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German Shepherd cadaver dog at work outside a cabin

Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Hurst reached down to his 140-pound partner, Radar, and slipped a collar decorated with skulls and crossbones around the Bloodhound’s neck.

“Where’s the Napoo, Radar?” he said.

Radar ran around the item in question—a car in the police impound lot—his nostrils quivering. When the big red dog came to the trunk, which was closed, he sat.

It was his signal to Hurst, “This is the spot. I found it.”

What Radar had pinpointed in those moments was the unique bouquet of decaying human bodies. Radar is a “decomposition dog,” also known as a “cadaver dog” trained to pick up the scent of death.

The car was part of an investigation into the May 2013 disappearance of David Noren, 49, of Lakewood, Colorado. Noren was not likely to run off without a word. Even more troubling, he had left behind the most precious thing in his life—Olivia, his 12-year-old black Labrador Retriever.

Something bad had happened to him, everyone was sure of that, but there was no way to even guess what it was or where to start looking.

Police had nothing until Radar sat in front of the trunk of Noren’s car.

Lakewood officers had thoroughly examined the trunk before, but their eyes did not pick up what Radar’s nose had—two specks of blood.

Investigators looked in the trunk again, this time with a luminescing chemical. “It lit up like the night sky,” according to Radar’s winning entry for the 2016 AKC Humane Fund Award for Canine Excellence. It was enough to convince police that foul play was involved and to press an investigation.

A hiker later found Noren’s body, dumped along the side of a wilderness road. The killer, Noren’s roommate, is now serving a life sentence.

Legacy of Vietnam

For centuries, humans have relied on the extraordinary power of the canine nose for patrolling, tracking fugitives and missing persons, or identifying bombs or illegal substances.

Their ability to pick up odors is a true superpower. Dogs have about 200 to 300 million scent receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in humans. Scent regions of their brains are roughly 40 times larger than ours.

Nevertheless, organized attempts to use this natural wonder in homicide investigations is relatively new, dating back only to around the 1970s, wrote Cat Warren in What the Dog Knows. It all started when Vietnam War-era Army researchers began musing how many jobs dogs could perform at home and in peacetime.

In the early 1970s, New York State Trooper Ralph Suffolk Jr., a Bloodhound handler, worked with the Military Animal Science program at San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute to test the concept. Suffolk trained a yellow Labrador Retriever as the first “body dog.” (Today, they are referred to as “decomposition dogs” or “cadaver dogs.”)

Concrete Case

Andrew Rebmann, a co-author of the classic textbook Cadaver Dog Handbook, was among the first handlers in the U.S. He developed training programs for the discipline.

Before he became involved with sniffer dogs, Rebmann was a Connecticut State Police trooper. The department put out a recruiting call for K-9 handlers. Although Rebmann loved dogs, he didn’t apply for the program because he wasn’t sure he was qualified.

Cleo, his family’s pet Newfoundland at the time, changed that. Rebmann and Cleo competed in AKC obedience and, one day, the trooper brought his big fluffy pal to work and showed off some of her moves. Before he could say, “good dog,” Cleo had launched her owner’s career as a police K-9 handler. Since the 1970s, he has participated in thousands of cadaver-dog searches.

Using cadaverine and putrescine, chemicals produced by decomposing corpses, Rebmann trained his first body dog, Rufus, to pick out the scent of death. These chemicals are among the many tools trainers rely on to teach dogs how to distinguish the telltale aroma.

One of the team’s first major finds was the body of a woman murdered by her husband. Rufus found her buried in the couple’s yard, even though she was down more than four feet, covered in lime powder, and entombed under a brand new concrete patio.

Silver of Evidence

In 1986, Rebmann and Lady, another German Shepherd Dog, helped solve a baffling high-profile case in which a Connecticut flight attendant, Helle Crafts, vanished. Police suspected her husband, but without a body, they had little to go on.

Then a snowplow driver reported seeing something weird around the time Mrs. Crafts disappeared—a woodchipper by the side of a river, operating during a raging snowstorm in the middle of the night.

Lady led investigators to tiny fragments of human tissue, including a sliver of a fingernail with nail polish on it that matched a color the missing woman used.

