Volunteer Cadaver Dog Handlers: Might You and Your Dog Make a Good Detective Team?

Cat Warren, cadaver dog handler, courtesy of her website

Cat Warren is a cadaver dog handler.

Interview with Author and Cadaver Dog Handler Cat Warren

CAT WARREN is a professor and former journalist with a somewhat unorthodox hobby: she works with cadaver dogs—dogs who search for missing and presumed-dead people. What started as a way to harness the energies of her unruly, smart, German shepherd puppy, Solo, soon became a passion for them both (though Solo thinks it’s simply a great game, with the reward of a toy at the end). They searched for the missing throughout North Carolina for eight years. Cat is the author of What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World. You can visit her website at What the Dog Knows.

Ann Marie: Most cadaver dog handlers work on a volunteer basis. Why is that?

Cat Warren, cadaver dog handler, and Solo. Courtesy of her webiste.

Cat Warren and Solo

Cat Warren: It’s mostly about budgets. The fact is, cadaver dogs aren’t needed every day in the same way a patrol dog is needed every day. One of the founders of the field, Andy Rebmann, started the first cadaver dog program in the late 1970s with the Connecticut State Police. That program has survived up through the present. Other programs spun off from Andy’s founder effect—Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine. And a couple of large cities, New York and Chicago, have cadaver dogs and handlers. There are a few larger departments in the United States that still have cadaver dog and handler teams, and some small ones scattered across the country, especially sheriff departments, partly because their work can tend to be more rural. But increasingly, law enforcement depends on volunteers for this function. A good volunteer dog-and-handler team can produce some excellent results.

Let’s get the big question out of the way first. I can imagine that the biggest objection most people would have to cadaver searching is the shock and horror of finding a dead body. What would you tell them?

Cadaver Dog Handler Cat Warren's book, What the Dog Knows.

Simon & Schuster is launching the paperback version of “What the Dog Knows” this month.

I have a harder time watching a show like Bones or any Hollywood version of death and decay than I do looking at a dead body out in nature. I think we media-saturated Westerners are now hardwired to replay all the worst possible film and television scenarios in our heads. But decomposition, even human decomposition, is usually a quieter phenomenon. The human violence or tragedy that brought the victim to that spot is past, and I have trained myself not to focus on that, especially when we are searching. It’s important that the dog have a good time; that’s how they do their best work: in happy mode. Any dread the handler feels, as trainers note, goes right down the leash. It’s the handler’s job to let the dog do his best work. Besides, for me and — I expect, for the majority of searchers — finding the person who is missing and dead represents success. Absolutely, it’s sad that someone has died, but it’s not a surprise. We usually know going out to search that the outcome probably won’t be finding someone alive. Finding the victim is the beginning of a resolution for those who knew the person, and for law enforcement. I do understand it when people think I must do this work as a dutiful public service. No. It’s a challenging puzzle, it pushes dogs and handlers to their mental and physical and scent limits. Plus, I get outside, often in the woods, and I get to watch dogs use their noses — one of the most pleasurable sights on earth.

What are the qualities that make a good cadaver dog?

The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.

The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.

The same qualities that make any good scent detection dog make a good cadaver dog. Good cadaver dogs love to hunt. They have what trainers and handlers call “drive,” which is a complicated and often misunderstood term. To oversimplify, a dog with drive has a lot of engine underneath its hood, even if it doesn’t have that engine revved in every situation. Often, with scent detection dogs, trainers look for dogs who are toy- or ball-obsessed because that obsession can be transferred over to the hunt for the particular scent the dog is being trained to find.

A beagle tracks a scent. Soloviova Liudmyla, shutterstock.

A beagle tracks a scent. Soloviova Liudmyla, shutterstock.

A good cadaver dog needs to have a good nose, an ability to focus, the desire to work long and hard for a reward, and be in good physical, and mental condition. Good cadaver dogs need to be both deeply bonded to their handlers, but also be independent and able to make decisions on their own. It’s a strange combination when you think about it — but you want dogs that are experts, in a way. You want to work with a dog that says, “let’s go this way, not that way.” And finally, a good cadaver dog is trained on a spectrum of human decomposition scent: from teeth and old bone up to material that is much fresher.

And a good handler?

Human remains detection team Cat Warren and Solo at work.

Human remains detection team Cat Warren and Solo.

