Myths; Realities of Search and Rescue (SAR) Dogs & Their Handlers – Interview with Jennifer Fritton | SDP 6

serenadeI deem that this post will inform school administrators, staff, parents and families as what to expect in the event that search and rescue (SAR) dogs are involved in a search for a lost child.  This blog post was developed, in large part, from an interview I conducted on December 14, 2016 with SAR dog handler Jennifer Fritton.  She works with a SAR team in southern Wisconsin.  Even with my 20 years in various public and school safety roles, Jennifer instilled me with new knowledge into how to best interface with SAR teams from the perspective of administrator, teacher, parent and citizen-at-large.  At the conclusion of this post are links to my interview with Jennifer in video and audio formats.  I encourage you to share this post with others.


Search and Rescue dogs (and their handlers) are incredible assets to locating missing individuals. However, a poorly executed search effort is a distinct possibility as the “Professional” rescue teams are compromised by the well-intentioned, but amateur handlers that are, with concerning frequency, self-dispatching to incident venues and interfering with evidence and overall efficiency of time-sensitive operations. 

I interviewed Jennifer Fritton, Search and Rescue Dog handler (her dog, Serenade, is in the above photo), to learn more about the training and protocols for deployment of a search and rescue dog. Ms. Fritton indicated that she is a member of a volunteer group that always works under the direction of law enforcement.  That latter point is essential as Ms. Fritton shared that a quick Internet search can enable anyone to locate handlers, and at times, people in crisis seek the aid of the handlers (and their canines) before, or without, notifying law enforcement. 


Ms. Fritton explains that such “cold calls” need to be carefully processed, with the receiver taking down the caller’s key information and asking if the caller has contacted law enforcement. The next call is made by the handler, or as Jennifer noted, often the lead person for the canine rescue group, to law enforcement in order to state, “I was contacted by this person for this reason.  Our rescue group can offer these services to any potential search that is being coordinated by law enforcement.  Tell me how we might be able to assist you.”

While one would assume that rescue dogs are badged with such credentials through a standardized training and competency assessment, that’s only a partially accurate statement. Efforts to move toward standardized baseline credentials are underway, but there remains variation between how dogs are trained and how dogs are deemed qualified to participate in various search and rescue scenes.


It might seem obvious that cell phones, GPS and the latest technology gadgets would be requisite items for handlers. These items are likely tools used by handlers, but Jennifer shared that communications are done mainly via ham Radio and that handlers are trained to navigate via the standard magnetic compass as satellite or cellular connections are unreliable in some rural searches.  Such depth of training is a marker of a properly-trained professional team.


A Ham radio requires a license and therefore limits sensitive communications to people trained in radio protocols. It’s more likely that a search and rescue/recovery operation will maintain a sense of privacy amongst those involved compared to using cell phones, 2-way radios or even older CB radios.  Ham radios are often a steady source of communication during crisis situations.  Handheld ham radios have a range of only 5 miles.  Frequent “check ins” with a mobile base station at the search location ensures that the searchers are maintained within a perimeter in which they can communicate with each other and to a mobile base, which has a range of 200 miles.


Jennifer clarified that school staff should mobilize and go to “probable” and “high-risk” areas with their cell phones per the direction of a principal or designee. This can be done prior to the arrival of law enforcement.  Although such a step makes sense, it might not be considered by the school administrator who is preparing to interface with policy and emergency responders, sharing a description of the child with a dispatcher, perhaps gathering main points from the child’s IEP (for example, is the child non-verbal?), and trying to identify a staging area. 

These are crucial steps.  However, Jennifer noted that awareness of certain rescue profiles have proven effective in searches.  For example, she shared that children with autism might gravitate to bodies of water, railroad tracks and tall objects, such as towers.  She added that children with autism have been located within large machinery and buildings.  On the other hand, a person with dementia tends to be linear and will try to overcome a barrier, such as a fence, rather than navigating around it.  Still, someone expressing harm to self is likely to stay within 1000 feet of a known road or trail. 

It is appropriate for an administrator to send staff to high-probability or high-risk areas proximal to the school. A school located near a river would certainly warrant directing one or more staff to the river.  Again, while such directives seem automatic, they will be anything but automatic upon the discovery that a child has likely wandered from school premises.  Discussing how a potential search might be handled is something that should occur at least annually between administrators and staff – even for the benefit of reminding staff to not post information on social media or respond to inquiries from the media or from parents.  Such mis-steps, which are often done with good intentions, create confusion, hysteria and flood the scene with varying degrees of “helpers” and observers.

