Dogs have a long and close relationship with bones, but those trained and deployed by the nonprofit Institute for Dog Forensics (ICF) take that relationship to a whole new level. While search and rescue dogs and corpse dogs are trained to find living or deceased people, HRD dogs (Human Remains Detection) specialize in the identification of bones and cremains. Most recently, her skills were shown after the disastrous 2018 fire season in California.
Due to years of drought, fire fighting, and a warming climate, western forest fires (including those in California) start earlier, burn hotter, and last longer. And as more people live in the state’s beautiful but fire-prone forests and wilderness areas, the human cost of these conflagrations has increased dramatically. The California Carr, Camp, and Woolsey fires were among the largest of the 8,527 forest fires that burned nearly 2 million acres of land during the state’s forest fire season. These three fires alone destroyed more than 16,000 buildings, most of them houses. Many owners had only a few minutes to pick up their families and run, leaving their belongings consumed in the flames.
Once the fires were out, ICF volunteer teams began helping those who had lost everything regain one of their most prized possessions: the cremated remains of loved ones. Given the destructive ability of fire – forest fires can burn hotter than 1,500 ° F – it seems like anything as fragile as cremains is going to be extinguished. Even so, HRD dogs can spot the slightest trace of their targets in the ashes.
On site, ICF dog handler teams sweep the area where there was once a house and work carefully and slowly. The dogs move back and forth, sniffing for traces of cremains. When a dog sits down, the handler knows that he has found something. If a second dog also points out a specific spot, the volunteers begin a careful search through ashes and rubble.
Protected by protective suits and filter masks, they examine the identified area for material with the different color and texture of cremains. As part of the search process, the GPS locations of the places the dogs are alerting are recorded so others may keep looking even if the initial search is unsuccessful. The ICF estimates their success rate at over 90 percent.
At first glance, it is difficult to understand how it is even possible to discover ash in an ash-covered landscape. To understand why it is so, a little explanation is needed. Technically speaking, cremains are not ash, but ground bone mass. To burn a body, it is placed in an oven along with a small metal ID tag. After the organic material is burned away, the bones are ground into a fine, homogeneous off-white powder and returned to the family along with the identification mark.
Fortunately for seekers, when found, cremains can be visually distinguished from house and furniture ashes (finding the ID tag is additional evidence). The operative word is “if”. Dogs in this task face a major challenge: they must traverse fire wrecks without disturbing their surroundings while looking for a real needle in a haystack – or rather, a sewing needle in a haystack made of embroidery needles.
To get this job done, dogs go through an incredibly intense 18 to 24 month training program. The handlers first reward the dogs with treats, games, or affection when they sniff a large human bone (donated for the purpose). Then teach the dogs to sit when they smell the smell and point their noses at the strongest source. Gradually, smaller and smaller bones, teeth, and spreads of cremains are used. Unsurprisingly, cemeteries are the best places to work on this training as the dogs learn that the smell comes from underground.
However, it is not enough just to spy on human remains and draw attention to their presence. Since these hardworking dogs work in different situations, they need to be prepared for anything. HRD dogs learn to stay calm in airplanes, cars, ATVs, kayaks and almost any other conceivable means of transport and to hold themselves in their handler’s arms for long periods of time. They also learn to ignore any animals they encounter, such as snakes or mice, and to tolerate wearing special equipment such as thick boots or reflective cooling vests.
HRD dogs’ working hours depend on the demands on their services. A typical working day lasts four to six hours on average. During this time, they can cover between two and ten acres of land, depending on complexity, foliage, debris and condition. They usually work three days and then go off duty for one day. They will also be taken out of service if the floor temperature exceeds 100 ° F or the indoor temperature exceeds 104 ° F (a dog’s normal body temperature is between 101 and 102.5 ° F). The welfare of the dogs is the primary concern of their handlers.
Prior to the devastating 2017 fire season in California, ICF teams were mainly involved in helping archaeologists and builders identify prehistoric and historical burial sites, which is a difficult and painstaking job in itself. The organization’s HHRD (Historic Human Remains Detection) dogs are extremely good at their job and have successfully identified bones that are more than a century old.
HRD and HHRD pups have also been used to find grave sites buried by landslides, unmarked graves or graves whose headstones have deteriorated, and places where migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert may be perished. In 2017, four ICF dogs helped investigate a remote Pacific island in hopes of finding Amelia Earhart’s remains.
Even in the rare world of detection dogs, the abilities of HRD and HHRD dogs stand out. How do you do that? Here’s a quick refresher on dogs’ olfactory skills: While the human brain is dominated by its visual system, the dog’s brain is primarily devoted to the nose. You can sniff up to five times per second, and a fraction of each sniff travels into a bony structure called an olfactory recess, just above the hard palate, and connects to the vomeronasal organ, which specializes in detecting odors. While there is evidence that humans have a non-functioning version of this organ, in dogs it acts as an additional odor sensor and contains millions of olfactory receptors, about 40 times more than in humans.
Since scent molecules remain in the olfactory recess and adhere to olfactory receptors for long periods of time, dogs can follow scent paths for hours. Over time, the molecules build up so dogs can detect them at concentrations as low as one part per trillion, or the equivalent of a drop of fluid, in 13 million gallons of water. The wet noses, or rhinaries of dogs, contain cold receptors that can identify the part of the nose that has been most evaporated by air currents and thus determine the direction a smell is coming from.
Any breed type can be trained as an HRD or HHRD dog, but some have a natural advantage. Dachshunds, for example, have 125 million scent receptors, while German Shepherds have 225 million and blood dogs have more than 300 million. Border collies or retrievers usually train faster, and those who can withstand extreme temperatures do better in harsh conditions. But it really comes down to the connection between dog and handler, as well as the dog’s unique personality.
Over the past few months, ICF teams have worked continuously on the ruins left by the state fires at the request of individuals and families. To date, they have recovered a total of 210 cremains for 178 families, a service that is provided free of charge to the applicant. Travel, subsistence and accommodation costs were (and are) borne by donations or by the volunteers themselves.
Going forward, the ICF has expressed a desire for their service to become a more routine part of the post-fire process. Since burn victims are already completing insurance paperwork, it can be so easy to ask them to report if cremated remains have been kept in the house and if they would like their recovery attempted.
In November 2018, nonprofit 501 (c) (3) launched a GoFundMe campaign to support additional help. Their goal is $ 30,000 which they calculate to do about 100 more searches. At the time of going to press, you are more than two-thirds of the way to your destination.
The work of these hardworking dogs and their human partners can mean the world to someone who has lost the cremains of a loved one, their last connection with that person. The real gravity of what ICF teams do can perhaps best be summed up by the title of their GoFundMe page: Returning Lost Loved Ones.
Go to gofundme.com/ Recovering-Lost-Loved-Ones to make a donation or read the comments of those who have been helped.