Dog Detectives: Inside Training Cadaver Dogs and Their Handlers

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CHARITON, Iowa -- These dogs are not your average companions. They are one half of a two-part search team that travels around the country to aid in natural disasters or missing persons investigations.

Robin Greubel, president of the K9 Sensus Foundation, said both the handler and the dog are continuously training to be the best team they can be.

“One of the things we talk about with search work and especially in the forensic realm of being it’s a giant game of Clue, who’s done it,” Greubel said.

Behavior Consultant Dr. Parvene Farhoody said many beings learn the same way.

“We all learn the same way. We move towards things we want and we move away from things we don’t want,” Dr. Farhoody said.

To make themselves better teachers for their canine partners, Greubel said they make a point to focus on their own actions by training with chickens and understanding behavioral science with Dr. Farhoody.

“If we took out all this human error. If we really were able to help an animal clearly understand something, how much faster could it learn, how much more could it learn and how much less stressful could learning be,” Dr. Farhoody said.

Greubel said when a handler applies to be part of a certified search and rescue team, whether or not they qualify depends on their skills together as a team.

“Your team is only as good as the weakest link, and if you spend all your time working on just the dog, not giving the handler any education or the trainer any education, then you could have a phenomenal dog and a mediocre handler and you’re going to have a mediocre team,” Greubel said.

To train for different situations, Greubel said they attend seminars and practice during exercises that mimic real-life scenarios.

“The biggest thing we want the handlers to take away from this is you have to train like you fight. When we are going out to search for missing and lost individuals, and especially in a forensics environment, we could be called to testify,” Greubel said.

Teams of dogs and their humans from several different states and Canada descended on Chariton for a three-day training experience.

They started day one in a classroom learning about how missing people and human trafficking are connected.

“We are trying to marry the two together. Those victims in human trafficking came from somewhere, and if some of those victims are our missing kids, then we need to recognize that and see that upfront for what that looks like and what that is so that we have a better understanding of how to respond,” said Brad Dennis with the KlaasKids Foundation.

To make this experience even more realistic, each aspect of the missing person scenario ties back to a real missing person’s case.

“As they go search these areas, they’re going to find no evidence, which will say that that’s the wrong direction to take. Other locations they’ll find evidence, which will suggest to the investigators we are on the right course, and that’s going to develop new areas and new locations over a period of three days until they can successfully recover the missing child,” Dennis said.

Greubel said dogs find that evidence along the way by the odor left behind on items or in the area.

“We are working on thresholds a lot today where they might be alerted on anything from a tissue with some blood on it. In the scenario we are actually talking about five or ten pounds of material and the dogs have to be able to generalize that. I have to tell my handler this entire spectrum of scent,” Greubel said.

While both the handler and the dog are on a mission, they have to deal with lots of different distractions.

“The dogs are going to have to deal with everything from random cars driving by, semis driving by, a random dog out walking all the way over to cattle and raccoons and all sorts of things, so we are throwing a lot of distractions at the dogs, plus we have interior buildings we are asking them to search that will be more about the handler because we will actually set up a crime scene for them that will be shocking for the handler,” Greubel said.

Dwight Townsend and his dog Alex spend a lot of time working on focus.

“Whenever I released him on the other side of the overpass, he charged up the trail. It wasn’t to come see you because when he got up here he couldn't care less about you. All he went into the weeds,” Townsend said.

Alex found a backpack within seconds that led the team to more evidence they hope the scenario detectives can use.

“We also found up the hill and into a clearing what looked to be like panties and a condom and he also circled around the area and turned into where he did his final response at the panties. So there is odor in that area. It may not just be contained on the condom and the panties. It could be from something else,” Townsend said.

Alex let his handler know he found something by lying down next to the evidence, but each search team is unique.

“You have dogs that will do anything from they’ll bark when they find it, they may lie down, they may sit. It’s whatever behavior the handler has continually reinforced that says when you find this odor, this is the behavior that you do, and then the dog gets its toy or treats,” Greubel said.

Just like humans, dogs like to hear words of encouragement, even if they don’t get their treat or their toy just yet.

“When you’re used to working your dog and he shows that strong of an indication and did not leave odor, whenever I was taking my good-ole time getting up here, he did not leave odor, which is an important indication. In that particular case, we can verbally reassure him 'good job, good job' and then keep moving,” Townsend said.

At the end of a successful day of searching, the dog gets its treat and the handler might get a treat of their own, but the real reason they go out on missions is not for the reward.

“All of the people that we work with, we can be there for someone else on one of the worst days of their life, so we can bring closure to another family and help bring resolution to the entire situation and hopefully put a bad guy in jail,” Greubel said.

You can help these life-saving teams train for disasters by donating on the K9 Sensus Foundation website.

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