This SAR Dog May Save Your Life

Rixi, a 6-year-old German Shepherd, searches for lost hikers in Yosemite's rugged terrain.
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Rixi, a 6-year-old German Shepherd, searches for lost hikers in Yosemite's rugged terrain.

Forging across Yosemite National Park’s jagged granite slopes with daylight running out, search-and-rescue (SAR) dog handler Shay Cook knew the search window was closing fast. For nearly five hours in May 2013, her dog Rixi had been tracking the scent of a hiker who’d gone missing that morning during a 12-mile hike to El Capitan. The man, diabetic and in his late 60s, had fallen into the river and become disoriented. Worse, a landslide had wrecked the trail between him and his partner, who was carrying the pack with their food and gear. The victim wasn’t equipped to endure 35°F overnight temperatures alone in the backcountry.

Faced with a search area several miles wide, park officials put out a call for one of Yosemite’s elite canine SAR teams (the YODOGS). Cook and Rixi were out on a nearby search when the call came, which meant that they could respond within 30 minutes rather than driving from home in the Bay Area, almost four hours away.

Since 1969, when the first non-military, “air scenting” canine SAR unit formed in Seattle, SAR dogs have become a vital component of backcountry rescue efforts nationwide. Each year, dogs assist on thousands of missions and facilitate hundreds of rescues. A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 times more effective than a human’s, and a trained SAR dog can detect that a teaspoon of sugar has been added to an Olympic-size pool. Most crucially, these canines can help rescue teams narrow down potential search areas in a hurry. Rixi is a “trailing dog,” specializing in tracking human scent over difficult terrain. But in this case, the two hikers had shared driving and packing responsibilities, muddling the smells in their vehicle. A single T-shirt stuffed in the backseat offered the best hope, but would it be enough?

With helicopters on standby, the searchers set off in late afternoon. After 5.4 miles on the trail and more than four hours, Rixi located the man at last. He had been fashioning a crude shelter with branches—upon seeing the rescuers, he was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude. Just 12 hours after his friend reported him missing, he was able to hike out under his own power, fortunate to have been located by a four-legged savior.

Happy endings like these are the payoff to years of meticulous training. Handlers—nearly all of whom are volunteers—put their dogs through drills year-round; exercises might include retrieving a hidden object at night, distinguishing a single smell from a scent “cocktail,” or learning to ignore distracting wildlife. Cook and Rixi drill several days a week, plus build up endurance during weekend backpacks. 

Cook is quick to credit Rixi’s fellow YODOGS and their handlers, plus park officials, for coordinating the successful rescue. “It requires the whole team. Everybody helps everybody,” she says. “You wouldn’t be able to do it on your own.” And while the best plan is to avoid needing Rixi’s help in the first place, hikers can take comfort in knowing that she and her compatriots are ready and willing to sniff you out and track you down.

Take It From Me...

Leave me a clue. Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Leave some of your belongings in your car. I’ll sniff them, and then I’ll start trailing you.

If you know you’re lost, stop. Finding a moving target is more difficult than a stationary
one. You may inadvertently wander into an area that search teams have already checked.

Step into survival mode. Be prepared to spend the night, even on a dayhike. Have plenty of food and water, and consider bringing a sleeping bag. Make shelter near a prominent natural feature like a creek or ridge—“high probability” areas— where search teams are likely to look first.

Technology is man’s second-best friend. GPS devices and cell phones aren’t substitutes for sound judgment and a compass, but having them with you can help us turn an exhaustive, open-ended search into a precision rescue.

Keep an eye out for us. Identify SAR dogs by our harnesses or vests. If you see us in action, please don’t pet us because we may be working. But do ask the handler if he or she is looking for someone—you may have seen that person on the trail.

Get a Grip

In the backcountry, Rixi and her handler use a 33-foot, 3/8-inch Biothane Long Line leash ($30; rayallen.com). “This line has exceptional grip and strength,” Cook says. “Dirt falls off, stickers don’t stick, and it doesn’t absorb water, freeze, mildew or rot, or get rigid in the cold.”