Ah, I wish I were capable of doing all the things that make a good handler. Then I would be a better one. It takes an enormous amount of talent, time, dedication, imagination — and patience! When I watch good handlers work, here is what I see: They have great timing, so that they are rewarding their dogs at the exact moment necessary. Too soon or too late on the reward, and the dog doesn’t understand what it just did correctly. Good handlers are able to push their dogs by challenging them to learn more and do better, but not so much that their dogs lose their sense of security. In other words, it’s a delicate balance to create independence and expertise in dogs without throwing too much at them. But good handlers are always setting up increasingly difficult puzzles in training. Good handlers get out of the way of their well-trained dogs and let them work without interference. They set the dog up for success on searches. That means paying a great deal of attention to terrain and weather conditions, and what else is out in the environment. When I see good handlers work with their dogs, the process looks effortless and easy. Of course, it’s not.

How do you train a dog for cadaver searches?

This is what a cadaver dog might look like when seeking a scent.

William Henry Jackson, “Seek Dead,” 1902; public domain. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

That’s such an interesting question — and a complicated one. You train them both to be environmentally “hard” that is, to ignore and work past distractions, such as weird surfaces, rubble, fallen trees, the scent of other animals, traffic (cars and people). You also train them to recognize the whole spectrum of human decomposition. Bombs, drugs, and landmines are chemically simple in comparison to human decomposition. Yet, we do know that solidly trained dogs can tell the difference between deceased human, a dead deer, or aged goat cheese. But it’s not straightforward. Forensic anthropologist and research chemist Arpad Vass and his colleagues have identified nearly 480 different volatile compounds coming off of decomposing bodies. It’s just a start. He thinks it will be closer to 1,000 organic compounds, though not all of them volatiles, by the time they are finished creating a DOA database — which stands for Decomposition Odor Analysis, not Dead on Arrival.

Where do you obtain the scent for training?

This what a cadaver dog might look like at work.

Dogs can read scents we can’t. And that helps law enforcement. TorriPhotos, shutterstock.com.

It depends on what state or country you live in, and what the regulations are for that state or country. It’s really important to know the laws, exactly, before you obtain scent. For some countries, you can only use what we call “pseudoscent,” which is a company’s effort to get as chemically close to the scent of human decomposition as possible. Having diverse materials to train on is ideal, and “decomp,” as it’s called, comes in all varieties, from bone and teeth, to recent blood, to dirt that is harvested from beneath a body that has spent a good amount of time in the woods before being found. Dogs also need to be exposed to what they might find out on a search — a whole body. It can be confusing and even intimidating to some dogs, who are not trained on a daily basis with that much scent. We are fortunate in North Carolina to have a forensic anthropology research facility that helps train cadaver dogs on a small research plot where donated bodies decompose. That facility helps train forensic anthropologists — and cadaver dogs and handlers.

Even if a dog owner isn’t sure about training a dog for cadaver searches, what are some other scent games an owner can play with a dog?

A human remains detection dog at work might look like this.

Nose work is dog play. Morguefile photos.

There are so many things that one can do these days with dogs and their noses, from work to sport to just playing in the yard and house. Besides cadaver dog work, there’s conservation dog work — helping count and find either invasive or endangered species. There’s search and rescue for finding live victims. But many dog owners are finding their dogs love to do canine nose work. It’s a relatively recent sport, just like agility, only using many dogs’ inherent love of sniffing to get them engaged and confident. And I love to do simple games when it’s hard to get the dogs outside. Hiding a particular toy in the house and asking the dogs to go find that toy (and not the others) is great mental stimulation for the dogs. They work together, and get enormously competitive and interested in being the first one to find the hidden toy.

Whom should a dog owner contact if he or she wants to find out more about the possibility of cadaver search training?

Solo signed my copy of What the Dog Knows with his nose print.

Solo signed my copy of “What the Dog Knows” with his nose print.

It depends on where they live — the first step is to contact their area search and rescue groups, to see what they are doing. In the United States, we have several national groups that are a good place to start: the American Rescue Dog Association, the National Search Dog Alliance, or The North American Police Work Dog Association, which allows non-law enforcement handlers to be associate members, with some restrictions.

I also highly recommend a book entitled Cadaver Dog Handbook: Forensic Training and Tactics for the Recover of Human Remains, by Andrew Rebmann, Edward David, and Marcella H. Sorg. More than any other book, it gives you everything you need to know about the discipline.

 Thank you, Cat! Please give Solo a hug from me and tell him I said “bravo!”

What scent games does your dog enjoy? And if you have any questions for Cat Warren, you may post them in the comment section.

 

Interested in Cat’s book, What the Dog Knows? It hit the #7 spot for bestselling paperback nonfiction. Check it out on Amazon!

 

39 Comments

  1. Brian
    Mar 11, 2015

    Our dogs enjoyed the scent game where they ate every single edible thing they could find…. including boxes of Christmas chocolates and sandwiches off of plates.

