A PhD student at the University of Huddersfield (UK) is conducting research to make cadaver and victim recovery (VR) dogs more efficient in their work.
These special dogs are probably not as well known as other working and assistance dogs, because the work they are associated with isn’t pleasant. They are used to recover dead bodies (victims of suicide or murder), plus to find body parts and fluids that can help police track down the perpetrators of crime. VR dogs were used to identify body parts from victims of the 7/7 bombings in London, for example.
In her experiments using Kip, researcher Lorna Irish set out a sequence of vials containing different odours that she had prepared in the lab. These chemicals are known to be produced from the body decomposition process. Alongside these test chemicals were “positive controls” associated with human cadavers, such as human bone – from archaeological sources – and pork at various stages of decomposition. Pork meat is used for training such dogs due to the ethical and legal problems associated with obtaining human material. It is thought to be the closest analogue for human flesh for decomposition studies. There were also “negative controls” – smelly chemicals not associated with decomposition, such as clove oil.
Kip correctly identified the odours derived from decomposition and was not distracted by the “negative control” smells. It was a successful demonstration. In the field, VR dogs can sometimes be distracted by “false positives”, such as dead animals, or even mushrooms, explained Lorna. If she can arrive at a greater understanding of the chemistry of odours from human cadavers, then VR dogs can be extra efficient.
“If you train a dog with a chemical that is specific to human decomposition, you can enhance its ability. It is not about changing the way the dogs do it, but improving it,” she added.
Irish is approximately half-way through the research for her degree; she is traveling widely across the UK to observe dog training methods.