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Cadaver dogs are specially trained to use their sense of smell to locate human remains and alert people to them. Because these dogs can detect scent that is buried or even underwater, they are often deployed with their handlers alongside law enforcement during searches for missing people. In these situations, a cadaver dog can save people’s lives or provide closure to loved ones if the person missing is deceased.
But this isn’t the only work cadaver dogs can do. Highly trained cadaver dogs are now being used to provide a different kind of closure—by finding the unmarked graves of people who died hundreds of years ago. As many of us reflect on American history, imagine not knowing where your family came from, your history, or where they are buried.
This is the reality for many African American and Indigenous people across the country who, because of structural racism, have been robbed of knowing who their ancestors were, or even where they were buried.
Sniffing Out History
Cat Warren, the New York Times bestselling author of What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World, explained that although dogs aren’t magic, what they can do with their nose is remarkable. Dogs have the capacity to help us sniff out history and change our contemporary relationships with people who have come before us. Dogs can alert us of remains from up to 2,700 years ago, making them invaluable in helping communities to find and honor burial grounds of marginalized communities.
When most people think of cadaver dogs, they generally think of active police investigations, missing person cases, and the like. Increasingly, specially trained cadaver dogs are being used to search for much older remains. Warren noted that across the country there are ”
African American burial grounds where the people who might be buried there are unknown—and perhaps unknowable—because we have essentially destroyed their history through intentional and unintentional acts.” For her, the urgency of historical cadaver work is rooted in the role that dogs can play to preserve these aspects of American history that have been lost or erased.
Working to Right Cultural Wrongs
In her recent virtual talk, “What Remains: Using Cadaver Dogs to Help Locate Lost Burial Grounds,” at William & Mary University’s Lemon’s Legacies Porch Talks, Warren spoke of the importance of contextualizing the use of dogs when talking about racism in the United States.
“During slavery, dogs were used to track and terrorize the enslaved,” she says. “During the Civil Rights era, law enforcement dogs were used to attack peaceful protesters,” she says. “That misuse still occurs. A Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department after George Floyd’s death found that police used their canines exclusively against Black individuals, often not to counter a physical threat but to inflict punishment.”
For white dog lovers, this can be hard and upsetting to think about, but also important to recognize the way that trained dogs have been weaponized against communities of color. Warren suggests that using well-trained cadaver dogs to help return bureau sites to Black and Indigenous communities is a small way we can make up for the way that dogs were misused against them historically, and make a significant difference in people’s lives. Reflecting on moving moments doing restorative work, Warren told a story of a woman who talked about the sense of shame she had about her descendants being enslaved, instead of focusing on being proud of how they helped build this country.
“[Her ancestor’s] labors and their talents and their resilience helped create the United States as it is today, the good parts and the bad parts,” Warren noted. “But that sense of pride keeps coming up and, to me, that’s part of what’s really important.”
How Historical Cadaver Dogs Work
When doing historical cadaver work, it’s not a matter of dogs and handlers going out looking for unmarked graves in random places. Instead, dogs and their handlers collaborate with property owners, historians, and community members who identify locations where it is believed that people were buried.
“It takes the dogs, and it takes imagination, and it takes oral history and documented history and a combination of those things,” Warren says. “It takes community activists who say ‘Black Lives Matter and Black Graves Matter, so we’re going to prioritize this.’ To me, that’s where this work is absolutely as urgent and moving and fascinating.”
In historical cadaver search, dogs are trained to cover an area very slowly. When a dog alerts, the handler puts a flag into the ground when an area has been thoroughly searched. A ground-penetrating radar (GPR) can then be utilized in those specific locations to confirm the presence of what are likely burial sites. From the radar data, it’s often possible to get a pretty good idea of what is happening underground. As Warren explained, “Someone who is talented at reading that data can say ‘look at all these anomalies here, look at this pattern’ and ‘I am pretty sure what we are seeing here is a row of 10 bodies’.”
The issue of disinterment of the remains of early indigenous or enslaved people from their burial ground is an ethical one, Warren says. In some instances, when known, descendants consent to disinterment so DNA testing can happen. But generally, especially when the direct descendants are not known when burial grounds are found, the current trend is to work with local communities to preserve and care for the burial grounds.
For Warren, this is all part of “trying to give back a history that people were robbed of.”
