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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 toward 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 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. 


K9CHP said...

Hi Deb:
It is funny, we work so hard at perfecting the trained alert but the more seasoned of us know very well that the alert on a full body may very well be quite different from what we trained for. Read your dog, read your dog and read your dog, the find will then not come as a surprize, and the final behavior will just be icing on the cake.

9-11, Staten Island recovery efforts: most dogs had to modify their trained alerts as they did not fit the conditions. And handlers had to accommodate and not insist to get something that in that case did not work.

Amir Findling K9CHP,
One of the contributors to the book you mentioned.

Deb Kingsbury said...

Thank you, Amir. The handler told me that, despite her dogs' "unusual" reactions (that is, not usually how I've seen them react to the small amounts of HR they're used to), the dogs would have gone to the scent pool and not wanted to leave the immediate area. So even if they hadn't run back to her and alerted in their typical manner, we would have gone to them and found the subject. (It was pretty obvious to our human noses from a good distance, of course, provided we were downwind.)

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, the handler and the team (as well as others according to the piece) should not be allowed to continue in the field. This is exactly the type of activity which gives SAR handlers a bad name.

First, the dog was fringing and displaying typical behavior for a dog having never been exposed to the situation.

Next, SAR handlers commonly speak of respect, closure, professionalism etc. By using a deceased body on a deployment for dog training is extremely unethical and beyond reprehensible. One should contact a coroner and use a body which has been dedicated to science for such purposes.

Seems all of this speaks directly to the poor standards, management, and deployment practices and protocols of some within the professional NASAR community.

Deb Kingsbury said...

This was not a training. It was a mission. The subject was found deceased by K9s.

The dogs referred to in this post have passed all NASAR certifications and won numerous awards, including NASAR K9 of the year at this year's NASAR/MRA conference. These dogs actually helped solve a 2-year-old murder case, among numerous other live and HRD finds.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting.

From your response to my comment, it is clear that my statements were not understood.

Yes, it was an actual deployment with a actual deceased person. When the teams used that deceased person allowing dogs to sniff that corpse, they crossed the line in several ways.

First, it is a crime scene until ruled otherwise. NO access should be allowed until such time as police release the scene.

Secondly, you stated: "but our handler soon brought her dogs, one by one, to the remains to let them have a full body "find.""

This act of using the corpse as "target" odor means the teams were training. One should never train in such a scenario as displays a major need of ethics training.

I stand by my statement and would suggest making sure the handler sees my comments.

Deb Kingsbury said...

Just to be clear: The scene had been already been released. We work with law enforcement, who were still there with us, and it was law enforcement that brought the K9 team back in with others on the unit in order to carry the body out. It was their feeling that the more exposure the dogs have to different types of scenes, the better they'll perform in the future. This has proven to be the case.