Search and rescue dogs do their jobs out of love

Imagine getting lost somewhere in the mountains while on a hiking trip. You’re alone, it’s getting dark and you’re afraid that no one will ever find you. Just as you’re starting to lose all hope, you hear bells and then see a friendly dog’s face appears around the corner – a search and rescue dog has found you! Excitement fills the air, because you’re safe and the dog has done what he was trained to do. This is the work of groundSAR South Africa – volunteers in search and rescue.


The operation

There are various reasons why people go missing, and it happens every day. When people get lost or go missing in wilderness areas, search and rescue volunteers with their dogs will be called in to help with the search.

Typically, Dr Rissa Parker, founder of groundSAR and a veterinarian, will receive a call requesting her team to assist in a rescue operation. All callouts will be initiated by the South African Police Services or the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre. She will grab her ready-packed kit and be ready within an hour with her dogs to help where she can.

At the scene, Dr Parker, her dog Mukwa and her flanker will start the search in the most likely location of the missing person. They will walk against the wind, so that it is easier for Mukwa to find the scent of the person.

Search and rescue operations like these can sometimes take days. When this happens, the team will eat, sleep and rest in the field. They will sleep for only a few hours and rest during the heat of the day, so that the dogs don’t become heat stressed of exhausted.

“Once Mukwa gets a scent, she will mouth the air and ‘taste’ the scent. This is my cue that she has got a scent, and I will then give her the cue to find the person. Off Mukwa goes and, when she finds the person, she will run back to me and bark – the sign that she has found someone. I will then follow her to the person and do what is necessary in those particular circumstances, like calling for assistance and applying first aid,” explains Dr Parker.


The dogs

Mukwa has undergone training for several years and Kadzi is  still being trained for search and rescue. Both are Belgian Malinois. “Kadzi has the potential to be a scent-specific dog and is being trained accordingly, which means she will be able to find a person from the smell of their personal items, for example, a shirt,” explains Dr Parker. Then there is also Lunga, who is now retired from search and rescue.

She explains that any working dog can be trained in search and rescue – as long as they are driven by balls or a favourite toy. “To put it in perspective – in the dog’s mind, he will essentially be looking for the missing person who has his ball or toy. What really happens, is that we hand the victim the ball or toy (if possible) to give it to the dog as the reward for finding them. For the dog, it is just one big game.

“The dogs can’t be food-driven, as anything that can be potential food will distract the dog from her search. There are dogs who are successfully trained this way, but we train our dogs to be focused on the ball or toy,” says Dr Parker.



Dr Parker trains her dogs every day for two to three hours, and for around six hours over the weekend with the rest of the team. On weekends, they train at different locations, far away, where there is open veld to walk and run.



Nutribyte sponsors these highly active dogs’ food and Simparica makes sure that the dogs are protected against ticks and fleas. Garmin has subsidised groundSAR with GPS collars. The rest of the dogs’ equipment has to be paid for by the handlers themselves, as groundSAR doesn’t receive any government funding.

“As it is costly, we urge people to help us with the necessary funds. For instance, a tracking collar can cost R27,000 for one dog, and then they still need goggles, harnesses and earmuffs, to mention just a few items,” says Dr Parker. Even a small debit order of R10 a month will help groundSAR to continue with their amazing work.

The dogs and volunteers at groundSAR do amazing work and really need your financial assistance. You never know when you may need their help to find a missing person who is also one of your loved ones.

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