Autopsies and Cadaver Dogs

You know you’re at a mystery writers’ conference when the luncheon speaker entertains with pictures of dead bodies. (Gruesome pictures.) Dr. Vincent Di Maio, a Forensic Pathologist who has performed over nine thousand autopsies, “entertained” us with a few cases where the murderer hoped the police would classify the death as accidental or suicide. (He pointed out the clues that proved it was murder.)

Dr. Vincent Di Maio

I was surprised to learn that about 3% of suicides involve the person shooting himself/herself from behind. (I can’t imagine how one does that.)

Dr. Di Maio said testing for GSR (gunshot residue) isn’t a good way to determine if it was a suicide or not, or even if a suspect actually held the gun. GSR stays in the air for about 30 seconds, so if shooter close GSR might be on victim’s hands. Dr. Di Maio did repeat something I’ve heard before: shooting a gun in the air during a festivity can be fatal (for someone). What goes up, comes down.

He said 243 deaths a year are due to heroin (which is detected as morphine in the blood). Anywhere from 20 mg to 880 mg can lead to death, depending on a variety of factors. Sadly, it can be a person’s first experience with heroin that can be fatal.

Nothing like going from pictures of dead bodies to a session on Cadaver Dogs.

In truth, it was a fun session, the entertainment provided by Bella, a yellow lab, and her “handler person” (Rus Ruslander).

Bella and Rus

Cadaver dogs work on a reward system, and Bella’s reward was tugging on a short rope. By the end of the session, she had several people playing tug-of-war with her.

Bella wandered around looking for someone to play with her.

Cadaver dogs are “human remains detection dogs.” They’re not trained to attack or bite, so they can be off-lead. It doesn’t matter if a body is buried or submerged under water, the odor rises to the surface. Even cremains have an odor and can be detected. Dogs have around three-hundred-million (300,000,000) olfactory receptors in their noses. (Humans have around 6 million.) Their sense of smell is ten-thousand to a hundred-thousand times better than ours. Air patterns (wind, rain, fog, temperature) vary how the odor is disseminated and how the dogs work.

Once Bella has her “uniform” on, her body language changes. Her mouth closes and she breathes from her nose. When she detects a body, she’ll sit and stay with the source. Or if it’s a tight location, she’ll lean against something. Cadaver dogs are so intent on finding the body, they can put themselves in dangerous situations, so the dogs are trained to stop when a handler uses an emergency word.

Food is not used as a reward for the dogs. Food might contaminate the crime scene.

I was amazed by the amount of training the dogs go through. There is, of course, the basic obedience training, but there are also organizations that certify the dogs. Bella isn’t boat certified yet (for water detection), but she is certified to work on land and in a helicopter. Rus has taken Bella all around the country, both for certification training and searches. There is no charge for his service.

Rus said almost all varieties of dogs can be trained to be cadaver dogs. He named the Standard Poodle, Doberman Pinscher, German Shepherd, Belgian Malinois, and Labrador Retrievers. He did say pugs aren’t good. That’s because of the shape of their face/nose.

Veterinarians offer their services for free, and the dogs are watched carefully during a search. The dogs are very intense when working, and 20-40 minutes is usually as long as they like to work them at a time. A shorter duration if it’s hot. Rus said you can almost see the dogs think and analyze. He mentioned that some of the dogs used in searching the Twin Towers rubble for bodies suffered PTDS.

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12 Responses to Autopsies and Cadaver Dogs

  1. Melissa Keir says:

    What an amazing conference. You must have had so many ideas for stories. How do the handlers afford a cadaver dog since they don’t get paid? The training sounded intense.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Melissa, no one asked him how he can afford to do this. He did say they get a lot of freebes. Free lodging, meals, vet care. Communities looking for a dead resident are more than happy to assist. He’s also a retired law enforcement officer, so I’m sure he pays for a lot out of his own pocket. He finds the work very satisfying.

  2. Barbara Vortman says:

    So interesting! Coincidently, I use a “search” dog in my next novel and wasn’t sure if I got it right. How nice that you learned so much from the pros.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Barbara, years ago I wrote a romance for Bantam’s Loveswept line titled Jared’s Lady. The story centered around an SAR dog and his trainer. I contacted SAR organizations and found an excellent book on the subject (don’t have it with me in Florida). Talking to the trainers and handlers will give you lots of information for your story.

  3. Sue Myers says:

    Wish I had been at this conference. What great information. Your right, we can eat and look at pictures of dead bodies at the same time. Our dining conversations don’t cross over into non-writers idea of polite dinner conversations.

  4. Lucy Kubash says:

    What am amazing conference! I would have enjoyed that session, too, in spite of it being gruesome. I researched the dogs that worked at the fall of the Twin Towers. They were a special group and the remaining one passed away just last year. Thanks for an interesting post.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Lucy, I will say I enjoyed the session with the dog more than the pictures of bullet holes through heads. Search and rescue dogs and human remains dogs are amazing.

  5. Don’t think I could handle lunch with these topics being discussed. However, these are certainly interesting and offer valuable info to mystery writers.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Jacqueline, seeing those slides right after eating lunch was a bit of a surprise, but he was an interesting speaker, and what he had to say wouldn’t have been as clear without the slides.

  6. Janni Nell says:

    Great post Maris. Thanks for sharing.