WARNING: Due to the nature of the amazing work that Miranda carries out, some readers may find the content of this article disturbing.
Miranda is a law enforcement cadaver dog. Her work involves searching for human remains.
Article by Penelope Kea Linton, K-9 handler of Miranda.
We know Labrador Retrievers are one of the most beautiful and intelligent breeds out there, right? That is why I have chosen to use the breed as my K-9 partners for years. They are easy to train, less intimidating than other breeds used in law enforcement and they are wonderful companions.
Labs are used in so many different areas of law enforcement. They are used as bomb detection K-9’s, narcotic detection and even in the custom’s area of airports. Due to the fact they love water, they make excellent underwater cadaver dogs.
We had a yellow Lab, Ghost, who was nearing retirement. He has some joint issues, was getting on up there in age, and his eye sight was starting to go. It just seemed like it was time to be finding a dog to take his place. I wanted to get another dog trained before I retired Ghost. It was my desire to have them work side by side for about a year.
My husband, Rip, located a breeder who had actually produced a long line of law enforcement dogs and they were chocolate Labs! We had only had yellow and black Labs and I had actually heard rumors that chocolates were more hyper and high strung than the other colors, which made me wonder if she would be too much for me to handle, but when I saw her, I fell in love with her!
Her parents were on site and were gorgeous dogs. So, we brought Miranda home with us. She was so quiet and sedate on the ride home to Baton Rouge. She remained rather quiet for a few days, making me wonder what people were talking about; chocolate labs hyper? Not mine! Well, once Miranda settled in with the family, she warmed up and I saw what people were talking about. She was a live wire for sure, but adorable and smarter than I ever dreamed she would be. I couldn’t wait to get to work training her. We started first with obedience, then land scents, then water scents.
Let me start by explaining what kind of work Miranda does. Cadaver K-9’s are used to locate human remains following a natural or manmade disaster, as well as drownings. There are two kinds of searches that Cadaver dogs perform- underwater searches and land searches.
Underwater searches are not as common as land searches for most cadaver trained canines. A specialty subset of cadaver dogs are water cadaver dogs. Those dogs trained in underwater searches have been trained to find the odor of decomposing human remains. However, water cadaver dogs have been specifically trained to locate and indicate the source of the odor to assist divers in a more directed and speedy recovery of a drowning victim. A water search dog is trained to detect human scent that is in or under the water.
The handler and dog are a team and usually work in a boat. Currents and general changes in the water can make it hard to pinpoint the location of a body. I can’t tell you how many times a swift current has moved the body or even the boat caused it to relocate. It can take hours to locate a body, or even days. We have a dive team on hand to go right in, once we make a determination, by playing a buoy outside the boat to mark the spot. A diver should be ready to search as soon as the dog indicates to increase the changes of making the recovery.
Sometimes there are even other teams, unaware of the previous teams’ findings, who will work to indicate a location. This allows team members to determine the most likely location of the body.
My husband has a side scan-sonar that we will generally bring along, to assist, if it takes a while to locate the body. He has been a law enforcement diver for over 25 years.
You might wonder how hard it is to train a dog to become a Cadaver K-9. Cadaver dogs go through extensive training before they can become certified and operational. It usually takes a year to a year and a half for most teams to be ready for certification in cadaver scenting.
For starters, the dog must be trained to recognize a wide variety of odors that are associated with human remains. Cadaver dogs used in disaster situations such as 9-11 or the Oklahoma bombing, focus on recent decomposition odors.
Cadaver dogs, like Miranda, who work with law enforcement are also trained to alert on the older decomposition odors as well as smaller, residual odors.
Obedience should be taught first. You can’t get anywhere with the scent training if your dog wont listen and obey your commands. All K-9’s are first taught to give a trained final alert or indication upon detection of the odor. They are trained to only give this response when they locate the strongest source of the odor. A large amount of time is spent on making sure that the alert is solid before the K-9 is ever taught to actually search for the odor in a scenario-based problem. Cadaver K-9’s that are trained in water recovery are taught to give this final indication while working from a boat on a body of water.
With Miranda, first she will paw then whine and finally sit down. If you don’t indicate you have recognized her alert, she has been known to jump in the water, where she smells the scent the strongest. This is, of course, after giving us all a look like, “Didn’t you smell that?” which of course, we didn’t!
I have nearly been dragged into the water with her a time or two. I always pay attention to her reactions, but sometimes it can be hard or impossible to stop the boat. We make an attempt to circle the area to make sure she really did alert there then drop a buoy overboard to mark the spot.
The very first thing to do in training a cadaver dog is to imprint the scent of the cadaver material on the K-9. After the dog is familiar with the scent and a command is attached to the scent, then it is time to build the alert.
Miranda decided her own alert. Her very first alert was to look into the water, look at me, look again into the water and then she would follow the scent around the boat and sit down. That was when she was only 12 weeks old (I am not saying she was trained at 12 weeks old, but she DID pick up the scent at 12 weeks old).
We began her scent training as soon as we got her. She was a natural. Many puppies are afraid of the scent. Miranda was all over our “scent box”, climbing all over it, like it was something fantastic. We knew we had a winner at that point. From there, she was trained with other tools on a daily basis. We got creative in the ways we trained and where.
During the time we were training her in scenting, the cadaver training material was placed in a line of concrete blocks, cans, buckets, PVC tubes or other plastic containers, one of which was the ‘hot’ can, which held the scent in it. The other containers were clean with no cadaver scent in them. Once Miranda alerted on the scent, she was rewarded.
During this time, some dogs will bark, scratch, dig, whine, something that we might use as the alert. Miranda began with the looking at the area, whining and finally sitting. She never barked. She now will paw if it’s an extremely strong alert, as well.
Cadaver K-9’s are used in a variety of ways, such as: locating remains in water of accidental drowning victims, homicide victims, missing persons and victims of human or natural disasters (Acts of terrorism, hurricanes, tornadoes etc).
Miranda has special booties to wear to protect her pads from anything that might cut her feet or harm her in a search. I have actually had to say no to some searches, because I will not put her life or health in danger on a possibility a body may or may not be there. There are too many risks involved in landfill searches for me to feel comfortable with it. Needles, glass, etc are dumped and I wont take chances.
No particular breed is better at this kind of work than another, but Labs, being the water lovers they are and with the intelligence and temperament they have are wonderful cadaver dogs. Some areas have Search and Rescue/Recovery teams that volunteer in their areas to assist law enforcement agencies in searches. If you have a Lab that has the drive to work, you might want to consider doing this!
Miranda is also crossed trained in a couple of narcotics, but that was when we worked in DARE, where she was a demo K-9 for the community to show people and children how a drug K-9 works.
Labs are ideal for therapy, law enforcement and service dogs, due to their intelligence, trainability and drive. They are less intimidating than other breeds. Anyone wanting to do volunteer cadaver work, should research and see if their community has an organization. Contact them, if there is one. They will tell you how to get started, help you with training and become part of their team. A keyword to start with to do the research would be Search and Rescue or Search and Recovery teams.
I think one of the rewards that I get most from working with Miranda is the closure we give to families that have lost a loved one. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to us and hugged us and told us thank you for helping them find closure. To be able to hug a dog that helped find a loved one that was lost in the water or even died in the wilderness, means so much to the families and friends. She of course, being the licking fanatic she is, licks their faces, their tears and shows them she cares and feels their pain. It’s a difficult job, dirty at times, unpleasant, and not glamorous by any means, but it’s rewarding to know we helped someone. I couldn’t ask for a better partner…or a cuter one!