The Urgency of Historical Cadaver Searches
At first glance, this historical work with cadaver dogs might seem less urgent than deploying dogs to find a missing person. But cadaver dog handlers find a very different kind of urgency to this work. “There are thousands and thousands of [burial grounds] across the United States,” Warren says. “Every day, more of them are destroyed.”
That destruction often happens without people even knowing they’re building on top of burial grounds. This is what inspired Kathleen Connor and her Labrador Retriever Seamus (Armbrooks Diamond Indigo Blue at Glendeer SH) to shift their search work to historical cadaver work in the last year and a half. For Connor, who has done search work with dogs since 1996, the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement inspired her to use her dog’s skills to support Black communities in the U.S. in finding graves of people who had been enslaved.
“If I could offer my services, then maybe I could get some ancestral graveyard found and restored,” Connor says. She also hopes that cadaver dogs can be of service by finding the unmarked graves of Indigenous children who died at boarding schools in the United States and Canada.
One of the leaders in historical cadaver work is Paul S. Martin, M.A., who currently works with his dog Abby, a 3-year-old female chocolate Labrador retriever. Martin began search and rescue work with dogs in 1997 and has focused on nothing but historical cadaver work since 2000. This passion for historical preservation led Martin to return to school to earn Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and he has now completed coursework for his Ph.D. at the University of Memphis in Earth Sciences concentrating on Archaeology. His firm, Martin Archaeology Consulting, specializes in multidisciplinary surveys using geophysical instruments such as GPR and the gradiometer, combined with the use of human remains detection dogs. They also help train other cadaver dog teams.
Martin is passionate about using dogs to find and preserve these burial grounds, noting that the burial sites are at constant risk of being lost forever.
“I believe we have to utilize every resource available to prevent the unintentional disturbance of human burials when it comes to construction projects, and we have to also recognize the space that is still occupied by those that came before us,” he says. “That’s why it is so critical to mark the unmarked burials and cemeteries of the Indigenous peoples, the slaves, the sharecroppers, and all of those that didn’t enjoy the same economic and sociopolitical status as those that found themselves buried in the grand old cemeteries.”
A Slow and Methodical Searching
On historical grounds, dogs move through a cadaver search area differently than they would in a missing person’s case. Historical cadaver searches require teaching dogs to work slowly. “If you’re trying to search 100 acres of woods for someone, that speed is important,” Warren says. “But in this case, dogs that work methodically are super important.”
For Connor, this required a different approach to training with her and her dogs. “The interesting thing has been teaching me and my dogs to go from covering 160 acres at a time in a couple of hours to doing a 20-by-20 yard plot, and it takes you an hour to do it because you have to go so slow and meticulous,” she says. “Historical cadaver work is about putting the dog’s nose over every square inch because buried is a lot more difficult to find than a body that is ground level.”
In particular, handlers need to think about how time and environment will impact a buried body more than 150 years ago. Connor noted that she’s always thinking about how remains might be interacting with the environment, what vegetation growth looks like, and how soil might have shifted or eroded. Handlers take all these considerations into account, as well as water level, when working with their dogs to find any trace of human remains or burial plots.
What Historical Searches Are Like
Connor admits that while historical cadaver work is very important, it is “actually quite boring to watch and quite boring to train, but for the dog and handler the actual search is very exciting.” In addition to her cadaver dog work, Connor also trains and competes in Hunt Tests with her Labradors. But both activities are ways to build her partnership with her dog, increase his dependability, and improve their working relationship.
“It takes a couple of years for the dog to know this is what we do when we’re in this field and this is how we act when we’re in the cadaver field,” she says. “The difference in cadaver work is they have to think on their own and maneuver on their own and make up their own mind on what they have been trained to do. With Hunt Tests, there is a lot of ‘pay attention to me and I will tell you how to deal with this situation’.”
The important progress of finding and preserving African American and Indigenous burial grounds is slow but continual. There are currently bills in the US House and Senate to preserve Historic Black Cemeteries. “States and federal entities have to see this as a priority,” Warren says. “It has to be a conversation with the communities, the descendants, and the funding agencies about what is proper memorialization.”
In the meantime, Connor, Martin, their dogs, and other historical cadaver teams like them will continue using their training to sniff out these important yet too often ignored parts of American history.