The History Of Cadaver Dogs

Cadaver dogs are working dogs with an unpleasant yet very important job in society. These dogs are trained to pick up and track the scent of deceased individuals. Also known as human remains detection dogs, cadaver dogs often go out in the field in missing person cases where a dead body is suspected.

While their job title may not be pretty, they play a crucial role. During a search and rescue situation, specialist teams can utilize various methods and devices to locate a missing person, but when a dead body is suspected, cadaver dogs serve as the best guides. These dogs pick up and track the scent of decomposing flesh and, when successful, bring light to deceased person cases, providing closure to grieving families.

In this article, we will look at how cadaver dogs operate, their origins, the type of dogs that are the best candidates for this job, and more.

What do cadaver dogs actually do?

A cadaver dog is trained to detect and track the odor of a deceased individual. Their job is similar to those of search and rescue dogs, but finding deceased rather than living people.

A trained cadaver dog can pick up the scent of human remains buried deeper than ten feet underground – more impressively, they can find remains under water, collapsed buildings, and thick snow. They are also able to tell the difference between decomposing wildlife and human remains. Furthermore, cadaver dogs are trained to differentiate the types of decomposing human remains. For example, they can only look for drowned individuals and eliminate the smells from another type of decomposition.

The skills of cadaver dogs are incredibly helpful to law enforcement, but they also serve scientific work. These special dogs often work closely with anthropologists to find burial sites.

cadaver dog in training

The origins of cadaver dogs

The earliest example of a dog pointing out dead individuals dates back to 1808. In 1806 and 1808, two women mysteriously disappeared, and Andreas Bichel was the main suspect. The police searched his house and found the clothes of the two women, but no further evidence.

Soon after, a court clerk took his dog for a walk around Bichel’s house. Although this dog did not have cadaver dog training, it alerted the clerk to Bichel’s woodshed. The police dug inside and recovered two bisected human corpses, bringing light to the murder of two young women.

The instances of employing trained cadaver dogs, on the other hand, are more or less a recent thing. The first dog trained for human remains detection was Pearl, a yellow Labrador Retriever, by Jim Suffolk of the New York State Police. Pearl started her career in 1974 and found the remains of a Syracuse College student, buried four feet deep, the same year.

Although cadaver dogs help solve cases to bring closure to families, not many are employed by law enforcement. A missing person case where a dead body is suspected is not a regular occurrence. Therefore, the police departments do not usually keep cadaver dogs, at least not as many as search and rescue or detection dogs. Volunteers mainly train and deploy cadaver dogs to back up law enforcement. These volunteers are sometimes the people who have had the pain of losing a loved one but did not have closure.

What makes a good cadaver dog?

Cadaver dogs begin their training in puppyhood, through exposure to various elements of decomposing human remains. The training materials encompass different parts of the human body at different rates of decay, including bone, teeth and adipose tissue. In some countries where human remains are not readily available for training, other animals may be used (such as pigs in the UK, but these training methods have varying results).

The dogs associate play with the odor of a deceased person. The trainer can make the dog look for the target as if they were playing fetch. The trainer throws an object with the scent and commands the dog to search, or imprints the dog by making them carry a pipe or other object containing the scent for a period of time. After the dog understands what search means and what to search for, dummies enter the play. The dog learns to locate the source of the scent and associate it with a body.

During training, making dogs understand what they are looking for can be found anywhere is vital. Dogs may not look for certain areas, like mud and lakes, thinking the source of the smell cannot be there. The training of cadaver dogs must involve all types of terrain and weather conditions. Stamina is also a key component of an effective cadaver dog, as searches can often last for several hours.

A good cadaver dog is a focused one that tracks the scent’s source and leaves its curiosity behind. If the dog is too curious about its surroundings, other smells and objects will make them distracted. You would not want your cadaver dog to be too smart and curious. The best cadaver dogs are obedient, calm, and focused.

Lastly, the breed matters. Not all dogs have the same sense of smell. Some have more olfactory receptors than others. For example, Bloodhounds have one of the best senses of smell, but the same can’t be said for the English Bulldog. Hounds, hunting dogs, and sheepherding dogs tend to be the best candidates for a cadaver dog. Belgian Malinois, Bloodhound, Labrador Retriever, and German Shepherd rank among the top breeds for human remains detection. Testing for drive and temperament is key before starting to train a cadaver dog.

Cadaver dogs today

Cadaver dogs are the best tools we have for providing closure to the loved ones of missing person cases today. Countless organizations and volunteers train cadaver dogs and assist law enforcement. Many of those involved are people who had lost a loved one and turned to cadaver dogs.

Perhaps the most notable and internationally recognized cadaver dog is Buster, a black Labrador Retriever that recovered the bodies of hundreds of victims. Buster continued upholding his duties even after losing a leg to cancer. Buster, known as the Wonder Dog, had many accomplishments throughout his career, but he made international headlines for recovering evidence for the Black Dahlia murder after 66 years had passed.

Want to learn more about cadaver dogs? Check out Season 1, Episode 5 of A Life of DogsCautious Closure.