Cadaver Dogs: Aiding Law Enforcement throughout History
Police dog

Cadaver Dogs: Aiding Law Enforcement throughout History

Portrait of Working Police Dog, Rob Hainer,
Many cadaver dogs are German Shepherds. Portrait of Working Police Dog by Rob Hainer,

Dogs love stench. They are attracted to different fragrances than we are. They poke in garbage, sniff rear ends, and flop down on the beach to roll in dead fish. So it is not surprising that incidents of dogs discovering homicide victims sprinkle the history of criminal investigations. Most of those discoveries are accidental. Dogs out on walks led their unsuspecting owners to gruesome finds. But they are finds that aid investigators.

The first cadaver dog successfully used in a homicide investigation was a yellow lab, like the dog pictured here.
The first cadaver dog successfully used in a homicide investigation in the USA was a Yellow Labrador Retriever like Frank, the dog pictured here.

People have long used dogs for search and rescue or for tracking live criminals. Why not also the dead? Training of cadaver dogs began in the 1970s. Handlers hid objects that smell like death, such as chemicals or pulled teeth. They taught the dogs to track those odors in various kinds of weather and in different terrains. The dogs also had to distinguish between human and animal remains. The first police dog in the United States exclusively trained for cadaver searches started working in 1974. “Pearl,” a yellow lab, made her first find in New York State. She found the clandestine grave of a Syracuse College student, buried four feet deep.

Schiller Feuerbach 038Purposeful use of dogs to search for murder victims might be much older. In 1809, a court clerk used his dog to perform a cadaver search in a German murder investigation. The case was of serial killer Andreas Bichel, known as the Bavarian Ripper (or Mädchenschlächter in German). Two girls disappeared mysteriously in 1806 and 1808 in Bavaria. One had disappeared after visiting Andreas Bichel, but he claimed she had left his home with another man. In May, 1809, one of the girl’s sisters visited a tailor and recognized part of the missing girl’s skirt in his workshop. She contacted the police, who questioned the tailor. He said Andreas Bichel had given him the material to make him a vest.

The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.
The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.

The court opened its investigation the following day and searched Bichel’s house, finding more clothing from the missing girls, but no bodies. Two days later, the court clerk decided to take his dog for a walk past Bichel’s house. This dog most certainly did not have the training of a modern cadaver dog. Nevertheless, it alerted repeatedly at a wood shed. This led to a search of the shed, the discovery of the victims buried behind the shed, and Bichel’s confession and conviction. He had lured the girls into his house with the promise of a magic mirror that would show them their future husbands. Then he killed them for their clothing. Bichel was executed on June 9, 1809.

No where in the case report did the dog receive special credit. But the Bichel case might be the first recorded instance of forensic use of a dog to search for a cadaver. And for the history of cadaver dogs’ work in law enforcement, we can all express our thanks.

What are some of the unusual things your dog has found using its sense of smell?


Some literature on point:

Paul Johann Anselm von Feuerbach, Andreas Bichel, der Mädchenschlächter. In: Altenmäßige Darstellung merkwürdiger Verbrechen (3rd ed. Aalen: Scientia 1984;  1st ed.Geißen: Müller 1811).

Andrew Rebmann, Edward David & Marcella H. Sorg, Forensic Training and Tactics for the Recovery of Human Remains (Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press: 2000)

Cat Warren, What the Dog Knows (New York: Touchstone: 2013)

(c) 2014 Ann Marie Ackermann

Written by
Ann Marie
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  • I’ve heard there are dogs that can smell cancer. That’s the best medical test – get sniffed by a dog. But now they have devices that can detect cancer from your breath. In a few more years you’ll find many dogs in the unemployment line.

  • What adorable pictures! I love the one of the yellow lab! 🙂
    My dog recently found a dead doe in the backyard, along with several clumps of fur in various spots throughout the yard. The nose DOES know!

    • Dogs are amazing, aren’t they? I’m not surprised about the doe and fur. It makes you wonder what else your dog could find — with time and training.

  • Fascinating post. The abilities of these dogs are simply amazing to us humans. Their abilities to sniff out bodies are extraordinary, but for some, that ability apparently extends across time, too.

    My friend, former LAPD homicide detective and crime author Steve Hodel, in his book BLACK DAHLIA AVENGER, asserts that the murderer of Elizabeth Short was his own doctor/father, George Hill Hodel. In 2013, Steve hired the handler of a veteran cadaver dog named Buster to explore the environs of his childhood home, where his father lived at the time of the so-called Black Dahlia killing.

    The dog actually alerted on traces of human decomposition on the property, even though it might be decades old. (The smell was coming from a part of the property owned by a Hollywood star who isn’t interested in allowing diggers.)

    The investigation is ongoing. The Black Dahlia is officially an open case, but LAPD isn’t interested in expending any resources on Steve Hodel’s theories. But Buster certainly seems to have shown his merit.

    • You raise some intriguing points, Ron. Dogs’ ability to sniff out bodies does indeed extend across time, even centuries and millennia. No dog demonstrated that better than a Belgian Malinois named Shiraz in the Florida woods. She alerted to a single human toe bone buried three feet deep. Radiocarbon testing dated the bone to 670 AD. If death can wave its scented sceptor over 13 centuries, it might have done the same over the few decades since the Black Dahlia case.

      I say “might,” because a freshy dead body smells different than old bones or corpses in the throes of decomposition. Good cadaver dogs are trained to alert to all of them. When the Black Dahlia was found, she had only been dead for a few hours, at most a few days. Even if she had been temporarily deposited in Steve Hodel’s childhood yard, I’m not sure if the odor of a freshly dead body that had been removed within a few days would linger as long as one that had decomposed there and had years to saturate the soil. Does Steve Hodel address that question in his book?

      Dogs most certainly know the answer, but unfortunately they cannot tell us. What I would give to have ten minutes inside a dog’s brain to experience a landscape painted with scent instead of color!

  • Thank you for the information about the first use of cadaver dogs. I am trying to find out when the FBI started to use cadaver dogs. Realistic fiction isn’t very realistic if small details like this are overlooked. I am writing a fictional story about a rural crime investigation during the late 1980s I would hate to just assume that the FBI was using dogs in heavily wooded areas during that time. Does anyone know more about their use of dogs during the late 1980s?

    • That’s an interesting question. Cat Warren’s book, What the Dog Knows, contains some information about the history of cadaver dogs in law enforcement. It was a NYT bestseller, so you could probably find it in your local library. Andy Rebmann’s book is one of the Bibles for cadaver dog training and might also contain some information. But I’m not sure either of these books contain information specifically about the FBI’s history with cadaver dogs.

      Have you thought about contacting the FBI to ask yourself? It most certainly has a media or public relations page on its website.

      Good luck with your book. Solid research is the basis for good writing. I hate reading unrealistic murder mysteries, so I appreciate your legwork.

  • Thank you for sharing your knowledge of cadaver dogs and the use of their noses. It is so very important to know and share that dogs have been and will be trained to help man do these jobs.

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