Hepper is reader-supported. When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you. Learn more.

What is a Cadaver Dog? History, Breeds & Training

Lindsey Lawson

By Lindsey Lawson

close up dog nose

Dogs aren’t just limited to being loving companions and beloved family pets, they also play an important role in human society by using their keen skills and abilities to help out in many different areas such as law enforcement, the medical community, and much more.

Cadaver dogs are a form of scent detection dog that is specially trained to use their sharp sense of smell to locate human remains and alert their handlers to the location. Cadaver dogs are incredibly helpful in solving missing person cases and are an important part of providing closure to the families of missing and deceased persons and for getting justice if any crime was committed.

Keep reading to learn more about these amazing dogs and their capabilities.

Divider 7The History of Cadaver Dogs

Cadaver dogs are sometimes referred to as human-remains detection dogs since they are trained to identify the scent of human remains. They work very similarly to search and rescue dogs that use their scent-tracking abilities to pick up on and track a human scent.

Unlike search and rescue dogs, cadaver dogs are trained specifically to detect the scent of decomposing human remains and have proven to be 95 percent effective at picking up the scent of human decomposition when trained properly.

These dogs have demonstrated the accuracy of finding human remains buried underground at depths of up to 15 feet and submerged up to 30 meters underwater. Their skills are so keen that they are able to detect the difference between human decomposition and the decomposition of other animals.

police dog training
Image Credit: Piqsels

First Record of Human Remains Detection

Law enforcement agencies rely heavily on various types of detection dogs to help solve crimes. Cadaver dogs are utilized whenever there is a dead body suspected.

The first record of a dog aiding in the detection of human remains is dated back to the early 1800s in Germany when a county clerk took his dog for a walk past the home of a prime suspect in a murder case.

Andreas Mitchell, more famously known as the Bavarian Ripper, was suspected of the disappearance of two girls at the time. When walking past the house, the country clerk’s dog, which lacked the training of modern-day detection dogs, alerted to a shed on Andreas’ property.

Law enforcement discovered the remains of mutilated victims within the shed, and this ultimately led to Andreas Bichel’s confession to the crimes, conviction, and execution in 1809.

The First Official Cadaver Dog

The first dog ever formally trained for human remains detection was a yellow Labrador Retriever named Pearl. Pearl was trained by handler Jim Suffolk of the New York State Police. She began her law enforcement career in 1974 and within her first year, found the remains of a Syracuse College student that had been buried 4 feet underground.

Image Credit: david woodberry Pure Eye Photo, Shutterstock

What Breeds Are Used as Cadaver Dogs?

Certain breeds are generally selected for detection dog work because of their innate sense of smell and specific traits that make them excellent for the job. Not all dogs have the same scent detection abilities, as some breeds have a stronger sense of smell than others.

Various hounds, hunting dogs, and herding dogs make the best candidates for detection work. The following breeds are often the most commonly used in this type of work:

How Are Cadaver Dogs Trained?

Cadaver dogs and other types of scent detection dogs go through a rigorous selection process to even be considered for the role. To even be considered for selection, a dog must be highly play-motivated, be very obedient and cooperative with the handler, and display independence, intelligence, and a desire to sniff things out.

The training takes place in special training facilities where they are exposed to chemical scents that mimic human remains and eventually samples of remains. Each dog will be put through nearly 1,000 hours of training before being placed into their official role.

During training, cadaver dogs are taught to differentiate between various types of human remains including recently dead victims, long-dead victims, and even those that have drowned. They can pick up on various stages of decomposition and sources of older remains like bone, bone fragments, teeth, and dried or powdered blood.

They will also be trained to tell the difference between human remains and that of other animals. Since it’s likely these dogs will come across the scent of decomposing wildlife while out in the field, it’s important they can differentiate.

divider 9Detection Dogs – A Brief Overview

Humans use a dog’s incredible sense of smell for many different forms of detection. This makes sense considering their sense of smell is up to 100,000 times stronger than our own. Detection dogs are crucial in many areas and are trained to use these incredible senses to detect various substances.  Medical detection dogs, on the other hand, differ in that they are trained experimentally to sniff out diseases and ailments by picking up on the changes in chemical compounds within the body.

australian sheperd dog kissing female on nose while being carried by owner
Image By: cottonbro studio, Pexels

Types of Scents Recognized by Detection Dogs

Detection dogs are trained to recognize the scent of many animate and inanimate objects including but not limited to:

  • Drugs
  • Explosives
  • Fire accelerants
  • Firearms
  • Currency
  • Ivory
  • Mobile phones, SIM cards, USB drives
  • Endangered species
  • Invasive species
  • Certain plants
  • Wildlife scat
  • Mold
  • Fungi
  • Bed bugs
  • Termites
  • Human remains
  • Live humans
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Seizures

Divider 7

Final Thoughts

Cadaver dogs are among the incredible list of scent detection dogs that are thoroughly trained to detect varying stages of human decomposition.  They are deployed to assist in many missing person cases alongside search and rescue dogs that are trained to find live humans. They can provide essential evidence to be presented in a criminal court case and assist in convictions. This also provides closure for the families of missing and deceased persons and the law enforcement officers assigned to the case.

Featured Image Credit: LUM3N, Pixabay

Related Articles

Further Reading

Vet Articles

Latest Vet Answers

The latest veterinarians' answers to questions from our database