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Cadaver Dogs: All You Need To Know

At this point, we know so many things about the amazing capabilities of dogs. Their list of skills is almost endless – particularly when they utilize their all-powerful noses in detection disciplines.

One extremely useful way a dog’s nose can be harnessed is in the tragic and upsetting cases of deceased individuals. When a person has been missing for a period of time – for example, weeks or months – their family and friends may fear the worst. This is where the cadaver dog (also known as human remains detection dog, or HRD dog) can step in to provide the necessary closure to these families, enabling them to begin processing the trauma and come to terms with their loss.

In this article, we’re going to look at what cadaver dogs do, how they are trained, and answer some of the most commonly asked questions on these incredibly skilled canines.

What do cadaver dogs do?

Cadaver dogs are deployed by law enforcement personnel to identify the remains of deceased individuals. 

Dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors, which gives them a natural aptitude and ability for detection work. Cadaver is a detection discipline, but the training process differs from a traditional detection task like scent work or narcotics detection, where the odor profile remains consistent.

The cadaver dog is a valuable tool for law enforcement teams. In cases where individuals are missing and presumed deceased, the cadaver dog can search large areas and lead their handlers to conclusive – if saddening – proof. Their work brings vital closure to the victim’s family, whilst also enabling police to understand more about the circumstances surrounding the death.

What are the best breeds for cadaver dogs?

For cadaver work, typically, medium-to-large size dog breeds are utilized. These dogs can cover ground quickly, which is vital in situations where searches may be spread across wide, vast areas such as woodland or fields.

Combined with breed selection, it is important to evaluate a cadaver dog candidate for the following traits:

  • Stamina 
  • Drive
  • Temperament

At Soldat d’Elite, we have placed one of our Belgian Malinois as a cadaver dog who works in British Columbia. Reuben (aka Ares le Soldat d’Elite) works with handler, Daymon Skelton. As Daymon explains, Reuben has certain traits that contribute to an ideal fit for HRD work:

"Reuben has been an amazing part of my life, I am involved in Search and Recovery for Human Remains Detection. Reuben is eager to work and shows his confidence, stable mind, and overall great personality. He is not afraid of new surroundings and shows focus on his job at hand."
Daymon Skelton
Human Remains Detection (HRD) K9 Handler
daymon skelton and reuben hrd dog

How are cadaver dogs trained?

Similar to other detection disciplines, cadaver dogs are trained by repeated exposure to the target odor, and trained to signal with a consistent alert to their handler. 

However, there are two other variables in play here – firstly, the remains could be from any part of the human body. Bone has a different odor profile compared with adipose tissue, which has a different profile to muscle or flesh. Secondly, as the human body decomposes, the odor profile changes over time.

These variables make training a successful cadaver dog a time-intensive process. Dogs must be proofed on all types of human source – and each at different rates of decomposition. They must also be proofed off the scent of non-human odors, such as those released by animals who are killed in the wild. With such a long training process, cadaver dog trainers and handlers must be fully invested throughout to ensure the dog is set up for success when deployed in the field.

How do cadaver dogs alert?

The alert of a cadaver dog is important to signal to their handler that human remains are present. However, care must be taken with the form of alert that is trained. For example, a scratch alert can risk compromising the evidence of what may be a potential crime scene, which can have consequences if a case reaches a courtroom further down the line. 

For this reason, many cadaver dogs are trained with a passive alert, such as a bark alert. This ensures that the handler is aware that the dog is indicating on the source, but the dog will not unintentionally disturb or tamper with the potential evidence.

How long have cadaver dogs been active?

Although humans have utilized dogs and their noses for a variety of tasks for centuries, the development to use dogs to identify cadaver is actually a recent one. Cat Warren wrote in ‘What The Dog Knows’ that using dogs in this manner as part of homicide investigations was only introduced in the 1970s, when researchers tried to understand exactly what dogs could be capable of.

Can cadaver dogs smell through water?

Yes, a dog will still be able to identify human remains that are buried underwater. In fact, dogs are able to detect traces of odor which are located 30 metres under the surface.

How accurate are cadaver dogs?

It is so important to trust a dog’s nose – and that is never truer than when it comes to finding human remains. Sharon Ward, a cadaver dog trainer in Portland, Oregon, explained in 2014 that she estimates a properly trained cadaver dog (i.e. able to pick up the full range of human decomposition) is correct 95% of the time.

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