6 min read


Can Cadaver Dogs Sense Death?



6 min read


Can Cadaver Dogs Sense Death?


Its official, dogs are the new sniffing celebrities, and as the word spreads, all kinds of ideas emerge to put those supreme noses to work. Our wagging-tail woofers are finding drugs hidden in the craziest of places and can even detect human remains under the ground. Cadaver dogs are an invaluable weapon against crime as they help police solve difficult cases and give closure to people who've lost loved ones.

These dignified dogs can be of great service finding evidence that could lead to justice being served. Their insatiable sense of smell is a blessing that finds people who may have been missing for years. Can dogs really sense death, or is there more to this eerie epic?


Signs a Dog can Detect Death

In 2017 a cadaver dog led police to the grave of a young man in Bucks County. Pennsylvania. Four boys were on the wanted list and a dog trained to smell human remains found one of the boys in a 12-1/2 foot grave. According to Daily News, the property in question was owned by the person who was later charged. Chilling as this story is, the willingness of woofers to help mankind in any way enabled these boys to be found.

Cadaver dogs, also known as Human Remains Detection Dogs (HRD), are unique canines trained to smell blood, placenta, or soil where a body may be buried. It’s a grisly business but without their sniffing prowess, a search could be fruitless and a cold case could evolve.

These dogs literally smell death and once a dog is let loose in an area thought to be of interest, they move fairly quickly, their ears go up, and their body language is on full alert. A dog may pace around and scratch at an area, then dig to get more of the scent. If an HRD pooch is onto something, they'll instigate a series of barks as a positive indication. Others may be trained to sit or lie down.

CBC tells us a diving team had spent over 12 days searching for a man in the waters of Lake Elliot, Northern Ontario. Nothing had been found until a cadaver dog named Piper, standing on the edge of a boat, started barking. Divers went down and found articles from the canoe that had capsized and not long after, the man's body.

Dogs can smell the early or later stages of a decomposed body from the scent of putrescine and cadaverine molecules caused by a breakdown of amino acids. Their astonishing sense of smell activated by 200-300 million scent receptors leaves our smelling talent in the dust. Once an odor is detected, the finely-tuned mechanism behind their nose switches into high gear. A scent finds its way to the Jacobson's organ, the seat of smelling power in dogs. Unusual scents are analyzed and sent to the brain for action.

Dogs are not just a pretty face as they stick their noses in all kinds of pungent smells to help police put the bad guys away. It's no surprise dogs can sense death, as stories of pooches acting strangely before the event are universal. Their wolf-like instincts open windows to the unknown.

Body Language

Signs a cadaver dog can find human remains include:<br/>

  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Digging
  • Scratching
  • Pacing
  • Sniffing
  • Ears Up

Other Signs

Signs a cadaver dog can detect death are:<br/>

  • Exhibiting A Trained Behavior
  • Circling
  • Excited Behavior

History of Cadaver Dogs


The wild wolf has a love-hate relationship with humans of the modern age. They were almost ancient history in the 20th century, with termination programs that backfired as Mother Nature stepped in to show us why each animal has its place in an environment. With conservationists talking out loud, new breeding programs to bring back the wolf were implemented.

In a distant past and fairy-tale setting, the big, bad wolf befriended man and helped him rule the wilderness. Their legacy remains in the shape of Poodles, Beagles, Huskies, and Saint Bernards who were helpful in herding and guarding our livestock.

Down the track, it was noted they had an amazing ability to smell stuff and this led to the beginnings of the sniffer-dog star. They served their country in Second World War detecting bombs and mines, and in the early 70’s, were trained to slow down the trafficking of drugs.

Determined woofers were K9 champs tracking down criminals and people lost. According to Ann Marie Ackermann, the first known reporting of a dog finding human remains took place in Germany, in the early 1700’s. A dog being walked past a murder suspect's house showed an unusual interest in a shed on the property. The police investigated and found buried bodies.

Pearl, a yellow Labrador was the first pup trained in the U.S as a cadaver dog in the early 70's and found the makeshift grave of a missing college student.

Science Studies the Scent of Death


What odor of death do dogs actually smell? That is the question being researched by the University of Leicester’s Department of Chemistry. When a body decomposes, volatile compound gases or (VOC’s) are released and researchers want to know what chemicals dogs actually detect. Environment plays a part as does the time some tissue takes to decompose. Dogs are often trained using animal samples, which has left science wondering what particular scent the dogs are picking up.

At present, HRD juniors are trained with synthetic cadaver odors made by Sigma-Aldrich, with scents labeled recently dead, decomposed, and drowned people. According to Inverse, a study involving the FBI and researchers from the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory discovered decomposing humans can emit over 400 volatile organic compounds. That’s a smorgasbord of scent for the vigilant cadaver dog and possibly the reason they find their target.

Dogs can also pick up the scent of older remains as proven by a study at the Alabama University. A 30-year-old human vertebra was buried to test their efficiency and it is thought this could help police re-open unsolved cases from way back

Scientific American brings us the remarkable story of Rufus, an HRD dog recruited to check out the property of a man whose wife had disappeared. Rufus surveyed the perimeter and was interested in an area by the patio where concrete had been recently laid. The heavy artillery arrived and jack-hammered the concrete, but nothing was initially found. Rufus went back and started digging along with workers until they found the woman four and a half feet down. Rufus had detected her through layers of concrete!

Training Cadaver Dogs


A dog with the right temperament is not hard to train and if their future job is sniffing out human remains, nature has already provided an incredible sense of smell.

 While we humans scratch our heads in wonder, sniffer-dogs smell the drugs through a well-concealed container of peanut butter, making us marvel at their gift. What we see, our woofers perceive with their noses, although it has been discovered they can definitely see in 3D. When special skills were being handed out, our dogs must have been first in line.

Sniffer-dogs are employed by local business people and government agencies to do what some technology can’t. When a dog sweeps an area looking for human remains, they can pinpoint the spot long before humans have picked up the first shovel.

Training these doggy gems takes 18 months to two years, but it is well worth the wait to have a pooch that could find a missing person and bring another to justice. All sniffer-dogs are coached in a similar way with positive reinforcement and rewards. It could be a tennis ball, toy, or edible treat. Dogs are motivated to please and are likely to feel the buzz when their handler praises them for a job well done.

Some trainers use cardboard boxes, with one holding the required scent. That’s why police use a white towel, so they can wrap up the scent of a drug they want the dog to locate. The towel also becomes the reward, so the pooch learns by association. At this point, synthetic cadaver scents are used, but the jury is still out as to what the dog actually smells.

Dogs can work long hours, so hardy breeds like German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers are chosen with an incessant desire to hunt. It’s not the most pleasant job, but when you consider that stinky, old bone your Boxer keeps digging up in the garden, it's probably not a big deal to them.

According to the New York Times, cadaver dogs are trained using blood, decomposing flesh, and bone samples. A scientist at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada works cases with the Nevada and California Sheriff’s Department using her two cadaver dogs. She trains her pups, often using her own blood and the ersatz odors available. 

Mary. E Cablik chooses a dog that loves playing and teaches them that their toy represents the scent they need to find. Her pooches are shown every possibility and trained on all kinds of terrain. They also need to be fit and not afraid of going underground. When they find something, they know to sit or lie down so they won’t destroy, crime scene evidence.

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Written by a Japanese Chin lover Linda Cole

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 05/28/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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