In March 2014, a landslide in Oso, Washington, devastated the community of Steelhead Haven, destroying 49 homes and other buildings and killing 43 people. Suzanne Elshult, a Search and Rescue volunteer, was deployed to Oso with her yellow Labrador Retriever Keb.
“We were standing on a pile of rubble, and I deployed Keb on a live command [to search for a living being],” says Elshult, 69. “I saw very distinct changes in Keb’s behavior. She stood on top of a splintered house and barked her head off. That wasn’t part of her normal training response to a find. She was supposed to do a ‘jump indication,’ in which she jumps up and puts her paws on me.”
Keb began circling the area, nose down, pawing and scratching, sending dirt flying. “She seemed mesmerized by whatever she was smelling,” Elshult recalls. “I asked a firefighter who was working at the scene if a dead body had been airlifted from the area earlier that day. He said, ‘No,’ and then he started digging. He turned and looked up at me as he ran water from a bottle bladder over the face of a woman buried in the dirt. That was our very first dead find.”
A New Chapter
Elshult didn’t have a dog at the time she decided to get involved in canine Search and Rescue and, ultimately, Human Remains Detection (HRD). In 1995, she was running her own executive coaching practice after many years as a human resources executive. But she’d grown tired of the corporate world, her daughter was headed to college, and she wanted to spend more time with her husband, Scott Welton. They both loved to hike and ski, and Welton was a member of the local mountain rescue team. With years of mountaineering and skiing under her belt, Elshult joined the team. “It required technical expertise and avalanche training and allowed us to deploy together in the mountains,” Elshult says.
A dog came into her life after 9/11. “That day was a trigger for me,” she says. She’d watched on television the Search and Rescue (SAR) teams and their dogs ranging over the Manhattan site. A month later she got her first dog, Bosse, a Labrador Retriever who died in 2017. “I was a total novice,” she says. Bosse had medium drive. She had to work hard to get him to be a good search partner.
Flash forward 20 years and Elshult is president of Cascadia Search Dogs, a volunteer organization that offers education and training for SAR handlers and their dogs. She and Keb, now 12, have been certified in air scent, wilderness, avalanche, first responder disaster, and HRD. Early in the career with Bosse, a search for a live person turned into a cadaver search in what is still an unsolved murder case. But that search planted a seed in her mind. She asked herself, “What if I could train a search dog to find human remains?”
In the following year, she chose to specialize in searching for the dead. In Elshult’s mind, HRD is different from cadaver detection, typically a search for someone who died recently. HRD often means finding someone—or parts of someone—who may have died decades ago. It could be looking for just a drop of blood on a crime scene.
Although they almost always deploy in Washington state, Elshult and Keb helped solve a mystery in Sweden in 2016 when Keb found the skull of a 48-year-old man who had been missing for almost two years. HRD requires a high level of training and commitment from both handlers and dogs. “It can take two to three years to certify for someone who has no background or experience,” Elshult says.
Many volunteers and their dogs train for 15 to 20 hours a week. They carry heavy packs and must be fit. They meet in mountains, in fields, in forests, and in urban areas. They train in cemeteries and at “body farms,” research facilities that specialize in human corpse decomposition. Handlers learn about geology, soil analysis, hydrology, meteorology: all of which can affect the decomposition process. They learn not to “cue their dogs” (tip them off to a find) or signal where to search.
All a Game
Many dogs begin training at 10 weeks old. “We focus on building a relationship and playing games,” Elshult says. “My two current dogs live for their ball; that’s their primary reward.” Some dogs are rewarded with food. “My first dog, Bosse, would go to extreme lengths to get his hot dog.” Novice dogs typically start out by being imprinted on human remains at various levels of decomposition.
They are taught to sniff human bones or other training aids that are protected in, for example, a glass jar that has a lid with holes. “Your dog has to understand you want his nose two inches from the source, if that is your criteria,” Elshult says. “As soon as they put their nose on the holes, you reward them. Once they understand that they are not to engage with the source, you can gradually start making them accessible.
Substantial effort goes into proofing HRD dogs from odors that are not human remains. For example, the dog must be able to differentiate between animal and human bones. It’s a bit of a mystery as to how this works, but it seems, Elshult says, they can be trained to identify volatile organic compounds present just in human remains. “But the science is still evolving, and I don’t think we truly know exactly what it is the dogs alert on.”
Once teams move beyond the imprinting stage, they do drills to make sure the dogs are solid on their “trained final responses” (communicating a find to their handler); speed drills to ensure they can recognize odor and locate source quickly and accurately; and drills to make sure they can focus and search, for example, for old, scattered bones, teeth, and more. Training searches often simulate real missions.
More Than a Nose
Essentially any breed could do this work, but some lend themselves better to it. “High-drive dogs that love hunting, dogs that can work independently but yet want to please you, dogs that have great nerve strength and are athletic,” Elshult says. They must be comfortable around people and heavy machinery.
But the right dog really is the one most interested in doing the work. “You might throw something out in a meadow with tall grass. Will your dog search for 30 seconds and give up, or will they still be searching 45 minutes later?” Elshult says. “The bottom line is that dogs don’t do this kind of work because they have a noble motive. They do it because it’s a game and they want their reward.”
Elshult now has another yellow Lab, Kili, in training for HRD. Elshult says that Keb, with her more advanced problem-solving skills, is helping to train the younger dog. Although COVID slowed things down, Elshult continued training her own dogs and coaching other teams. She and her search partner, James Guy Mansfield, finished writing A Dog’s Devotion: True Adventures of a K9 Search and Rescue Team.
Elshult and her dogs have done more than 200 deployments since 2001 and have had “six actual finds ranging from recently deceased subjects to bones on a 10-year-old cold case.” While it’s rewarding to have a find and be able to bring some amount of resolution to families, many SAR teams don’t ever have a find—not because they are not proficient, but because they were simply not given assignments where there were finds to be made.
“They still make an equally valuable contribution by helping clear areas and being part of the overall team. You have to have a good team where people feel like family,” she says. “This is really a lifestyle we have adopted. We’re all committed and passionate about our mission.”