Think Out Loud

What it takes to teach a dog to smell death

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Jan. 25, 2022 5:20 p.m. Updated: Feb. 2, 2022 4:16 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Jan. 25

Skeletal remains were found earlier this month on the Roxy Ann Peak Trails in Jackson county. The sheriff’s office brought in a specially trained group of canines known as Human Remains Detection Dogs to help with the search. How often are these dogs needed? What does it take to train a dog to smell a decomposing body? Sharon Ward is a training officer with Pacific Crest Search Dogs. She joins us to answer these questions and share the challenges that come with the job.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

David Miller:  Skeletal remains were found earlier this month on the Roxy Ann Peak trails in Jackson County. The Sheriff’s office brought in a specially trained group of canines, known as human remains detection dogs, to help with the search. Sharon Ward has helped train these animals since 1998. She’s a training officer with Pacific Crest Search Dogs. We called her up yesterday to learn more about this work. I should note, in case it’s not obvious, that this conversation does get into details about human bodies and body parts and decomposition. So keep that in mind if you’d rather not hear that stuff. I started by asking Sharon if she could give us a sense for just how sensitive a dog’s nose is?

Sharon Ward:  There’s a lot of research and so there are a lot of different numbers that are thrown out. However, humans have about 10 million receptors for odor. Dogs have 250 million. That’s the number that’s thrown out.  Or .04% a human can smell versus what a dog can smell. Other research numbers have been that a dog’s nose is anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 times better. So there are numbers out there. But if we look at it like this - we, for example, smell a chocolate chip cookie - a dog smells the vanilla, the flour, the chocolate chips, the butter. It smells all of the components where we generalize. They can discern every specific odor and that, to me, is pretty amazing.

Miller:  They could do that if you taught them right.  You have to teach them. This is what baking soda smells like. This is what butter smells like. If you did that, then they could pick out all those pieces?

Ward:  Well, they pick them out anyway. We just train them which odors we are interested in knowing about. It’s their nature to just smell every different little component. So, as a trainer, whether we are training to find truffles or to find a live person or to find drugs or to find the odor of human decomposition, we imprint and reward the odors that we are interested in their detecting.

Miller:  We called you up because we wanted to hear about that last category of working dogs, the ones that are trained to find cadavers or human remains to smell human decomposition. So, let’s start with the training here. What does training look like?

Ward:  All right, well, I have this standing joke which is ‘what is the only thing that any two dog trainers agree on? And that is that the third one is doing it wrong’. So there’s no one way to train. But the way we train and have had great success with is to introduce the odor to the puppy quite young - as soon as we get them - 8, 10, 12 weeks. So what we do is we have these scent tubes. As soon as the dog puts its nose in that scent tube, we reward it. Some people use a clicker. Some people say ‘yes’ and immediately the dog gets a reward. Typically in the beginning it’s a little piece of hot dog.

So once we’ve repeated that enough so that the dog immediately goes to that tube and puts their nose in it, we introduce two tubes. The second tube might have hot dogs in it. It might have some other treats in it. When the dog sticks its nose in that tube, it gets no reward. But when it sticks its nose in the one with the source in it, big reward. So we begin to imprint that ‘this is the odor I want you to find’. After a while there will be six tubes, one will have roadkill in it. One will have something the dog really likes. One will have a ball. But again, it only gets rewarded when it puts its nose on the tube with the odor that we want to reinforce. And from there, it gets far more complicated. But we need to imprint that behavior. This is the odor we want you to discover.

Miller:  Do you need decomposing human bodies to do this training right?

Ward:  You need odors of human decomposition of which there are over 600 different elements. The dog can detect many, many, many of those. So for example, if you cut yourself, I might help you with a gauze pad and then take that gauze pad and use it as a training article for blood.

Miller:  Literally. I mean, if people around you cut their fingers when they’re chopping onions, you would collect their blood?

Ward: Well, I mean, if they’re my friend, of course, I would deliver appropriate first aid. You know, it’s a joke among human remains detection handlers - oh yeah, we’ll help you and we’ll keep it. If somebody has a knee or a hip replacement, sometimes doctors will allow them to take that home, or a mastectomy. Many times doctors are, ‘oh no, we don’t do that’. But some will. And those are also great training articles. Some coroners will give us the clothing of somebody who’s passed away in those clothing. That again, is another training tool. Teeth are a wonderful training tool. So we get this toolbox of odors that represent decomposition and that’s what we use to train on.

Miller:  Would fresh blood by itself help you? Would that help you to train a dog or you would need old blood? You need to actually put that in the ground or something. I guess what I’m asking is, does fresh blood smell different from blood that’s been in the ground for a week?

Ward:  It depends. When it comes out of the veins, for the first little bit, it will not have that order. But quickly, certainly within a day, it begins its anaerobic activity and will have the odor of human decomposition. It doesn’t take very long.

