Project Lifesaver and K9 Dogs


When a loved one wanders away from their caregiver, finding them quickly and safely is the top priority. The longer a loved one is away from home, the more chance for disastrous results. That’s why local public safety agencies should consider the best options for their community members. Project Lifesaver’s program is specifically designed to rescue loved ones in a multitude of conditions and terrains. K-9 units are often implemented to aid in the search and rescue of those with cognitive conditions, but they are not a perfect solution to a complex problem.


The art and science of canine tracking has been used for many years. The first center was established in Belgium in 1899, and it became the world’s leading canine training facility. Sheepdogs were implemented by law enforcement with the idea to make officer’s jobs safer and easier. As techniques were honed, the popularity of canine assistance spread across Europe. In 1907, Brigadier General Theodore A. Bingham started the first program in the United States. It was not until the 1950’s when K-9 units broadened the scope of their training. German shepherds were used in New York City by a former Marine who trained them to scale walls, enter a vehicle and hold its occupants, disarm a man, search buildings, and be vicious or gentle on command. Doberman pincers were also brought on board, and both breeds were sent to Portland in order to develop a unit on the west coast. However, there were many incidents reported of the dogs attacking their handlers, and the programs were disbanded for several years. Other large cities tried their luck, and during the 1960’s many agencies brought canines onto their teams. The initiative gained its most success during the 1990’s, when funding and professional trainers were an easier and more readily available option. Today, canine search and rescue units are very common place in the United States.


  • Strong sense of smell
    • In perfect conditions, dogs can smell up to 20 km!
  • German shepherds (the most common breed used for K9 units) are extremely smart to work with!
  • K9 dogs are a PR blessing
    • While K9 dogs are not for the community to play with, they often make great guests at PR events, as long as their handler is there to care for the dog.
  • K9 dogs do more than just SAR
    • K9 dogs can be taught to much more than search and rescue individuals. For example, they can be taught to search
  • Dogs can search large areas in a short period of time
    • During wandering incidents, more land coverage is vital to finding the person as quickly as possible.
  • Dogs can detect unconscious people
    • If a missing person is unconscious, they cannot call out for help. Being able to still track them if that were to happen is very important.


  • High Start-up costs
    • Can cost $20,000-$29,000 to start a unit
  • Maintenance Costs
    • Cost of kenneling, vet bills range $400-$1000 a year, a new K9 vehicle or converting an already owned car, dentist bills
  • Handlers are always on standby
    • Handlers must be on standby in case of emergency
  • Frequent training
    • Both handlers and dogs must be trained frequently to keep the high level of discipline and knowledge needed to perform their duties
  • Short working time
    • During a search, one dog lasts 20-30 minutes before needing 20-30 minutes to rest.
  • Need 2 dogs to search same area
    • In order to continually search for a missing person, at least two dogs are needing on scene so one may rest while the other searches
  • Performance may vary
    • Differences in individual handlers and canine personality may hinder performance

Working Together

No one tool works 100% perfectly every time it is deployed in the field. We at Project Lifesaver believe having more than one “tool in the tool box” is the best way for public safety agencies to be ready, flexible, and adaptable when someone goes missing. Project Lifesaver’s program can easily be partnered with search and rescue K9 dogs. Project Lifesaver can pick up right where a dog has left off on the trail of a missing person, even working in conditions the dog cannot perform in.