search and rescue to evaluate the dog’s skills. The breed is frequently used in mountainous areas in Britain to scour hillsides and respond to the aftermath of avalanches.
The Belgian Malinois is one of four varieties of the Belgian Shepherd. At first glance, the breed looks similar to the German Shepherd, with its black muzzle, solid build, and short, light brown coat. Malinois are instinctively protective of their families and should be socialized from a young age to prevent aggressive behavior with those outside the fold (particularly young children).
In addition, it’s recommended they get more than a half hour of exercise each day. While they can be demanding for everyday owners, the Malinois’ alert disposition is an asset in their popular service with militaries and, you guessed it, search and rescue. Their diligence and drive are key in staying on task and navigating their surroundings to get the job done.
One of the best search and rescue dogs is another breed cherished for its sweet, lovable nature. The Golden’s desire to please amplifies their instinct to retrieve—whether a favorite toy or a missing person.
irelessly devoted but equally intelligent, Golden Retrievers are known for their gifts in other career dog capacities, such as being guide dogs for the visually impaired.
Their “goldness” can range from a deep orange copper to a lighter, cream-colored coat. The breed is highly trainable and obedient, making them a popular choice for search and rescue.
The Rottweiler has a mixed reputation due to various film and TV portrayals. While they do need training and careful introduction to strangers, this extremely strong dog’s territorial nature is most frequently a demonstration of a desire to protect its owner.
Another dog bred for herding and guarding, the Rottweiler is a natural leader when tasked with keeping groups of livestock together. When used as a search and rescue dog, the Rottweiler makes use of the same command of his surroundings and desire to work.
The breed’s ability to learn commands and stay focused on the task at hand gives it an edge over other candidates for search and rescue missions.
Springer Spaniels have long been used as hunting dogs. As such, they have traditionally been taught an impressive array of rules to follow in the field. For example, the breed must know how to grip a fallen bird softly in its mouth without puncturing it.
They are also trained to sit still while a gun is fired or a bird flies from the bush in order to gauge where the quarry falls. Finally, they have to obey hand signals to scope out potential game.
With these abilities, it’s no surprise that the Springer is also a more than worthy assistant in search and rescue missions. In fact, the Association of Lowland Search and Rescue, a UK-based volunteer team, routinely uses the breed for emergencies.
While many other breeds have proven to be perfectly suited to search and rescue, the behemoth St. Bernard was made for the express purpose. The iconic image of a brandy-bearing savior is most likely just a bit of folklore popularized from a painting.
Nevertheless, St. Bernards helped find lost travelers in the Western Alps who became buried by avalanches, disoriented, or both.
These gentle giants were bred by monks who oversaw a hospice built into mountainous peaks at the Great St. Bernard Pass. Today, the breed is no longer employed in an Alpine search and rescue capacity. Still, it deserves a place on our list due to its founding status, or do we mean “finding” status?
What Makes a Good Search and Rescue Dog Breed?
So what kind of canine companions are best suited for this high-stakes work? According to most training groups, like the American Rescue Dog Association, any dog could be a SAR dog. It’s not the breed but the dog’s individual traits that become a deciding factor if he’ll land the job.
- Friendly, unflappable demeanor
- Physical fitness and endurance
- Strong focus and desire to work
As this list attests, some breeds exemplify these traits more than others. Oftentimes, they’re lines originally bred for exceptional herding, guarding, or hunting talents. These breeds also frequently end up doing well as service dogs, police dogs, and even therapy dogs.
For example, dogs with the International Search and Rescue Dog Organisation usually begin training as puppies. That continues for at least two years before they are officially “deployed.”
These rigorous preparations are designed to create an animal ready to work with a variety of teams from firefighters to ski patrol to FEMA. Even the types of sniffing handlers command the dog to use are specialized, ranging from airborne scenting to tracking and trailing.
So, what are the best search and rescue dogs? While any breed can perform well in a demanding role like this, some breeds have the necessary traits in abundance. Iconic names like the St. Bernard, Border Collie, and Labrador Retriever have proven that even in the most difficult of situations, they’ll always be faithful in their devotion to humans.