Miller:  But to go back to what you were saying in terms of a mastectomy. You know people who have brought home cancerous breast tissue just as one more tool of the trade to train dogs?

Ward:  Or placenta from a birthing clinic or a friend if they have received those from friends who have given birth. In some states, it’s really very difficult to obtain source materials. In Oregon, it’s relatively easy. In some states, it’s illegal to even possess human bones. So anybody who’s interested in this has to be very careful to know the laws of the state in which they are training or in which they have their materials.

Miller: Let’s say that human bodies have been in the ground for a while.  They’ve really decomposed and they’ve become largely skeletons.  Do those human bones smell that different from the bones of other mammals?

Ward:  Yes and actually one of our very important training tools is that we will make sure that we have proofed off of elk bones and deer bones and all the kinds of bones that the dog would find out there in the woods.

Miller: Because there’d be tons of those, right?

Ward:  There are tons of those and we need to proof off of that. I find this amazing. A dog can tell the difference between human cremains and dog cremains. That dazzled me. I would think that, cooked at that temperature, they wouldn’t distinguish. But every dog that we have tried that on clearly does not alert on the dog cremains and does alert on the human cremains.

Miller:  This is something I actually hadn’t realized until recently. In recent years, dogs are actually being used to find cremains after people have been cremated after wildfires after homes have been burned. Dogs can be brought in and they can actually find these bits of crushed up bones amid everything else that’s also been burned. How do they do that?

Ward:  It’s just that incredible power of being able to discriminate odors. I have worked some of those fires where we would find that the urn would now be destroyed, but the dogs would still alert on that odor of cremains. It dazzles me. It never ceases to amaze me what they can do.

Miller:  What are some of the challenges you might face simply because of the fact that often you’re looking in wild areas where wildlife may have scattered human remains?

Ward:  Yes. So then we’re looking for what we call disarticulated human remains. Typically your big scavengers, your bears, your cougars, your big guys take what they want. Then the smaller guys come - the raccoons, the coyotes. And it goes all the way down to where you’ve got your mice and rodents on what’s left. So sometimes there’s not a whole lot to find if it’s in an area that has a lot of scavengers. Sometimes we’re lucky to find a piece of the pelvis. Typically, you can, if it’s available, you can find the skull or at least the cranium. But sometimes there’s just not very much to find if you’re in that type of area with a lot of scavengers. Nature is very efficient.

Miller:  And everything is used for something. How did you get into this line of work?


Ward:  Well, actually, it’s funny. I had a dog that I was working in obedience. Now, this is back in 1998. And do you think I could get that dog to sit and stay when there was a cute little pomeranian that’s on the line also. I begged, I borrowed, I disciplined. This dog just would not sit still. And I said to my friend, ‘this dog is driving me crazy’.  I need a dog that works. And she said, ‘join search and rescue. It’ll run 10 miles a day. It’ll get the steam off its belly and believe it or not, that’s how I got into it.

Miller:  You got into this just to get your own personal companion dog to be better behaved?

Ward:  No, no. I wanted a job for it. I wanted the dog to have a job because I think dogs are much happier if they have a job.

Miller:  But this was your pet?

Ward:  Well, it was a pet that I was showing in AKC obedience.

Miller:  Oh, I see. So this was also your competitive nature. You wanted to give it a job so you could do better. And then you could have a prizewinning obedient dog or just for the satisfaction of ‘my dog can do this’.

Ward:  Right. And as you noted, dogs have been bred over millennia by humans to do things. All kinds of different dogs doing all kinds of different things. And so the sense you get is that they’re more fulfilled if they’re doing work, some work. Yes. And then the thing is, once I got into search and rescue, oh my God, this is really important work. And that’s when I became addicted.

Miller:  Can you give us a sense for the kinds of calls that you get? I mean, when do people ask for your services?

Ward:  Typically, we will be called out by a sheriff’s office or some law enforcement because someone has been reported missing. Other times we may get called out from law enforcement because they have a reporting party that says, I saw somebody dump a body in the woods. So typically our calls are initiated from a law enforcement agency that says, can you come out and help us or in a disaster situation like the Oso mudslides up in Washington state or the fires down in southern Oregon. We will get called in to ask to assist to find remains.

Miller:  There is a really big difference between the first two scenarios. You mentioned a Sheriff’s department saying, can you come because someone has gone missing and versus a report of someone saying, I saw somebody dump a body. For the missing scenario, it seems like it starts as a search and rescue for somebody who’s alive. Whereas what your dog’s specialty is in recovery of remains of people who have died. When you take one of your dogs out to a site, do the people around you, which may I imagine sometimes could include friends or loved ones who are taking part in the search. Do they know what your dog is there for?