This physical evidence, only about three ounces, was enough to suggest that Crafts had not run away from her bad marriage. The tiny items the dog found contributed to a murder conviction and 50-year sentence for her husband.

The “woodchipper murder” marked the first time Connecticut prosecuted a homicide case without a complete corpse.

“Lady played a really important part,” says Warren. The use of educated sniffers has become a common practice in missing persons and homicide cases and disaster recovery. “Well-trained cadaver dogs are a really good tool,” says Warren. Although finding a body or parts often requires several different methods— some as high-tech as ground-penetrating radar—dogs offer a unique perspective. In a drowning case, for example, bodies can be deep below the surface and trapped in debris. “A dog can say, ‘This pile of debris here is worth tearing apart.’ That’s where dogs shine,” she says.

Another important role they play is in resetting the perceptions of their two-legged partners. Human brains tend to get stuck in a groove, says Warren.

But dogs have no preconceived notions; they don’t limit their searches based on crime-scene tape. They know only what their millions of scent receptors tell them.

“As humans, we get an idée fixe about something. The dog can say, ‘Silly people. Look over here.’ ”

Dogs are able to pick up a scent within minutes of the death or years later. In some studies, they have found 25-year-old skeletonized remains, buried in an area of 300 by 150 feet. Hurst works with a volunteer group, NecroSearch International, Inc., that brings together specialists from many disciplines—everything from botany, anthropology, and entomology to computer analysis—to help law enforcement solve decades-old cases. Canine sniffers are important in many of these searches.

Warren points out, though, that while they provide vital clues, what dogs find is only one part of an investigation. Another problem is that the information they provide can be hard to interpret. In many cases, they can tell you if a dead human has been in a place, but all the other essential questions—who, how, and when—will require additional digging and analysis by humans.

“Dogs aren’t perfect like people aren’t perfect,” Warren says. “I’d be horrified if someone ended up in prison based only on the word of a dog and handler.”

Gotta Sniff

What kind of dog excels in this serious work?

A “jackass,” was a trainer’s assessment of Solo, the German Shepherd puppy who launched Warren, a North Carolina State University English professor, into her second life as a cadaver-dog handler.

Solo was a singleton puppy, Warren recalls in her book, and so obnoxious she dubbed him the “Little Prince of Darkness.” Warren had experience with both the breed and competitive obedience. Still, this wild child was more than she could handle.

But he was just hours old when he started “working scent,” as the breeder proudly reported to Warren.

Hurst describes Radar as a “nose on four legs,” which is not unusual for a Bloodhound. “They were built for it,” says Hurst. Everything about them, including their long ears, the folds in the skin of their faces, and their “nasty drool” is designed to help them pull in odors.

But being a sniffing machine is just part of the picture. Solo was pushy, aggressive, and had unstoppable drive. All of these characteristics suggested to the trainer that he might be a good search dog.

Radar’s temperament is also ideal for this work. “You look for a dog who is not afraid to leave the whelping box, a pretty bold dog,” says Hurst. Radar was running tracks at 9 weeks old.

When Radar’s on the scent, nothing gets in his way. “He’s like a 140-pound bowling ball. … He pulls me around, and I’m a pretty hefty guy,” laments Hurst, who outweighs his big red partner by 100 pounds.

“He has dragged me down mountains.”

Both Radar and Solo would make less than ideal household companions, but obsessive drive is what you need when someone goes missing. Radar is trained to search for the living—lost children, Alzheimer’s patients—as well as the dead.

To switch gears, Hurst replaces the body harness used in live searches with the skull-and-crossbones collar and gives his command to seek death scent. “Where’s the Napoo?” is popular among cadaver dog handlers. It’s a bit of World War I British/Australian slang for “finished, done, dead,” says Warren.

Does the job of seeking victims of murders and disasters depress the dogs? Not at all, say the handlers. In fact, they often find it too much fun.

Dogs can get so charged up when they catch the scent that they run wild or start digging like crazy. There was at least one account of a dog urinating on the spot. That’s why one important part of training is teaching a calm, reliable signal, like a sit.

For these four-legged detectives, death is just another aroma, and tracking it down, just another game

This article originally appeared in the award-winning AKC Family Dog magazine. Subscribe today!

Related article: What Do K-9 Police Dogs Do?
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