If a rescue dog handler arrives on the scene, he or she should sign-in with incident command. Again, school staff can help with this process under the direction of law enforcement.  Someone arriving in the school parking, leaping out of their vehicle with a dog and heading directly into a field happens more than one would think, again, a point shared by Ms. Fritton.


Jennifer’s experiences implied that most search and rescue dog groups consist of volunteers and are mobilized from locations around the state. It’s similar to a volunteer fire department in that people aren’t typically “at the station” awaiting a dispatch call.  Consider that most responders might have to leave work during the day, retrieve gear and the dog, drive to the scene, be debriefed prior to the search – well, it could take over an hour for rescue dogs to be on the scene – perhaps a few hours.  The sooner police contact rescue teams, the better – and teams rarely charge fees for their services.

Search dogs are less effective in a hot cornfield in summer. Conditions matter and there are also some locations that simply aren’t suitable for search dogs – if the handler is unable to get to the location, the dog won’t be sent into harm’s way, either. 


Jennifer described that search and rescue (SAR) dogs are trained on using air scent and are typically worked by a small team on foot.  Dogs can be trained to a specific person’s scent or, in the case of a collapsed structure, simply to identify a human scent.  Some dogs are specifically trained to detect a decaying body.  While this is a gruesome concept, it’s a reality.  Although impacted by environmental conditions, dogs can detect scent sources from a distance of 1/4th mile or more.

Guide dogs are much different than rescue dogs. Guide dogs, or service animals, are trained to help a specific person with specific activities, such as opening doors, navigating, etc.  These are the dogs that are probably most frequently observed in the community assisting persons with motor disabilities, such as person with cerebral palsy using a motorized wheelchair. 

Comfort animals are becoming more common in a range of settings. Although the interview with Jennifer didn’t delve into much narrative about comfort animals, Jennifer noted that such animals might be deemed necessary by a physician for the benefit of someone with anxiety, for example.  It was clear that school districts need to understand how various laws, particularly the Americans with Disabilities Act, applies to service animals or comfort animals and how such animals should be trained and certified.  As such, this information makes for proactive policy discussions for school boards as the frequency of comfort animals in various settings is increasing and the “qualifications” for such an animal are interpretive. 

Clearly, however, a SAR dog is significantly different in its training and purpose compared to a guide dog or comfort dog. Likewise the latter animals are not suitable for rescue operations.


Ms. Fritton’s descriptions of responding to search and rescue scenes seemed to couple strongly with the app-based site-based management approach discussed by Scott Meyers of ISS24/7 in a previous interview. ISS24/7 offers digital documentation and time-stamping that, from my perspective, would benefit a SAR dog deployment.  The innate GPS-use and geographical marker information inherent to a SAR deployment would complement ISS24/7 which relies less on GPS as the site is static – there’s just not as much of a need for GPS with the ISS24/7 application in a stadium setting, for example.

The biggest take-aways from my interview with Ms. Fritton are as follows:

  1. SAR professionals must work under the direction of law enforcement. Self-dispatch is a problem and must be mitigated as best as possible.
  2. Don’t wait for the law enforcement to arrive to dispatch personnel to “high probability” locations. The people you dispatch aren’t technically searchers, but are more likely to serve in the role of interceptors or to simply observe a sign of the missing subject, such as a mitten.
  3. Make staff aware of what to anticipate in the event that a SAR occurs at the school premises. Also, educate staff on their roles and also the need to avoid rallying a rescue crowd to help with a by-foot search. If necessary, the police will coordinate such efforts.  There is such a thing as a “bad” search.
  4. If you are interested in learning more about being a member of a SAR team, perhaps in the role of a support to the team or as a handler, it is best to inquire with local law enforcement in order to be directed to the “professional” teams that are contacted by police relative to persons or teams that maintain engaging websites and abide by less formal protocols. 

David Perrodin interviewed Jennifer Fritton on December 14, 2016. The interview can be accessed via the following media sites:

Listen to this interview on PodBean


The 405 Media:


Follow me (The Safety Doc) on Twitter @SafetyPhD

Learn about ISS24/7:

Sprigeo school safety systems & online reporting: