Search and rescue (SAR) dogs are trained to find people who go missing in a variety of situations, both on land and at sea. They could be people who are missing to those who have drowned to those that may be trapped in a collapsed building.

For maritime SAR, dogs have proven to be a valuable addition to a boat’s crew. Weather conditions, such as rain or fog, that affect a human’s search ability does not impact a dog, which uses its strong senses of smell and sight to search for people in any situation.

“Dogs are vital when we are in situations where there is a large search area or poor visibility. Their ability to narrow down the search area or help exclude islands or water areas can help maritime SAR organisations and their crew find people quicker and save more lives,” said Richard Kullenberg, a District Coordinator at the Swedish Sea Rescue Society (SSRS).

During his career, Richard was joined by his canine companion Salt: a 10-year-old Australian shepherd. Although Salt has now retired his sea legs after seven years of deployment and 42 SAR missions, Richard reflected on the qualities he brought to maritime SAR operations.

“Salt is driven, focused and never tires. Like most shepherd dogs, he is incredibly intelligent and is keen on reading me and others around him. This made him an ideal member for any maritime SAR crew,” he added.

Although Richard has been a part of the SSRS since 2011 as a volunteer and as a full time employee since 2021, leaving behind his career in IT for one at sea, it was not until 2014 that Salt joined him onboard a vessel.

“The Sjöfartsverket (Swedish Maritime Administration) undertook a pilot course to convert dogs that had been used in earthquake areas for use in maritime SAR. Salt and I were among just eight spots on the two-year training course, by the end of which just two dogs and their trainers remained. Salt was awarded an official certification from Sjöfartsverket, which meant that both dog and trainer could be pulled in by the organisation’s Joint Rescue Coordination Centre to assist SAR crews, helicopters and coastguards with SAR operations,” Richard said.

During their training, SAR dogs are trained in experts related to searching in marine environments. The dogs have the ability to search for a missing person directly from a vessel, alerting their owner or driver and indicating which direction they should travel from up to one nautical mile in any weather condition or visibility. They can also search on islands and work closely with SAR vessels and helicopters during severe weather conditions.

However, as Richard noted, maritime SAR dogs are only effective when in lockstep with their handler.

“The handler must show a high understanding of search, grids, and communications methods, as well as knowledge of winds and how human scents spread in different conditions, in order to work with the dog and effectively position and plan a search operation,” he said.

Richard also noted that these training methods are constantly ongoing in order to keep the dog’s capabilities up-to-date.

“Each year Sjöfartsverket’s K9 team undergoes a ‘function test’ to maintain their certification. We also make sure to train up to three times a week in a variety of different scenarios to keep the dogs alert. For example, during a routine training session, Salt successfully located a diver using a non-bubble system at a depth of 10 m from 550 m away.

“Training in unknown scenarios is extremely challenging and rewarding. With the amount of training that we do, Salt has developed his very own ‘sealegs’ so he can be deployed in any environment.”

With several years of combined experience under their belts, Richard and Salt are showcasing the benefits of utilising dogs in SAR operations and environments.

“Dogs add a perspective to specific SAR missions that a human cannot replicate. I like to think of them as experts in the ‘S’ of SAR. Dogs have already proven themselves to be invaluable to the police and other rescue organisations so it seems like a natural fit for them to be a part of a maritime SAR crew, Richard said.

“It was a bold move by Sjöfartsverket to think outside of the box and bring dogs into their organisation but it is one that I believe that will benefit the general public for years to come.”