    • Ann Marie
      Mar 11, 2015

      Your dogs would make great Christmas chocolate detectives, Brian!

      • dee
        Sep 21, 2015

        I lost a love one its been 41 days they killed him in his home then hide the body we as a family really wants to find him we need help can you please tell us what to do

      • Ann Marie
        Sep 21, 2015

        Dee, you need to call the local police. Only the police can organize a cadaver dog search. I wish you success in finding your loved one.

    • Robert Wallace
      Sep 4, 2020

      Hi guys, right now at the BORDER WALL in San Diego CA and need a lil help determining where Native American cremation sites are for the removal and care to repatriate the bones of these old graveyards.I am a construction worker also, going through native cremation sites and might need your services to set a standard and protocol to keep this history logged and intact. Please message or email me,
      Sincerely,
      Robert Wallace
      619-318-2643

      • Ann Marie
        Sep 20, 2020

        I’m not a cadaver handler myself; I just blog about them. California should have an archaelogy department that can help you out with identifying the cremation sites, and it might have the authority to organize a cadaver dog. I’m not sure, however, that a cadaver dog’s ability to identify cremains has been demonstrated. I will ask Cat Warren, however and post another comment if she has another idea. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Elaine Mansfield
    Mar 18, 2015

    I admire a well-trained dog and even more the dog’s owner. I’ve had dogs all my life and a truly obedient dog takes lots of effort and perseverance. My dog is too easily distracted to be a cadaver dog, I suspect, but she’s an ace at finding an ancient animal bone or carcass that’s been through a few winters in the woods. This winter because she had knee surgery, we’ve played hide the treat for entertainment. She figures it out too quickly.

    • Ann Marie
      Mar 19, 2015

      You sound like a wonderful dog owner, Elaine. “Hide the treat” is a great game to play with a dog. You are engaging your dog on its own playing field: the sense of smell. I’ll bet your dog loves it! I wish your dog a speedy recovery from surgery.

  3. Ruth Drumm
    Nov 14, 2016

    I need a cadaver dog and handler to search our 170 acre farm in Schuylerville, NY. My husband has been missing for nearly a year (Nov. 24, 2015].

    • Ann Marie
      Nov 15, 2016

      I am so sorry to hear about your husband, Ruth, and wish you the best in finding him. Presumably, you’ve already filed a missing person report with the police. The police could organize a search for you. Good luck.

  4. kathy hamilton
    Jun 26, 2017

    I was wondering if I could talk to you ?
    I am aware of a cold case in my town and have been to police 2 times the first time the never look into my area the 2nd time 18 years later I did get some one to listen to me they brought in cadaver dog back last fall and then this past May they say they pick up something have alerted and now at this point the detective handling case tell my husband and I well there not enough to go any further so if you want to go digging go ahead there a lot more to this too much to type that my I would like your insight if you can call that would be great Kathy 945-225-4552

    • Ann Marie
      Jun 26, 2017

      Thanks for commenting, Kathy. I’m not a cadaver dog handler myself (I just blog about cadaver dogs), and in addition, I live in Germany. That would make it hard for me to help you. If there is already a detective working on the case, that’s a good thing. In my experience, you can usually trust the detective’s judgment.

  5. Lori Grizzaffi
    Mar 13, 2018

    Hi, My name is Lori Grizzaffi. My daughters 19 year old boyfriend is missing and presumed dead at the hands of an older so called friend. He has been missing since Jan 11th. We search nearly every day for him with no luck. I was advised to find someone with a cadaver dog to help. He is missing in VT. Is this anything you can help me with or know someone that can. Thanks so much, Lori

    • Ann Marie
      Mar 13, 2018

      Thanks for commenting, Lori. The police need to arrange for a cadaver dog search. Private cadaver dog handlers will not initiate a search on their own because it could interfere with and mess up a police investigation. I recommend you contact the police and suggest a search with a cadaver dog. Good luck with what is an immensely sad situation.

    • Melissa
      Mar 25, 2019

      Lori-
      Have you received help? There are several SARS and Cadaver dog organizations up in the NH area that often do work in VT. They are absolutely incredible (some of the best in the country) and generally do it for free. Google New England K-9 Search and Rescue and contact them to see if they can help- they have a website. They have been working on a 15 year old cold case up here in the NH White Mountains and have been so wonderful in both ruling things/places in and out.

      • Ann Marie
        Mar 25, 2019

        Thank you for your response to Lori, Melissa. I will Email her and let her know.

