These Dogs Love to Solve Mysteries

by Yavapai County SAR Dog Unit

It’s been said that search and rescue is a lifestyle. Working with search dogs is no different. 

Effective search personnel aren’t glory-seekers, and being a member of Yavapai County Search and Rescue Team’s Search Dog Unit is about as far from a dog park as you can get. 

Search work isn’t glamorous and often involves rolling to a call out at 3 a.m. ready to deploy. Search dog teams are often trudging through brush and scrambling over rough terrain in all kinds of weather for many hours in service of their mission. 

Yavapai County Search and Rescue Team’s Search Dog Unit is quite literally a different breed of search and rescue. While search and rescue in most places tends to be multitasking teams, Yavapai County often differentiates skill sets to get the most out of the available resources. The search dog unit focuses on the search side of missions. 

A search mission is a classic mystery. All searchers in every search and rescue unit use their talents, skills, training and tools to solve that mystery. 

The search dog unit’s primary tool is a dog, but not just any dog. These dogs love the pursuit and the game of finding a human subject. They work hard and get paid in treats, special toys and lots of praise from the handlers. 

Some dogs specialize in area search, also known as air-scent search, looking for live human subjects. Other dogs are trained in trailing when a scent article belonging to the subject is used by the dog to follow the path the subject walked while ignoring scents of different humans. Still other dogs are trained to locate the scent of human remains that may be buried and many years old. 

There isn’t one specific breed of dog that’s best for search work, and quite often the dogs are mixed breed and even rescues themselves. There are desirable physical characteristics of a search dog. Good candidates are athletic, agile, want to work, and get excited when their handler laces up their hiking boots.

Some search dogs begin their career as puppies while others start out at a year or two old. Prospective dogs are evaluated before beginning training, but there is no guarantee of success. The handler and the canine are a team, and they must learn to work together as one. 

Search dog unit members train many times every month to hone their skills not just with their dogs but on general search and rescue skills such as land navigation, wilderness survival, first aid, clue awareness, and search tactics. They do this because a necessary element for deploying a K-9 team into the field is what’s known as backing or flanking.

A handler has one or more backers helping the handler on their search assignment. These are integral members of the team who take care of navigation, communications, looking for clues, and safety of the team while also observing the handler’s dog. So, if you don’t have a dog, you can still be a member. 

In recent months, a number of unit members and their dogs have achieved national certification in the three disciplines, with several more getting ready to test. It can take a year or more to train a search dog for national certification. 

Team members never think twice about meeting that challenge and putting in the long hours of training because they know one day the rewards will be reuniting a missing person with their family and the wet nose of their four-legged teammate. For more information please visit

Photo: From left: Mark Richardson with dog Scout, Patty Richardson, Jodie Smith with dog Jersey Lilly, Corinne Harmon, Ann Schmidt with dog Dillon, Kathy Blanco with dog Sadie, Heather Lum with dog Google, Blair Burtan with dog Tippy, Janelle Hinesley with dog Koda;

Missing from The Photo: Jim Harrison with dog Goose, Tammi Harrison with dog Maverick, Mary Kay with dog Cosmo and Ralph Blanco, Photo by Artemis Studios Photography