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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

An Interesting SAR K9 Reaction -- A Bit of HR versus a Whole Body

I'm not a SAR dog handler, but I do frequently back one of our team's handlers and her four NASAR-certified Golden Retrievers, all cross-trained in area search and human remains (HR) detection. Recently, I accompanied this experienced K9 team on a two-part mission -- first the search of the subject's abandoned vehicle and then the area search for the missing man -- and witnessed what was, to me, a fascinating and unexpected phenomenon. That is, the difference in the dogs' reactions when detecting a tiny amount of HR compared to their reactions when they found the decomposing body.

During the search of the locked vehicle, each dog independently and enthusiastically alerted on the trunk. Two of the four even appeared frustrated, digging at the ground and repeatedly jumping up with their front legs and hitting at the car with their paws, as if they wanted to get at the source of the scent. One or more barked, and all jumped up on their handler.

Once law enforcement officers were given permission to have the vehicle unlocked and the trunk was opened, there was no body inside and no HR visible. Each dog was again brought back to the car, one by one, and each again alerted on the trunk, this time pointing with their noses and/or paws at a specific location inside when their handler said, "Show me."

When the vehicle was later towed to the Sheriff's Department and gone through by detectives, it was found that the dogs had indeed alerted on a spot of blood, about the size of nickel, on a pair of pants located below other items in the trunk.

On a different day, during the area search around where the vehicle had been parked, the body of the missing man was found by another K9 team. My team's handler and I and two of her four dogs were searching another location at the time, so we didn't witness the other dog's reaction, but our handler soon brought her dogs, one by one, to the remains to let them have a full body "find." The man had been deceased for some time -- up to three weeks -- but was intact, sitting on a blanket up against a tree. As we watched the first of the dogs move in toward the scent, I was expecting him to have an equal or greater reaction as he did to the spot of blood in the trunk.

But I was very wrong. The dog moved slowly, smelling around maybe ten feet from the body. Smelling ... smelling ... moving in a little closer. And closer. Looking up towards his handler now and then. Then he got even closer to the body, sniffing around near his hand. And then the dog raised his head, coming face-to-face with the deceased, and he jumped back, startled. He moved away and continued sniffing around the periphery. He peed on a bush. Slowly, the dog, the youngest of the four Goldens, made his way over to his handler, and gave a quiet alert, jumping up on her but without the enthusiasm he had at the vehicle. This was this dog's first full body.

I looked at the handler, confused.

"Think about what they train on," she said. "Small amounts of HR. It's very rare to have access to a whole body. So they're used to tiny bits, instead of such a huge scent pool."

That did make sense; although it took some time to sink in.

The first dog slowly moves in closer to the subject.

She retrieved the second dog, this one the oldest of her four. This dog had experienced one whole body before. But, oddly enough ... as I was still thinking ... he didn't go all the way in to the body, sniffing around the periphery like the first dog. Like the first dog, he urinated in the area. Though he showed no sign of wanting to leave the area, he didn't alert at all until prompted.

Again, the handler explained this to me, much like I later read in this excerpt:

From Buzzards and Butterflies -- Human Remains Detection Dogs (p. 58) : "Each dog is different. While some are adept at smaller quantities, when an entire body is present in a search scene, things change. Some dogs will continue to find and alert on larger quantities in the same manner they do with smaller quantities. However, many will react in totally different ways with a whole body or one that is in a more advanced stage of decomposition. Some will approach but not enter the zone of the hottest scent.  They will not narrow down the source to the same degree that they do with disarticulated or smaller scent sources. Some will not get within 100 feet of a severely decomposed body but will slap or touch the paw at a skeleton. Each handler needs to experience varying degrees of decomposition in order to fully understand how their dog will react. With over 400 compounds formed during the decomposition process ... handlers can hardly prepare for each and every stage of decomposition. They can, however, expose the dog to as many of these varying stages as possible."(See Buzzards and Butterflies: Human Remains Detection Dogs on Amazon)

Do you have experience with HR (or cadaver) dogs? And have you witnessed anything like I've described, or a different reaction when a K9 locates a body versus the usually tiny amounts of HR they train on? Please share your experiences or comments here. If you have a related question, I'll try to get a good answer for you from our handler, who's also a SAR K9 instructor.