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I ask Julie Starbuck, from Peace River K9 Search and Rescue, if she remembers a time that left her feeling especially proud of Caliber, her German Shepherd Dog.

“The first one that comes to mind is the time we were called to work a burned building. It had been burned the night before, and they were pretty confident somebody had died in there,” she immediately recalls. “The firefighters had been out there for 12, 13 hours and hadn’t been able to locate the victim. We brought Caliber in, and it was the first time that she had worked a complete burned building, and, within about five minutes, she found the lady.”

“I was incredibly proud of her because she did her job in a tough environment, with lots of debris and rubble and everything else, and she knew she did a good job,” Starbuck says with a smile. “She took her toy and went to every single firefighter that was there and made them play tug with her.”

Caliber’s abilities illustrate the vital role the exceptional scenting skills of dogs play in supporting the work of law enforcement agencies and other emergency services—whether that’s as part of a police handling team or one of the specialized, highly trained volunteer organizations.

Types of Scent Detecting Dogs That Support the Police

The police use a dog’s nose to support them in various activities. The training for each discipline is rigorous and costly, sometimes taking as much as two to three years to complete. Most dogs specialize in one area of expertise, detecting specific odors. The training techniques are all similar—a dog learns to associate certain scents with a high-value reward, so they search for these scents over all others and indicate when they find them.

Narcotics and Bomb Detection Dogs

You’ll often see these dogs in airports, train stations, and at large-scale events. Narcotics dogs learn to identify the smells of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and crystal meth.

After 9/11, bomb detection dogs were increasingly in demand. They identify the odors of certain common bomb-making chemicals.

These dogs typically work off-leash in close contact with their handlers. It’s even possible for them to identify certain accelerants used in arson cases.

German Shepherd Dog sniffing at a duffel bag with a policeman nearby.

Search and Rescue and Mantrailing Dogs

Dogs learn to trail or air-scent the unique scent of a particular individual. They might look for a person who has gone missing under suspicious circumstances or someone who has gotten lost or caught up in a disaster of some sort. You’ll no doubt be familiar with the iconic images of Bloodhounds with their noses to the ground, held by a handler on a leash, mantrailing for criminals on the run.

Search and rescue dogs working off air-scents cover large areas of ground methodically off-leash, often some distance away from their handlers.

Human Remains Detection Dogs

There’s an increasing demand for dogs to help find dead bodies. Cadaver dogs, also known as human remains detection dogs, can find human remains that are just a few hours or decades old. The remains are often as much as 15 feet underground or at the bottom of deep bodies of water.

Kim Cooper from Ottawa Valley Search and Rescue Dog Association has been working with search and rescue dogs for thirty years. She explains there’s been a surprising demand for cadaver dog assistance since they added this profile in 2007. “The cadaver and water searches are skill sets that often the police and the police dogs don’t have. Whereas civilians have trained for this, so it becomes an extra resource that can be brought in.”

Getting the Right Dogs For the Job

It’s no surprise that police work relies on these scenting skills the way it does. Scientists estimate a dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more sophisticated than humans. Not every dog, however, suits professional scent detection work. Dogs working in the police force and for voluntary organizations are often from specific breeding programs.

Cooper explains the dogs need “the inherent hunt drive, high energy levels, an obsession with a reward—typically a toy—and a great degree of focus.”

Her team has had the greatest success with German Shepherds, but they have also certified Labradors, Springer Spaniels, Border Collies, and a Vizsla.

Starbuck agrees, although she recognizes every dog is an individual. “There are certain breed characteristics that are just inherent in a German Shepherd Dog, Belgian Malinois, and Dutch Shepherd. But I’ve seen German Shepherds that are complete couch potatoes.”

She also emphasizes the importance of a strong bond between the dog and their handler, and a good reward system.

Starbuck is surprised by some of the dogs that have come through their training program. “We’ve had just about every breed you can name from Catahoulas to Poodles. We had a Saint Bernard at one point, Dobermans, and we even had a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who was an amazing tracking dog before he retired.” They currently have a 15-pound Fox Terrier on their team that Starbuck says is a “phenomenal little dog.”

Can My Dog and I Get Involved in This Type of Work?

Just because your puppy has an uncanny ability to sniff out and dig up bones from in your backyard, it doesn’t mean they’ll have the drive, motivation, and physical attributes to work as a canine scent detection detective.

Cooper recommends finding a local search and rescue team if you think you and your dog might have what it takes. “You can’t do this out of a book. You need mentors to help you progress day-by-day, week-by-week.” Your dog needs a high level of certification and affiliation with a reputable organization for the police to consider working with you, and it takes a lot of training and dedication.

Starbuck says they have “seen wonderful, what you would call pet dogs, come in through volunteer search and rescue. As long as the handler can change their mindset to making them a working dog and realize that sometimes they’re putting that dog in a situation that might make them feel uncomfortable.”

The 2021 AKC/USPCA K9 Detection Dog Challenge brings together 20 narcotic and explosive detection dogs from across the country to test their skills. Watch the exciting event on Sunday, November 28 at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

Related article: Pasco County K-9s See Increase in Demand Following Laundrie Case
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