  6. Sandra Swalla
    Jun 29, 2018

    My neighbor has been looking for help with a cadaver dog and due to expenses Etc she finally found a place that can be searched but she pretty much is out of resources. She is my neighbor and I truly feel for her I see her everyday searching… I want to try and help her whether it be collecting money to have another dog and check out the place she believes she went missing and there was some proof found but the search was called off due to weather and other reasons. If there is any way we can collect so we can have a cadaver dog for the day where she needs him. They just want to bring her home. If you can please contact me I’ve been trying different places and organizations to help her out as a surprise.

    • Emily
      Jan 21, 2019

      I run a team of search dogs available to assist the families
      If the need for a cadaver dog is still present, I might be able to help

      • Ann Marie
        Jan 23, 2019

        Emily, may I have your permission to share your Email address with Sandra Swalla? I will share it per Email, not online.

  7. Sandra Swalla
    Jun 29, 2018

    A very good friend of mine needs your help she has been looking for her daughter for over 10 years. Her money source is very limited now she did have a cadaver dog but they were looking in the wrong spot and then the rain cancelled it. She just wants to bring her home. She pretty much knows what happened and I feel for her I see her everyday. Her life is on hold until she finds out where she…pretty much knows how. She just wants closure and to bring her home. Is there anyway we can collect money or something and you might have the time to help us so I can see her smile once more.

    • Ann Marie
      Jun 30, 2018

      Sandra, I wish I could help your friend. But I live in Germany and am not a cadaver dog handler myself; I only blog about them. Your best best would be to have your friend contact the police and have the police organize the search. Then your friend wouldn’t have to pay for it. I wish her luck. That is a sad story and I feel for her.

  8. Katie
    Jul 31, 2018

    Great article! When it comes to cadaver dogs, can you teach an old dog “new tricks”? Meaning, can you train an older dog that would be around 9 years old, or would you have to start training around the young age of 1 years old? Also, which breeds are better than others? Thank you!

    • Ann Marie
      Jul 31, 2018

      Thanks, Katie! I don’t know, but I’ll ask Cat Warren to answer your question. I think most people start young because it takes a few years to get a dog up to speed, but if you want to train an old dog just to offer your dog some canine intellectual stimulation, maybe that would work. Thanks for commenting.

  9. John C. Dalglish
    Oct 22, 2018

    Ann Marie,

    I am an author of two Crime Mystery series, and have what I suppose is an unusual question. Because I strive for accuracy, I wonder what word is most commonly used to start a dog on a search. Of course, it may be as simple as SEARCH!, but I wonder if there is something more common but less known.
    Thanks in advance, JD

    • Ann Marie
      Oct 24, 2018

      If I recall correctly, Cat Warren talks about that in her book. But I’ll ask her to reply to your comment and give you some tips. Good luck with your writing, John!

    • Cat Warren
      Oct 24, 2018

      Hi, JD:

      Cat Warren here. Ann Marie let me know you’d asked this question, and it’s a fascinating one — since I wrote about it at some length in the book, I’m going to copy and paste a portion of that. I asked Solo to “find the fish.” Another dog? I just showed him the toy, a gappay ball, and he knew the hunt was on…

      So the words are more important to us than to the dogs. Dogs are taking cues from everything else — our equipment, the toys we carry, the unconscious things we do each and every time there’s a search or training.

      So here’s a section where I talk about commands (and I know it’ll give you LOTS of options!):

      We humans love words and the stories they tell when they get strung together. It doesn’t matter if they’re true. Those who would trace the provenance of dog commands are certain where they originated.
      “You could tell who people were trained with,” said one seasoned handler in the Northeast. “ ‘Find Fred.’ That was Andy’s.” Another handler from another part of the country told me, shaking her head, that she always thought Andy Rebmann’s favorite command, “Find Fred,” was deeply insensitive, especially if family members were on the scene.

      The only problem with the story about Andy’s command is that, just like the origins of “napoo,” it doesn’t appear to be true. Andy shook his head, though his eyes glinted in sardonic amusement. Never, he said, had he asked a dog to “find Fred.”
      “I always use ‘Look for it,’” he said.
      Darn it. “Look for it” is so prosaic. Nor does it capture the essence of brutally practical and politically incorrect Andy the way “Find Fred” does.
      “Mor-te,” a North Carolina handler tells her big German shepherd, with an emphasis on the T, so the word ends up with two syllables.
      “Where’s Mortimer?” another handler urges. “Where’s Mort?”
      “Where’s Chucky?” a handler asks her border collie.
      “Find bones,” Marcia Koenig, Andy Rebmann’s wife, tells her German shepherds. That one seems to work just fine. Marcia’s dogs have found dozens of bones over the past two decades.
      The best term, however, belongs to Suzi Goodhope. “Hoffa,” she tells Shiraz, one of her Belgian Malinois.

