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My Day Training with Cadaver Dogs — and Real Body Parts

Monterey County volunteers get training materials anywhere they can. And let's just say I've never knowingly shared a vehicle with bits of human bodies before.

Maria Goodavage  |  Aug 20th 2012

When I told my daughter we’d been invited to Monterey County to watch a group of search-and-rescue dogs practice their skills sniffing for missing people and cadavers, she looked concerned.

“They won’t have dead bodies or body parts, will they?” she asked.

“Of course not, silly! They’ll just use rotten chicken or something,” said her all-knowing mother.

But a few days later, as Monty Reitz, head of the county’s SAR training group, was driving us to the practice area, I learned how ridiculously wrong I was. For there, in the back of the pickup truck bouncing merrily along the rough road, was a little red-and-white cooler. Its contents were not sandwiches and sodas. Or even decaying chicken.

“You’ve got to have the real human stuff,” Reitz said. “Humans don’t smell like chickens.”

The cooler was too small to be housing full-fledged Hannibal Lecter castoffs. But I’d never knowingly shared a vehicle with bits of dead people. I asked Reitz where they got the dead people parts — not sure whether I really wanted to hear the answer.

I figured it couldn’t be too bad. After all, Reitz is a friendly, gentle, funny, 85-year-old retired school administrator. He and his enchanting 82-year-old wife, Ramona, have six grown children, and they are the quintessential grandparents. My daughter, Laura, and I wanted to adopt them. Surely, there was no funny business going on here.

He explained that in California, it’s notoriously difficult to get human material for cadaver dogs. The group’s solution, he deadpanned: “Grave robbing.”

Reitz, rubbing his knees as he drove, explained that in truth, the body tissue behind us was from people who donated bits and pieces of themselves to the cause. For instance, the knees Reitz was rubbing were not his original ones. The hospital let him keep the worn-out editions after replacing them with brand-new versions.

“They thought it was a little strange at the hospital, but the doctor knows me,” he chuckled.

Another human part in the cooler was an old supporter’s hip joint. And vials of blood provided soft tissue samples. The blood was let during a nurse friend’s visit a few weeks earlier.

“We all rolled up our sleeves for the cause,” Reitz said.

He said it’s a lot easier to get body parts in other places. In Missouri, he said, you can even order body tissue for the purpose of cadaver dog training. Probably some other states, too. But here, in friendly California, it helps to have pals who don’t need all of their parts. Was the stuff in the cooler really cadaverous? Not to you and me, but for the dogs, it did the trick.

“It’s all about the off-gassing,” he said.

Reitz’s knee joints, despite being kept well chilled when not being used for SAR work, smelled similar to a dead body, at least to a dog’s nose. A dog who practiced finding Reitz’s old knee might someday find someone’s remains — and give a grieving family closure.

We arrived at the former site of the sprawling Fort Ord army base and met up with the rest of Reitz’s gang. They were a friendly, energetic bunch — much like their dogs. All were raring to go. Most of the day was filled with searching for live people. One handler from the group would hide, and dog and handler would then sniff that person out. The dogs always found their man. Or woman. Or girl.

At one point, Laura got to portray the lost person, walking off for about a half mile or so through woods and scrub and hiding in a tree. (I accompanied her, just in case the dog decided to chase squirrels all day instead.) Within a few minutes of Wayne Radochonski releasing his Belgian Malinois, Malee, Laura was no longer lost. Malee was looking at her in the tree and barking, “Hey, here she is! I found her, Dad! Come give me my toy now!” Or something along those lines.

If this had been a real-life emergency, I would make a monument to that dog. Somebody probably will one day. She is young, enthusiastic, driven, and tireless — and she has an incredible nose.

All the dogs that day were pretty amazing. Some were more experienced than others — a few owners come twice a week for these sessions — but none failed to find what they were seeking. Not many in the group have been involved in real-life searches, but they were in good hands. Reitz has done almost 200 searches with his own dogs over the years. And he’s the author of the well-regarded Trust Your Dog, a training manual for area search and cadaver dogs.

Once the students and dogs under his tutelage get certified, any law-enforcement entity will be lucky to have them volunteering in their ranks to look for the missing.

If my yellow Lab Jake had been there, he probably wouldn’t have found any of the living. But I have little doubt that this chow hound would have found the bones. Here’s how it would have gone: He’d have found some bones, chomped onto them, run around joyously showing them off, and trotted into the woods to gnaw on his treasure — with not so much as a guilty glance in the direction of Reitz — or his updated knees.

That kind of behavior is not exactly professional. Real-deal SAR trainees are not permitted to so much as touch noses to body parts. When Dally found the hip joint, she ran up to it and accidentally hit the plastic cup that was housing it. The old hip went flying in the air and landed in some tall, equally dead grass. Dally immediately galloped to it, and — nose to hip joint — started barking. She had found her quarry.

Her reward? A furry little mouse toy.

“She’s crazy about it,” says her equally exuberant owner, Ingrid LaFontaine.

Late in the day I wondered how long these hips and knees and tubes of blood would last. After all, they’re out in the field for hours at a time in between refrigeration. It might be good for making them more dead smelling for the dogs, but who’s going to want that stuff in their freezer? How will this group procure more parts? It got me to thinking of a whodunit novel I could write one day.

Then I had another thought. If people can donate their bodies to science, why can’t they donate at least parts of their bodies helping dogs do this very important job? I’d rather my old bones help dogs learn to make these important finds than be planted six feet under. Well, as long as they don’t let Jake loose while my parts are out there in the field…

Search-and-rescue people! Tell us about your experiences! I’m fascinated with these dogs’ capabilities. What kinds of finds have you had? And what, dare I ask, do you use for cadaver practice searches? Is it easier to get body parts in some places than others? Have you ever donated a body part? If it were legal, would you want to do so after you die?

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