What to Know About Cadaver Dogs

What Cadaver Dogs Do, and More You Should Know

Cadaver dog in training
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Curious about cadaver dogs?

Like other dogs with jobs, cadaver dogs are specially trained to serve a very important role in society. And while their job itself might not be a pretty one, cadaver dogs play a crucial part in resolving many missing or deceased persons cases, often serving as the missing link that provides closure and justice to grieving families.

Here’s what to know about this oft-misunderstood type of working dog, including what they’re trained to do and why dogs in particular are so well suited to this type of task.

What Are Cadaver Dogs?

Cadaver dogs are dogs who are trained to pick up the scent of human remains (which is why you’ll sometimes see them referred to as human-remains detection dogs).

Their work may seem similar to search and rescue dogs, but cadaver dogs play a distinctly different role. While the former is trained to pick up the general scent of humans, cadaver dogs specialize in detecting decomposing flesh. A trained cadaver dog is 95 percent effective at picking up the scents of human decomposition, including bodies that are buried up to 15 feet deep.

Law enforcement groups rely on cadaver dogs to help solve crimes where a dead body is suspected. Not only does this provide more evidence that can be used in court, it can also provide much-needed closure in cases where a missing person is assumed dead but not definitively so. Cadaver dogs are often used in conjunction with search and rescue dogs, since that allows humans to be found both alive or dead.

Training for cadaver dogs includes:

  • Trailing: This is a skill that allows dogs to pick up on scents that have fallen on the ground, such as instances in which a body was dragged.
  • Air-scenting: A skill for picking up scents in the air, which includes smelling decomposing remains in the air and following the scent to its source.

Cadaver dogs are trained in certified training facilities, where special chemicals are used to mimic the scents of decomposing human flesh before the dog moves on to training with real body parts. Each dog receives about 1,000 hours of training before they are ready to work in the field, making them a highly valuable investment for law enforcement and other types of search groups.

Why Are Dogs So Good at Finding Cadavers?

We may never understand the full power of the canine nose, but we do know that it is immensely capable at finding and distinguishing between scents—including those that our human noses would never be able to source on their own.

Dogs have roughly 200 million olfactory receptors in their nose, making their sense of smell about 40 times greater than that of the average human. This allows them to sniff out everything from bombs, drugs, and living and dead human flesh to certain diseases. They can even smell emotions.

The use of dogs to find human remains is nothing new. According to a paper in the Journal of Archeological Method and Theory, dogs have been helping to track down dead bodies since around 700 B.C., and over the many centuries since, they’ve shown a remarkable ability to recognize the scent of decomposing flesh, regardless of whether it’s hours old or decades old.

Worth mentioning is that not all dogs’ noses have an equal sense of smell. German Shepherds, which are a common breed of cadaver dog, boast about 225 million olfactory receptors, while Dachshunds have closer to 125 million. And the more receptors the dog has, the better suited they are to the tricky task of finding human remains.

Other Interesting Facts About Cadaver Dogs

There’s a whole lot to be impressed about when it comes to cadaver dogs. And just in case you’re not already in awe of these extraordinary canines, here are some additional facts about cadaver dogs that are worth knowing about:

  • Cadaver dogs are able to tell the difference between human remains and animal remains, which means they’ll know right away if the scent they’re picking up is from a person or from decomposing wildlife.
  • Because they’re trained to pick up scents both on the ground and in the air, cadaver dogs can identify crime scenes even if the body has since been moved. Depending on the circumstances, they may also be able to lead search teams to where the body was relocated to.
  • Cadaver dogs work tirelessly both in training and in the field. Altogether, they can identify hundreds of different scents related to decomposition, versus the handful of scents a drug- or bomb-sniffing dog might be trained to sniff out.
  • During training, cadaver dogs learn to differentiate between types of decomposing flesh, including recently dead victims, long dead victims, and drowned victims.