The science of scent- how cadaver dogs detect human remains

A Moment of Science


German for search- and the command for these human remains dogs to start working. 

Today there’s no body, just a demonstration- searching for hidden decoys that contain the scent of death. With years of training, these dogs of the South Carolina K9 Search Team assist police to bring closure to a victim’s families & potentially justice. 

We consider ourselves a tool for law enforcement, among many other tools. If it helps them put somebody in jail or bring a person back to their family…it’s worthwhile doing.

sonia geiss, south carolina k9 search team

While their work often results in finding a body, the dogs aren’t specifically searching for one, but rather the scent of human decay which begins immediately after death and continues for hundreds of years after the person is gone. In fact, handlers Sonia Geiss and Marie Dotson have trained their dogs on bones that are hundreds to nearly a thousand years old! 

Their dogs are able to detect remains at all stages of decomposition, no matter if it’s buried, covered, or masked by other scents. They’re able to distinguish human v. animal remains as well, all a result of training.

Geiss explains, “For a dog it doesn’t matter what odor they’re looking for. It’s just what you teach them to look for. Whether it’s narcotics, human remains, bedbugs- it doesn’t matter.”

Dogs with their incredible sense of small have proven to be great detectors by pinning down odors. They can distinguish and analyze smells thousands of times better than humans and they can distinguish where a smell is coming from as their left and right nostrils are independent. Combined with training- Ryker, Finn, and Murphy track their target- no matter how hidden it is. Finding the source of the scent takes time though as the scent spreads. 

“All the scent will be around the body, above and around the body. When there’s wind, the wind will take the scent particles away,” Geiss says. “The concentration of the scent will be highest at the source, in this case a body. The scent will disperse with the wind, what we call the cone, the further and further it goes, the more the scent will spread out, so the cone gets larger and larger.”

Dogs find that cone and work hone in on the origin and the highest concentration of the scent, working out problems as scent also gets caught in shrubs, obstacles, and even water. When they find it they let the handler know and the handler responds with lots of praise! It may look like play- and for them it is! “For them it’s a game actually. The dogs look for something and they get rewarded when they find it. It has to be something the dog wants to do and enjoys doing.”

But the dogs are working- each using a different technique to find where the scent is the strongest.

“They each have their own way of working- just like their personalities. Finn will explore all that, take a look in each direction, and think about it. No I’ll go back there- no back there. Some dogs, like Ryker, the German Shepherd, will go more direct. He’s more focused to get it done in a straight line and go over there and get it done. The German way.”

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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