German Shepherd Search Dogs (GSSD) of Washington State

Hank Wilcox, GSSD founding
member with Sabre
Caption: Founding GSSD member Hank Wilcox and his search dog Sabre in the early 1960's.

German Shepherd Search Dogs of Washington State (GSSD) is a nonprofit volunteer group of people who use dogs of various breeds to search for lost or missing persons in wilderness, urban, cadaver, avalanche, and drowning situations.

The use of dogs in search and rescue is not new. While this group has been operating in the western United States for over 40 years, dogs have been used in Canada and Europe for decades. Some of the founding members of German Shepherd Search Dogs used their dogs to look for lost people after the end of World War II. In 1962 the founding members formed a "Rescue Committee" of the "German Shepherd Dog Club of Washington State". The "German Shepherd Search Dogs of Washington State" was incorporated in 1969.

The GSSD search dog is a combination of a tracking dog and a military scout dog. The tracking dog is trained to follow the scent a person leaves on the ground. A military scout dog is trained to indicate the location of a person from the scent carried by the wind to the dog. A well-trained dog, under average conditions, can smell and locate a person as much as a quarter of a mile away. Persons lost under water, ice, snow and rubble from disasters can be located by the experienced search dog and handler. GSSD is on call to look for lost people at the request of Sheriff Departments and other authorized agencies.

In wilderness searching, the area to be searched is divided into sections with a handler and dog assigned to each section. The dog, off leash, criss-crosses into the wind through the search area until he picks up the scent. The scent can either be from the person or from the track on the ground. Once the dog has picked up the scent, he proceeds directly to the person, following either the airborne scent or the track. The dogs are trained to work independently until they find the lost person and then return to the handler and take them to the lost person.

In avalanche situations, the search system is on a similar but reduced scale. The dog and handler cover the area until the dog detects the scent of a buried person. When located, the dog will dig down to the buried person. In training, volunteers are buried in snow caves. For water search, the dog and handler work from shoreline or a boat with the dog giving an alert (barking, whining, etc.) when he detects the scent of a person under water. Divers and scent articles are used for water search training.

The dogs are also used to search at night. Searching at night is slightly different from daylight techniques. The night searchers work with flashlights and headlamps through their assigned area using existing game trails and open areas to do hasty searches. Searching at night can be very successful, as lost persons don't often move during darkness and scenting conditions are usually good. Every effort is made to increase the chances for survival of the lost person by responding as quickly as possible to a search callout. This means that night searches are quite common.

The GSSD business meeting is often the third Friday of each month. Usually twice a month, wilderness workouts are conducted in various locations in the Puget Sound area. During winter, optional avalanche workouts are held for qualified wilderness teams, and water training workouts are also organized throughout the year. Other opportunities for training such as radio procedures, canine first aid, etc., are conducted at "in-town" training meetings on an as-needed basis.

If you are interested in joining GSSD, we ask that you come as our guest to business meetings and workouts. You will be asked to attend without your dog initially so you can follow other teams and learn about workout procedures. If you wish to become a member, you will be expected to complete a basic first aid course, become adept at wilderness navigation and your dog must know basic obedience and be well socialized. You must also acquire equipment for your survival in the wilderness. Communications equipment is owned and maintained by GSSD.

Ready Searcher Status (capability of performing actual search duties) is attained from GSSD's Operations Committee. Proficiency in navigation, first aid, radio communications, state training requirements, organizational standing rules and basic search dog procedures are important components of qualification. You and your dog must demonstrate skills in locating lost persons in a variety of weather and terrain in order to become ready searchers.

For more information about GSSD, contact GSSD Information

If you're outside of Western Washington, and need help finding more about nearby units, check the info at the SAR-DOGS list FAQ

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This page last updated: October 5th, 2006
Copyright, German Shepherd Search Dogs of Washington State, 1997-2006
Renton, WA, USA
Email -- webmaster@gssd.org