After the fires: Dogs trained in forensic recovery

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dogs for human remains detection

Story at-a-glance -

  • Canines enrolled in a program run by the Institute for Canine Forensics (ICF) are trained to detect both survivors of fires and cadavers whose remains have been cremated, known as cremains
  • Human Remains Detection (HRD) dogs have recently been used in California and other western states where wildfires are frequent and have increased at the rate of 90,000 acres each year from 1984 through 2011
  • Besides a growing population in areas where forests have a long history of drought, other causes of wildfires include high winds, high temperatures, lightning and the controversial strategy of fire suppression
  • The training process for HRD dogs entails 18 to 24 months of exhaustive drills to systematically prepare them to detect human remains and point their noses to the strongest area of detection
  • HRD dogs have strict working conditions that factor in hours and temperatures; besides “sniff” training, they must also be focused enough to ignore distractions and remain calm in challenging situations

Dogs are associated with bones for many reasons, from dog owners who make sure their faithful companion has one to chew on (although there are safety recommendations for that) to dogs with a penchant for burying them. Then there are dogs skilled in finding bones, such as those trained by the Institute for Canine Forensics (ICF),1 a nonprofit group based in Northern California, to participate in search-and-rescue missions.

Dogs trained to detect humans look for two categories: survivors of fires and cadavers whose remains have been cremated, known as cremains. Canines that have passed this type of training are known as Human Remains Detection (HRD) dogs.

One of the HRD dogs’ most recent missions has involved searches following the devastating fires in California in recent years, which experts say now start earlier, burn hotter and last longer.2 According to a study published in Geophysical Research Letters,3 fires in the western U.S. are not just getting worse but increased at the rate of 90,000 acres each year from 1984 through 2011.

“We’ve seen a five-fold increase in the number of large fires since the 1970s. So, for every 20 that we saw in the 1970s, today we see 100,”4 says Jennifer Balch, Ph.D., director of Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, who adds that the area of the U.S. that sees the most fires now places around 1.8 million homes in the literal line of fire.

Because the population is growing in areas where forests and timberlands have a long history of drought, high winds and high temperatures, as well as lightning, the risk for more deaths — as well as the reality — has grown.

The process of canine detection and forensics

Canines trained at ICF work with teams of volunteers to recover the remains of individuals lost in wildfires, which is of paramount importance, especially to people who’ve also lost all their material possessions, including their homes.

The challenge in looking for cremated remains is that fires of this kind can exceed temperatures of 1,500 degrees F. One might think bones and everything in the fire’s path would be wiped out, but even among what appears to be only ash and residue, HRD dogs can distinguish by smell even infinitesimal and fragile remains.

As for the process, the dogs and their handlers comb through stretches of areas where homes have been reduced to rubble and ashes, working from side to side so the dogs have a chance to sniff every square foot. The dogs have been trained to sit, which their handler knows is an indication something significant has been detected, and a second dog confirms it. Then a more meticulous search begins. According to The Bark:

“Technically, cremains are not ashes but rather, ground-up bone matter. To cremate a body, it is placed in a furnace along with a small metal ID tag. After the organic material burns away, the bones are ground into a fine, homogenous gray-white powder and returned to the family, along with the identifying tag.

Fortunately for searchers, if they are found, cremains can be visually distinguished from house and furniture ash (finding the ID tag is an additional proof).The operative word is ‘if.’ Dogs undertaking this task face a steep challenge: traversing fire wreckage without disturbing their surroundings while searching for a veritable needle in a haystack — or rather, a sewing needle in a haystack made up of embroidery needles.”5

Dog training involving the intense nature of searching through ashes for the remains of individuals is critical for a number of reasons, not the least being to settle the often-unspoken hopes of people wondering if their loved one somehow escaped the fire and may still be alive.

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How detection and forensic dogs are trained

The training process for HRD dogs is intense. It entails 18 to 24 months of exceptionally exhaustive drills that systematically prepare them to indicate when they’ve found the smell of human bones by pointing their noses to the strongest area of detection.

Rewards are an integral part of training for dogs, and these dogs are no exception. As the fragments of teeth and bones they detect are reduced in size to create increasingly challenging searching exercises, continual incentives of affection, treats and playtime are an important part of the process.

Graveyards are a natural training ground, as detecting remains underground often shows dogs where to concentrate first. But along with the sniffing and teamwork with humans in a search situation, dogs are also prepared in other areas, such as being held for long periods by their handlers, and covering as much as 10 acres at a time.

They must be able to ignore mice, snakes or rabbits they run across, remain calm in cars, boats, planes and any number of other vehicles, and wear protective gear such as reflective vests designed to lower their body temperature and boots for paw protection through wreckage, heavy foliage and debris.

The dogs’ on-duty hours are closely monitored so they typically work three days on and one day off, generally from four to six hours per day. They’re automatically off duty if temperatures surpass 100 degrees F, or a dog’s internal temperature reaches 104 degrees F; the normal temperature for dogs ranges between 101 and 102.5 degrees F.

Their services have been used by numerous states, counties, cities and federal agencies. Historic Human Remains Detection (HHRD) dogs have been called in by Native American nations, for museum projects in Lima, Peru and the Czech Republic, and involved in a project to find the spot where famed explorer Amelia Earhart may have died.6

In fact, before the catastrophic fires began, ICF dogs and trainers worked primarily with archaeologists to identify ancient and historical burial sites and to detect human remains buried in unmarked graves and following landslides. How can HRD dogs be so precise? The Bark notes:

“While the human brain is dominated by its visual system, dogs’ brains are mostly devoted to their noses. They’re able to sniff up to five times a second, and a fraction of each sniff travels into a bony structure called the olfactory recess, just above the hard palate, and connects to the vomeronasal organ, which is specialized for detecting scents.

While there’s some evidence that humans have a nonfunctional version of this organ, in dogs, it serves as an auxiliary smell sensor and contains millions of scent receptors, roughly 40 times more than in humans.”7

Experts weigh in on why fires are getting worse

Record-breaking droughts are one reason the fires have been so destructive in recent years. Experts from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) say the dry spell from 2012 through 2016 was one of the worst, or second worst, since the 1400s, which they determined via tree ring data.8 The Bark explains:

“California’s Carr, Camp and Woolsey fires were among the largest of the 8,527 wildfires that burned almost 2 million acres of land during the state’s wildfire season; these three fires alone destroyed more than 16,000 buildings, the majority of them homes. Many owners had only minutes to collect their families and run, leaving their possessions to be consumed by the flames.”9

Besides unprecedented drought conditions, another potential problem is the fire suppression strategy firefighters use, which entails extinguishing naturally occurring fires wherever they’re found. Researchers believe that before automatically suppressing fires became the technique firefighters adopted in 2008, fires weren’t as severe.10

As these dogs are trained to hit the front lines after a disaster, their remarkable work in recovering human remains is never more appreciated than by those who are able to lay to rest, in more than one sense of the word, loved ones who may otherwise have been lost forever.

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