Ward:  I am very quiet about that because here’s the thing. We have had enough searches where the person has gone missing because of some catastrophic event. They had a heart attack. They fell down a ridge. Why wait five days and say, okay, we’re not finding them alive. Let’s bring in a human remains detection dog. We just walked the area quietly. Nobody knows what the dog does. And if we can resolve that search sooner than we do.

Miller:  And there may actually be other dogs who are looking for somebody who’s alive in that same search. But you’re quietly looking for a dead body?

Ward:  Right. But here’s the thing about dogs. They’re so smart. If you take a live finding dog and you put them out in the field, if that person is deceased, the dog should exhibit a change of behavior that tells the handler there’s something not right here. The same with my cadaver dogs. If I bring them out and we’re in an area where there are no other humans. If they get the odor of a live human out there, they’re going to change their behavior in a way that informs me there’s a live person out here.

Miller:  How far down into the earth can your dog smell if we’re talking about a body that’s been buried?

Ward:  It all depends on wind, rain, terrain. Some soils hold the odor much better than others. And it also depends what you’ve trained on. If I never trained on a buried body, I can’t expect that my dog is going to recognize what that smells like. But I’ll tell you a story of the most amazing one, in my mind, that we were ever asked to do. We got a call. The sheriff’s deputy said, ‘can your dog smell 30 feet underground?’ And I said, “I have no idea. I never trained on such a thing but I’m willing to come out and see”. So we went out and the story was there was a man who was a tunneler. He had some mental disorder and he thought there was gold in the roots of trees. He had been seen in the park digging this project and then he disappeared. They thought maybe it collapsed on him.

So we brought three different dogs out and each handler did what we call worked it blind. That means no handler watched what the other dog did so that you can’t subconsciously think what’s happening. So every one of our dogs did their trained final response. That means ‘I’ve got odor here. I found it’. At the root ball of this tree with an opening that was maybe 18″ wide. It didn’t look like, to me, a body could fit down there. So I told the law enforcement, I said, “you know what all of these dogs are doing [is] the behavior they do when they detect that odor, but because we’ve never trained on this, I can’t say bring in a bulldozer”.

But he did. And that body was found 15 feet underground. So apparently he had used that root ball there as his entry and his exit, but they found him 15 feet underground. They found five gallon buckets, they found a big old fashioned cd player, they found blue jeans, they found gallon water jugs. They’re amazing. Was it because the root system allowed some air to come up? Was it because the soil was sandy and silty enough that the odor could come up? I don’t know. But they did it, which impressed the heck out of me.

Miller: How does it feel then, as a trainer, when your dog does something amazing? We can hear the wonder in your voice right now. And I think rightfully so. You were so impressed with what this dog did. At the same time, this is the discovery of a really tragic circumstance, in one way or another. So what are the emotions that you go through when your dog is successful?

Ward:  The emotions are, okay, this person is deceased but at least the family now has closure. And closure isn’t exactly the right word. But at least now they know. They can begin their grieving process because they know what happened. They know the person’s not coming back.

Miller: Is that part of your job or are you the finder and then Sheriff’s deputies or somebody else talks to families? Do you have to do that as well?

Ward:  Well, I’m always happy to do that because somehow the family always ends up being around when there’s a search like this. Or typically they are around. If I am to let the family know, I always only do that with the permission of the person who’s in charge there. Sometimes they’re totally happy to have us do it and sometimes they want to do it themselves. So we go with whatever it is they want to do.

Miller: How often do you get calls?

Ward:  Pretty often and of course it’s seasonal during hunting season or must mushroom season, mushroom hunters get lost all the time. Um, hunters less so unless they get hurt out in the field, people who are despondent often go walkabout. People with dementia go walkabout. So we get quite a few calls for all different sorts of responses.

Miller:  I imagine that there are times when you give your dogs the clear message that they are on the job and they have to look for human remains and there are other times when they’re not on the job. But if you say walk by a cemetery are their heads going all over the place?

Ward:  It depends on whether the cemetery is an older one or a newer one. The newer cemeteries now use those cement vaults. So the odor isn’t nearly as available. But if it’s an old cemetery where maybe they still used wooden boxes, then yeah, the dogs, I regularly train my dogs on putting out a source and not telling them, not putting them on command.And they regularly, on their own, change their behavior and do their trained response on that object.

Miller:  There’s now the growing movement of human composting. Is that going to complicate your plans?

Ward:  It does actually. And a friend of mine passed away and we did get some of the human compost. Every dog we worked, on that source, readily and easily detected it. So will that cause a problem if someone brings compost out into the forest, the dogs will alert on it and then we need to interpret what that’s about.

Miller:  Sharon Ward. It was fascinating talking with you. Thanks very much for your time.

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