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  1. Utilizing Air-Scenting Search Dogs to Locate Drowning Victims: A Research Report


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German shepherd on boat Water Scenting

Utilizing Air-Scenting Search Dogs to Locate Drowning Victims: A Research Report - Page 1

Prepared by: Alice J. Stanley
Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Association (ARDA-VA)
June 1981

Part 1 of 2


Search and rescue dogs have been finding subjects under water for over two decades, however, it was not until the late 1970s that serious research was undertaken. At that time, a series of experiments were begun by the Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Association (ARDA-VA), under the direction of Unit founder Alice Stanley.

Among their various discoveries and innovations were methods of dog alerts (e.g., biting at the water), scent behavior in water (current drift, deposition zones), working dogs from boats, and specific training methods, including the use of divers.

Mrs. Stanley compiled much of this research into the following paper, which was published in the Proceedings of the 1981 National Association for Search and Rescue Conference held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Part I: Partially-Submerged Subjects

The use of air-scenting search dogs in locating drowning victims has been an area of research by the Virginia Unit of the American Rescue Dog Association(ARDA®) over the past two years. This paper is the product of all such research to date and includes case histories from two ARDA Units (Virginia and New Jersey).

There are two types of drowning victims considered: partially-submerged and totally-submerged. By definition, partially-submerged victims include those whose clothing was visible to searchers, but the bodies were almost completely submerged. Totally-submerged victims include those who were not visible in any way to searchers, normally in deep water.

Case #1: A 78-year-old woman, who had a history of heart problems, disappeared while mushroom picking with her husband. The New Jersey Unit was flown in on Day 3 of the search and commenced search operations on the morning of Day 4. Late in the morning, the subject's basket was found and a new point last seen(PLS) was established. Shortly thereafter, one of the dogs led his handler to a small pool where what appeared to be a rock was observed in the middle of the pool. Upon closer investigation, however, it was determined that the "rock" was in fact the ballooned jacket of the missing woman. Her body was totally submerged in the pool, which was approximately three feet deep.

Case #2: An 87-year-old male was reported missing from his home and authorities requested assistance from the Virginia Unit. Dogs were deployed in the woods and open, brushy fields radiating from the subject's home. Shortly after leaving base camp, a dog led her handler to the man's body, which was floating face down in a small creek with only his shirt visible.

Case #3: A 32-year-old male had been caught in a flash flood and pulled through a metal pipe which ran under a roadway. Dog/handler teams from the Virginia Unit were worked along a two mile stretch of the creek, although search efforts on Day 1 were cut short by a severe thunderstorm. Dogs resumed working on the morning of Day 2 and within an hour a dog located the subject floating mostly submerged in the creek, one and one-half miles from the PLS.

Conclusions: Partially-submerged victims appear to present no severe scenting problem for the dogs as the scent intensity seems to be equivalent to that of a subject on land.

Page 2: Totally-Submerged Subjects

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