      • Ann Marie
        Oct 25, 2018

        Thank you Cat, for responding! John, if you are going to write about cadaver dog searches, I can only recommend Cat’s book. It’s was a NYT bestseller, so you know it’s going to be a good read. There’s also the Cadaver Dog Handbook by Andy Rebmann that will give you a lot of textbook information. And once again, good luck with your writing! Feel free to comment on this post to alert my readers when your book comes out.

      • John Dalglish
        Oct 25, 2018

        Thanks to both of you. It will certainly be fun to choose the search word for my character.
        BTW, I had already ordered the book. A writer needs good sources. ?

  10. Kathy Tompkins
    Aug 1, 2019

    I have purchased a Giant Schnauzer from Germany, who comes from a very long line of accomplished working Riesenschnauzer. I live in Georgia and he is with a trainer at this time. My main thing I want him trained for is a cadaver dog. I will be the one who handles him and I really don’t know how to get started. Is there a group or trainer in Georgia who specializes in cadaver training of the dog and handler. I am a retired Deputy Sheriff and always wanted a working dog. Once the dog is trained I will be moving to Scotland for a few years and hope he will be used over there. I chosen cadaver search because around here it’s hard to located a dog who is trained for this kind of search. In my county this month we had three people go missing, two have not been found and the third was found two weeks later deceased. They have search dogs but not a cadaver dog. If a cadaver dog had been available they might have found the person sooner. I hope by offering my service we will be able to reunite families with there loved one and give them some peace.

    If you can give me any information I would appreciate it.

    Thank you

    Kathy Tompkins

    • Ann Marie
      Aug 2, 2019

      Hi Kathy! I congratulate you on your new dog and your training goals. As a retired Deputy Sheriff, you’d also have the advantage of being able to work well with law enforcement.

      I live in Germany and can’t help you directly, but I’ll ask a cadaver dog trainer in your neighobring state of North Carolina — Cat Warren, the author I interviewed for this poast — to leave a comment with some more information. Good luck on your journey, it’s a fascinating one.

    • Cat Warren
      Aug 2, 2019

      Hi, Kathy! Send me an email through my contact page at catwarren.com and we can start corresponding a bit — partly depends on where you are in Georgia, etc. But I know a number of folks down that way who I’m sure would be happy to get you started. Best, Cat

  11. Matt Russo
    Sep 7, 2019

    My name is Matthew Russo. You can Google my sisters case she was murdered by her boyfriend amd we never found her. My mothers life has been changed ever since as the rest of us we have a general area. My mom insists she knows due to a tip.

    • Ann Marie
      Sep 7, 2019

      Dear Matt, I am so sorry for your loss. I hope you can find her and get some resolution to this case.

  12. Jeanette Decharo
    Sep 12, 2019

    Hi I adopted a hound mix he’s around 6 yrs old. He has issues with other dogs and people and he’s currently enrolled in a class for that. I’ve noticed he sniffs everything all the time. So he’s been through his first nosework class and the second one starts next month. His que is find it. He’s also obsessed with his ball. My vet suggested training him for a cadaver dog since I was a medic for 20 yrs. I live in Tampa FL but was wondering due to his age would he be considered to train?

    • Ann Marie
      Sep 19, 2019

      Hello Jeanette, and thanks for commenting. I don’t know if your dog is too old, but I’ll ask Cat Warren to respond, since she’s the cadaver dog handler. At any rate, it sounds like your dog is having fun with the sniffing classes! Good luck with him.

  13. Marissa
    Oct 15, 2019

    Hi, I was wondering if your dog had any other experiances that you might know about,say military or police work? If not that okay. I am doing a school project and was wondering if you may know someone in that fields? If not like I said have a good day.

    • Ann Marie
      Oct 18, 2019

      I don’t have a dog myself, Marissa, and from Cat Warren’s book I can tell you her dog didn’t have any military experience. She did participate in some cadaver dog training with the police, however. I hope that helps.

  14. John Wedgeworth
    Nov 9, 2019

    I’m interested in learning of cadaver dog training we really need someone in Alabama I have 25 years in veterinary medicine and very passionate in my work

    • Ann Marie
      Nov 12, 2019

      Thanks for commenting John, and I think pursuing cadaver dog training is a very interesting endeavor. I’m not an expert myself, but I suggest you contact Cat Warren, the author and cadaver dog handler I interviewed. Here is a link to her website. Good luck!

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