Searching for missing people, alive or dead, is a uniquely grueling task best suited to searchers with the keenest sense of smell. Human searchers know that what counts as “success” might be something very sad indeed. Canine searchers know only that their hard work makes their human trainers very grateful. Maybe that’s all they need to know.
Christy Judah is a search-and-rescue-dog handler who founded the Brunswick, North Carolina, Search and Rescue Team and served over a dozen years as its chief. She has written several books about her work, including Buzzards and Butterflies: Human Remains Detection Dogs.
Dogster: What do cadaver dogs do?
Christy: The politically correct term for them is human remains detection dogs or HRD dogs, and they’re a subset of the wider category of search-and-rescue or SAR dogs. They’re trained to do different things depending on the environments that we know they’ll be searching in. Disaster dogs that search for victims of explosions, earthquakes, and storms are taught agility skills because they’ll need to navigate across piled-up debris and uneven surfaces.
Training human remains detection dogs is not all that different from training drug-detection dogs in that we’re asking them to find the scent of a deceased person that is either buried underground, on the surface of the ground or underwater. These are very specific scents, and the dogs are trained to do specific behaviors as soon as they pick up these scents — behaviors that they wouldn’t normally do at any other time.
My black-and-white English springer spaniel, Bailey, will get into a down position, and he will take his paw and put it on the ground. I’ll say, “Where is it? Where is it?” and he will slap the right spot with that paw.
Can you describe the types of cases your team has worked on?
We had to train our dogs to do multiple things because this part of North Carolina is Hurricane Alley, so we needed to train them for disasters. And because we never knew when we got a call from law enforcement whether a missing person was going to be found alive or deceased, we trained the dogs to find both — to go off-lead into the woods and find any human being that can be found out there.
We’ve worked lots of homicide cases. In one case, there had been some domestic violence between a couple and the girl just disappeared. Her family were just so suspicious that they asked the police to have a little visit with the boyfriend. The police officers noticed that some areas in the yard looked disturbed.
When they brought in an HRD dog, they discovered that the disturbed areas weren’t anything at all. They were just distractor areas that had been set up by the perpetrator. The dog found the victim in another part of the property. In another case, the victim’s remains had already been located and removed, but the medical examiner wanted us to go back and see if we could find a throat bone that was missing, because that bone could tell us whether the victim had been strangled.
We went to the site and our dogs did not find that bone — but they found a human rib. This very much distressed the medical examiner, because he already had all the ribs from the original victim. Our find meant that there was a second victim, and this turned the case into a serial killing.
We also search for drowned people. Because in this area we have a lot of alligators and poisonous snakes in the rivers and ponds, we don’t let our dogs go into the water. We have a small boat specially designed for dogs to ride in. It has a deck in front with planking so that a dog can keep a steady footing while leaning over the edge. The dog’s nose stays as close to the water as possible. When the dog picks up the scent of the dead person — which is actually gases escaping the body and rising to the surface — they will look straight down and sometimes even try to taste the water.
Then they will swing their head around as the boat passes the body. The closer these dogs get into scent, the more fiercely and rapidly they will bark. In that sense, the dog drives the boat. If the dog’s head turns in a particular direction, the boat needs to be maneuvered according to that — and that’s how you decide where to throw in a buoy. When you have identified an area — maybe twenty to forty feet in diameter — then you would call in the divers and say, ‘This is the area where my dog has indicated that there might be human scent.”
Often you’re sitting there on the boat with your dog when the diver goes down — and comes right back up and says, “Yup — it’s down there.”
Can these dogs find very old human remains?
Yes, because their noses are over a hundred million times more sensitive than ours are, so it’s amazing what they can detect. We’ve done lots of historic work such as locating human remains in old, old, old plantation cemeteries where only one or two headstones might be left but people say the cemetery used to be bigger. We bring our dogs out there and if the soil is not too acidic, there may be remains left in that soil even after several hundred years.
We located eighteen potential gravesites in the Mary Hemingway Cemetery in the Holden Beach area. It dates back to at least 1840, and it’s now covered with a trailer park.
We also were asked to find a mass grave that was said to have been created to bury the sailors who drowned when the USS Huron wrecked near the Kill Devil Hills in 1877. The ship went down and the local citizens buried the sailors in a mass grave, but although the general location was known, people wanted to know whether human remains were really under there and where they were. You can’t just go in and dig. That’s not an acceptable way to find remains. So we brought our dogs and the dogs indicated that yes, there were remains in there.
How did you get into this kind of work?
Initially I was just looking for an activity. I had a dog, and I enjoy the outdoors. I happened to attend my high-school reunion, where I was reacquainted with a gentleman who was the chief of a search-and-rescue team. One thing led to another, and people who had been doing this for a long time began to guide me. And you have to do this work by the books, and get certified by some official body, either an organization or the state, depending on where you live.
At one point, after training my dog for a year, it became obvious to me that I either needed to join a search team or start a search team. You can’t do this kind of work all by yourself. Since the nearest team to where I lived was a couple of hours away, I decided to start my own. I founded the Brunswick Search and Rescue Team in 1998.
What kind of dogs are best suited to human-remains detection?
No specific breeds are identified with this. You can teach pretty much any dog to do pretty much anything — but most often it turns out to be the sporting, hunting and herding breeds. You’ve got to think of the physical stamina and agility required. These dogs need a lot of drive in order to be taught. They need that hunt drive, that prey drive, those natural hunting behaviors.
You need to have that dog work for six, ten, or twelve hours straight. The operational periods for a major search are twelve hours long. These dogs need to be very stable in their temperament, they must be physically able to handle all kinds of terrain and environments, and they need to be intelligent enough to grasp all the concepts and be reliable.
What kind of relationships develop between HRD dogs and their handlers?
These dogs are family members. Yes, they are a tool, and yes, they are trained to do specific things, but these dogs also think for themselves. Say you have to search a 200-acre area for the remains of a homicide victim. I as a human being might think, “They would never be in this thick brush over here,” but if my dog decides that’s where he wants to go, then I have to trek through that thick brush. His nose is better than me standing there looking around, trying to guess. If I tell my dog to go left but he wants to go right, and he goes right, I have to trust my dog.
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