Canine search and rescue training involves a variety of highly specialized skills on both the part of the dog and the handler. While in recovery situations this calls for the use of a cadaver dog, live target situations require a K9 that can locate an individual using one or a combination of three locating techniques: Trailing, Air Scenting and Tracking. Each has its own very specific applications and one should not be confused with the other.

Trailing: By definition trailing uses a hound (in most cases) to locate a specific odor, or generally a specific person. Trailing dogs pick up the scent of skin cells and other particulates that fall to the ground as a person moves or is moved. Trailing canines are not deterred by contaminants or terrain. They will track an individual scent through heavily trafficked areas, areas with animal scents and carcasses, and across pavement, woodland, through structures, mountainous areas and even near and in the water.

There are two critical items that a handler and trailing hound must have in order to be operative:

1.) An uncontaminated article containing the target scent
2.) The last known location of the target

Without both of these a trailing hound cannot do its job unless it has also been trained to track or air scent.

Air Scenting: Air scent dogs pick up the smell of human particles in the air and track them by moving in the direction where the scent is the strongest. This is useful when searching for a target when you do not have a scent article or last known location. However, air scenting is limited because the dog will pick up any human scent in the area; therefore these type of dogs generally only work well in certain conditions. Air scent dogs are also limited by wind patterns, temperature, terrain, and contaminants such as smoke from forest or brush fires.

Tracking: Tracking K9s follow a physical trail a person has left behind. These dogs are often called upon to provide immediate support when a target has only recently disappeared – especially in the case of escaped or fleeing criminals. These dogs work by locating the immediate physical trail and following it while identifying any new objects along the way. As the person sheds skin cells, clothing or other items, the dog “inventories” the scent of those items and uses it to create a broader spectrum of the overall scent of the target.

Because the tracking dog identifies and tracks new items along the path of the individual, it can also do the job of the trailing hound. However, trailing hounds are rarely trained to track, and air scent dogs are almost never trained to track or trail. However, air scent dogs are often trained to provide protective and other law enforcement type services.