Can Dogs Smell Human Ashes?

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Introduction

More people are cremated in the US every year than buried. But cremation isn’t the only situation where the question of ashes and whether dogs can smell them arises. There are also instances of fire (accidental or otherwise) where human bodies are turned into ashes. All these situations bring us to our question – can dogs smell human ashes? 

Dogs are known for their brilliant sense of smell. From cologne to drugs, they can pick up on a range of scents. A lot of things that a dog can smell are simply undetectable by us, humans. Are human ashes among those things? Let’s see.

Signs of Dogs Smelling Human Ashes

As far as we are concerned, all body odors disappear once the body is reduced to ashes. You may be able to smell a corpse burning, but when cooled down ashes are all that remain, there is nothing for us to smell. But for dogs, the situation is different. Their highly developed sense of smell seems to pick up on the scent of ashes, perhaps even distinguish between human ashes from that of an animal, dog or otherwise. 

You can note several signs that may indicate your dog can smell human ashes. This could be a family member who passed away, the dog’s previous owner or maybe even someone unknown to the dog. In addition to active signs like sniffing, whining, or panting, the dog may appear to sit quietly near the ashes. This is more probable when the dog recognizes the smell as that of someone familiar.

Dogs are more easily able to smell ashes if they are more concentrated, like in an urn, instead of being scattered around, because in the latter case, the ashes are dispersed more quickly and the scent dissipates.

Body Language

Here are some signs that indicate your dog can smell human ashes:
  • Whining
  • Panting
  • Wag tail
  • Sniffing

Other Signs

Here are some more signs that your pooch can smell human ashes:
  • Sitting quietly near the ashes
  • Sniffing near the ashes for an extended time
  • Anxious behavior

History of Dogs Smelling Human Ashes

Dogs have always had a strong reputation of being able to pick up scents from things that would surprise us. And even though domestication may have somewhat reduced their sense of small over the centuries, they are still pretty sharp. 

On the other hand, the trend of human cremation has grown over the past several years. The US has seen over a 50% cremation rate in the last few years. Many people choose to have these last remains placed safely in their homes, often in urns – providing more chances for dogs to smell human ashes and their behavior to be noted. 

Of course, the matter of dogs smelling human ashes also comes up in calamities such as fires. For instance, in the terrible wildfires in California, the authorities brought in cadaver dogs to help find those who had burnt to death. While not all fire deaths result in the body being completely reduced to ashes, they may still pick up on the ashes if present. 

There was an interesting case last October when the Northern California fires burned down a house where one Kathy Lampi kept her mother’s ashes in a velvet bag. She had died just last June due to cancer and she intended to hold her ashes like this till she could manage a proper burial. The fire reduced her home to rubble, mixing her mother’s ashes with those of the front door and sofa. Long story short – a dog brought in to find Kathy’s mom’s ashes did just that!

Science of Dogs Smelling Human Ashes

Among other things, the ability to move both nostrils independently of each other allows dogs to smell things we humans simply cannot. Scientists are not sure what chemicals combine to create the scent that dogs trained in Human Remains Detection (HRD) can detect. There are almost 500 different chemical compounds released by a decomposing human body. Which of these make up the scent that dogs are able to smell, still remains an unanswered question. 

There is a lack of scientific studies on the subject of dogs smelling human ashes. But it is not surprising to see evidence that suggests they can detect the ashes’ scent. The 300 million scent receptors that make a dog’s sense of smell 10,000 to 100,000 times better than ours do seem to do the trick when it comes to smelling human ashes. It is because of this that dogs are noted at and/or invited to homes, wildfire sites, and crime scenes smelling out human ashes.

Training Your Dog to Smell Human Ashes

This can be a bit tricky, because you don’t want your dog to knock over the urn or other vessel holding the ashes as you train your pooch. This is not like training your dog to smell a bone or some other harmless thing. So you will want to proceed with caution. 

As for the training process, start by removing the dog from the training room and place the scent in the room. Let the dog in the room and when he/she locates the scent, give them a treat. This is the basic training method based on the concept of positive reinforcement. 

However, you need to ask yourself whether it is a good idea to train your dog to smell the ashes in your room. So try to judge by the reaction the dog has to the ashes. If it is a positive one, go ahead with the training. If not, try to reassure the dog and keep them away from the ashes. Often, smelling human ashes can make a dog subdued so you need to care for your dog and give them attention when you notice a negative reaction.

How to React When Your Dog Smells Human Ashes:

  • Reassure your dog if they are disturbed after smelling human ashes. This is more common if the ashes are of someone your dog knew.
  • If your dog is smelling and reacting to human ashes in someone else’s house, apologize if necessary.