‘Cadaver dog’ weeklong training workshop returns to campus

Heidy Drawdy, a canine handler from Georgia, and her dog Dixie get instructional feedback from a law enforcement instructor.

Western Carolina University hosted a workshop Monday, May 8, to Saturday, May 13, to help improve the skills of highly specialized teams of handlers and dogs used to assist in searches for human remains.

The handlers and their dogs, commonly referred to as “cadaver dogs,” traveled to WCU from 14 states and Canada to take part in field exercises and classroom instruction. Cadaver dogs are typically used during criminal investigations, while locating unmarked graves and in search and recovery operations. A few of the training sessions were covered by a German documentary film crew whose members explained there is no such forensic training of the same type available in that country.

Field exercises allowed handlers and dogs of different experience levels to gain valuable practice in a variety of settings, including terrain, structures and vehicles. Participants worked with a wide range of source material, including exposure to full body decomposition in WCU’s Forensic Osteology Research Station, also known as FOREST. Classroom instruction covered the process of human decomposition, bone identification and other forensic applications such as environmental effects on scent-based location of human remains.

A border collie named Blue participated in a human remains location exercise.

The training was held in cooperation with Cheryl Johnston of WCU’s Forensic Anthropology Program and coordinated by Paul S. Martin, a WCU alumnus who has specialized in human remains detection since 2000 and has conducted or consulted on numerous cases with local, state and national agencies. He is currently a doctoral student in earth sciences at the University of Memphis.

“We are always looking to build better handler techniques and advance the science and provide real-world exercises with a variety of scenarios,” Martin said. “We always try to obtain 95 percent success in the field for certification records.

“While the common image of a handler and cadaver dog is seeking a person missing and presumed dead, or crime investigations, with urban sprawl, for lack of a better term, building can sometimes start to take place over an unrecorded cemetery or ancient burial ground,” he said. “You don’t want to disturb those, so we offer a non-invasive survey method. And after 9-11, we know the importance of these teams for mortuary work.”

Johnston added that this type of training is resulting in more successful searches for human remains than ever before, thus bringing closure to many families of the missing. “Dogs’ noses are very keen and capable of detecting minute quantities of many different odors,” she said. “Exposing them to the right mix of odor is important in their success on a search. Allowing them to train on whole body decomposition at the FOREST is most likely the greatest contribution we can make to the effort to find the missing.”

Marsha Falco, a handler from Arizona, works with Blue during a missing person scenario.

The lead instructor for the workshop was Brad Dennis, a master lead evaluator for the National Association of Search and Rescue. With 30 years of search and rescue/recovery experience and 22 years working with canines, Dennis is national director of search operations for the KlaasKIDS Foundation and its Search Center for Missing and Trafficked Children.

“Essentially, what we do out here is help handlers be better prepared for cases,” Dennis said. “This is such a beautiful opportunity here at Western, with access to FOREST and having this cadre of instructors. You couldn’t ask for a better host facility and staff. As far as I’m concerned, this is the best workshop in the country.”

Participants echoed those sentiments. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and this is the best workshop I’ve ever been to,” said Teresa Cooper, of Munfordville, Kentucky, as she took a break in the shade with her dog Banshee, a Belgian malinois.

The professional development workshop was offered through WCU’s Division of Educational Outreach.