Training Cadaver Dogs

It turns out that students in the forensic sciences aren’t alone using Western Carolina University’s Forensic Osteology Research Station. The outdoor human decomposition research facility is also used to train cadaver dogs and their handlers.

That may sound unusual at first, because it would seem that a search dog simply follows its nose to do its job. But it turns out a search dog needs to be taught what it is searching for and human remains contain a wide variety of volatile compounds that the canine nose can detect.

A cadaver dog must be trained to recognize a whole range of scents related to death, whether those are coming from dried bones or the recently dead. Once the dog identifies and begins to follow a particular scent, the dog is trained to walk back and forth until it picks up the edges of the scent and then focus on the spot where the scent is most concentrated. Once that spot is found, the dog is trained to make a final indication to identify the spot. Usually, the sign amounts to lying down at the location.

Another challenge when training a cadaver dog is that in addition to human smells, there are a lot of animal distractions to smell, including dead animals. Scientists don’t know what the exact differences are between human and animals smells, but cadaver dogs must be trained to ignore those the animal smells.  

One other difficulty in training cadaver dogs to work outside is the effect of the terrain and the weather. Dog handlers have discovered that the scent of dead body can travel over hills. It can even travel into a creek, if there is ground water flowing around a body and then draining into a stream. Vegetation can also trap and concentrate an odor. Not only are dogs trained to work with these challenges, but dog handlers must be taught to study the terrain and the weather when working with their dogs.

Studies show a well-trained cadaver dog can be very specific when searching for a body. They are not 100% accurate, but it is safe to say the dogs are irreplaceable.

— Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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