Rescuer preparing to fly. Photo by Lincoln Else SAR Technician John Gleason on a rescue board during training in the Merced River. Photo by Dave Pope.

The YOSAR Team

About YODOGS, YOSAR's Canine Team
[YODOGS Team]    [About YODOGS]

Since 1999 Yosemite has fielded its own canine search team of about twenty-five dogs and their handlers for searches in the Park. Nick-named “YODOGs” at some point early in its history, this team has some of the highest standards of any in the United States, for both dogs and handlers. YOSAR has the only team in which every member exceeds all requirements for Type 1 Canine teams as set out in the Guidelines published by the California Office of Emergency Services, which is itself the most difficult standard in use. Because of the dog teams’ extreme mobility (one dog and her handler in one day can search as much ground as a team of eight people), ability to operate in all weather without external support in the back country for at least three days, and efficiency at finding people, YODOGS allows YOSAR to concentrate its other search resources to maximize the chance of quickly finding lost people.

YODOG and handler rappelling.
Dogs rappel, too.

YODOGS dogs are of many different breeds, but they all share some common traits. All of them like people, and because of their training, they particularly like lost people. All are specially trained to avoid wildlife. In order to search their assigned areas, all of them need to be able to keep moving off-trail, at at least a fast trot, about twenty miles per day, day in and day out. Their agility must be excellent, because they’re often called on to search talus slopes and other areas where human searchers can move only very slowly. They must be good helicopter passengers, including, when required, to ride the jungle penetrator on a winch to the ground in areas where landing is impossible. The dogs rappel and are raised on ropes with their handlers into otherwise inaccessible areas.

Compared with the dogs’ requirements, handlers have it easy. They need to meet all of the fitness and other requirements set for other YOSAR members, need a long resume of backcountry search experience, and must be able to reach Yosemite within three and a half hours of the first call for assistance. Like the SAR-siters, YODOGs are paid for time on missions, but nothing at all for training (at least ten hours a week for two years before a team is ready to go, and then similar commitment throughout the dog’s career to maintain skills and acquire new ones), not to mention the dog food, vet bills, search equipment (on Yosemite’s granite, some dogs wear out their boots in one day, and a set for them is four, not two!), and all the other expenses that are part of a dog’s life.

How YODOGS find lost people

YOSAR has some “trailing dogs,” dogs which follow a person’s scent from the point where he or she was last seen (in search and rescue we call this the LKP “last known point”). Think bloodhounds following escapees in striped suits through the swamp. However, most of the YODOGs are “area dogs.” This means that instead of following a scent trail, the canine team is assigned to a specific area and the dog’s job is to find every person or fairly large object (like a pack) with human scent on it within that area.

Thus a typical large search in Yosemite works like this: when it is determined that a person is missing, the call goes out for the dogs. Meanwhile, search management identifies the (theoretical) maximum area in which the missing person may be found from the LKP, which is the speed of the missing person times the amount of time he or she has been missing, with due allowance for barriers like roads, large streams, or unscalable walls. YOSAR members “run the trails,” sometimes literally, within the search area, and set up “confinement:” trail blocks, lights, and sometimes even lines to contain the lost person. Back at Incident Command, the search area is divided up into roughly square kilometer-size segments. Dogs and some ground teams are sent in to find the lost person, if he or she is in the segment, or, almost as important, to determine that the person is NOT in the area. The idea, of course, is a process of elimination of areas which continues until the person is found. Of course, both dog and handler are also on the look-out for clues such as footprints.

Why dogs make sense for YOSAR

Suzie Star

Many visitors to Yosemite see YODOGS, especially around park headquarters, and are surprised to see dogs working in the Park, since dogs are generally not allowed off of developed areas. But YOSAR has discovered that using canine resources is one of the best tools for making sure that search operations have the least impact on the park, its wildlife, and visitors’ enjoyment of Yosemite’s wild splendor. Dog teams find victims quickly. That’s to the victims advantage, of course, but it also minimizes the “footprint” of a search: helicopter flights, large groups of people combing the backcountry, the large and often intrusive arrangements to house and feed large teams are less necessary. One dog and handler, operating independently, using two and four-footed transport over a square kilometer is much less intrusive than a large team. Because the dogs are intensively trained not to annoy wildlife, the wildlife is pretty much unfazed by a search – more than one handler has reported that during some portion of an assignment the team was followed by a curious coyote.

Talk to a dog

If you see a YODOG with a handler (most dogs wear a red Yosemite vest when on duty) you’re welcome to say hello and ask about YODOGs. One other requirement for handlers is that they love to talk about their dogs.

[YODOGS Team]    [About YODOGS]