Our Story

What is CARDA®

Area Search – Trailing – Cadaver – Water – Avalanche – Disaster

The California Rescue Dog Association, Inc. (CARDA) is a group of volunteers with specially trained dogs dedicated to assisting in the search for missing persons. CARDA teams are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to respond to local, state, and federal law enforcement as well as other public service agency requests.

Established in 1976 and the most extensive search dog group in the nation, CARDA, and its standards serve as a model for other search dog teams. CARDA is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and has 120 currently certified dog teams spread throughout the state.

In addition to mission-ready dog teams, there are also over 120 active members without a currently certified dog, 36 apprentices working towards mission-ready status, 24 pre-apprentice members, and 30 supporting members.

CARDA search teams have participated in thousands of searches over the years and have saved the taxpayers millions of dollars through the use of volunteer resources. CARDA members incur all costs including mileage, equipment, pagers, and dog expenses. CARDA provides a radio to each mission-ready team member for field use. Many CARDA members take time off work to participate in searches and training, drive thousands of miles a year, and spend 50 to 100 hours per month for training and searches. CARDA teams participate in hundreds of searches annually either as members of CARDA or while representing their County SAR teams.


CARDA is the largest and most geographically dispersed of the three search dog groups in California that are direct resources of the State of California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) Law Enforcement Division. CARDA provides search dog services to all public service agencies at no charge.

Relationship with Local SAR Units

In many counties CARDA dog teams are also volunteer members of their local sheriff’s department or other search and rescue groups for local responses.   When you see search and rescue dogs deployed on a search in California, the odds are very good that the dog is a CARDA dog even if the team has responded as part of a County Sheriff’s SAR team.

When Can SAR Dogs be Useful?
  • An overdue hiker or hunter in a wilderness area
  • An Alzheimer patient who has wandered away
  • A missing child
  • A drowning victim in a lake
  • An area where there may be human remains buried
  • A victim buried in an avalanche
  • A missing person where suicide or homicide is suspected
  • Persons suspected of being in a collapsed structure
  • To locate human remains after a fire
What CARDA Teams Can Do

All CARDA dog handlers initially train a dog in one of two disciplines: trailing or area search. Trailing dogs are trained to follow the path that a lost person has taken. Similar to traditional “tracking” dogs, these dogs require an adequately preserved scent guide (i.e., a scent article like a sock or glove).  They are not distracted by other people in the area. These dogs work on long leashes. Trailing dogs most frequently work trails that are hours or days old. Area Search dogs are trained to find any human scent in the area. Area search dogs work most frequently off-leash and can cover large areas. After certifying in Area or Trailing, teams may certify in any combination of the following specialties: Cadaver dogs train in the location of human decay: tissue, blood, bones, etc. Water search dogs trained to locate human decomposition which emanates from under the water. These dogs work along the shore and in boats to find the scent as it rises through the water. Avalanche dogs are trained to locate avalanche victims buried in snow. Disaster dogs are trained to locate victims buried in rubble from a collapsed buildings or other natural disasters, and often deploy after earthquakes.

CARDA Handler Training

CARDA’s dog handlers represent a variety of backgrounds – full-time or reserve peace officers, paramedics, or retired or working professionals. All of CARDA’s dog handlers have a shared dedication to helping people and expertise in the use of search dogs. All CARDA handlers have been with CARDA a minimum of one to two years; many have ten or more years of search and rescue experience. Dog handlers are continually updating their skills and knowledge, and most participate in 50 to 100 hours or more of training and missions per month. The minimum training requirements for all CARDA handlers include:

  • First Aid
  • CPR
  • Map, compass and GPS navigation
  • Survival skills
  • Radio communications
  • Helicopter operations
  • Crime scene preservation
  • Scent movement
  • Mantracking
  • Incident Command System
  • Low-angle rescue and rope skills
  • Litter/patient transport

Most handlers have additional training in areas such as canine first aid, technical rescue, and amateur radio.

CARDA Dog Training

CARDA search dogs receive extensive training and are repeatedly assessed to ensure they meet our standards.  Minimum dog training requirements include socialization, obedience, agility, transport, and helicopter orientation. As a team, the dog and handler must pass a series of preliminary skill sign-off that culminate in final tests to become “mission-ready.”   The process often takes just over two years.  Mission-ready teams must participate in on-going training throughout the year as well as periodic recertification.

Examples of Actual Searches

CARDA dog teams get deployed in numerous search situations including:

  • High profile abduction cases
  • Pacifica and Love Creek Mud Slides
  • Mexico City Earthquake
  • San Bruno pipeline explosion
  • Boulder Brook Mud Slide
  • San Francisco’s Bay Industrial Park Explosion and Fire
  • 29 Palms
  • San Bernadino Train Derailment
  • Loma Prieta Earthquake
  • Oakland firestorm
  • L.A. Riots
  • Yosemite National Park Rock Slides / Missing Hikers
  • Berkeley Homicides
  • Coalinga Earthquake
  • Northridge (Los Angeles) Earthquake
  • Chemical Plant Explosion
  • Oklahoma City Bombing – 5 dog teams participated

Some CARDA members are also part of the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Disaster program. These units are used not only throughout the state of California but also when other states and countries need disaster-trained rescue dogs.