Cadaver Dogs Sniff Out the Clues
Highly Trained Canines Help Police Solve Mysteries, Including
Ann Levy, a 24-year-old graduate student from University of Southern California,
was last seen alive near her D.C. apartment April 30, 2001. (AP)
(The Washington Post, June 11, 2002)
• Dyed Cash Found Near Levy Site (The Washington Post, June 10, 2002)
• METRO (The Washington Post, June 9, 2002)
• Levy Find Casts Shadow on Police (The Washington Post, June 8, 2002)
• Special Report: About Chandra Levy E-Mail This Article
By Susan Levine, Washington Post Staff Writer, Thursday, June 13, 2002;
called out on cases for one reason: They can smell death. It leads them
to the bodies, lost in scummy ponds, hidden by dense brush, buried two
feet under. It leads them to the bones, because even years later, a
telltale scent can linger on the skeletonized detritus of a human being.
Nose to the ground, they catch a whiff -- and often help solve a mystery
or a murder.
In the weeks since Chandra Levy's remains were discovered on a steep,
tangled slope of Rock Creek Park, D.C. police have requested assistance
from the four-legged searchers. Despite cheery names like Glory or Jolie,
Allen Rossi's Beauceron bitch, as a group they are known by a decidedly
chilling description: Cadaver dogs.
Some critics of how the department has conducted the Levy investigation
say cadaver dogs should have been
deployed extensively during officers' initial sweep of the park last summer.
Given the animals' smarts and skills, many find it ironic that an untrained
pooch, merely passing by, was the canine to find the Washington intern's
The men and women who own the search dogs are far too circumspect to voice
such opinion. But they swear by
their partners, who proved themselves at the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon, who have been flown around the country and the world, to mudslides
in Puerto Rico, earthquakes in Armenia. "She hasn't let me down,"
Jane Servais of Rockville said of Glory, her 7 1/2-year-old Australian
shepherd. Servais does this as a volunteer; her day job is with the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. In fact, the nation's search-and-rescue network
is overwhelmingly an unpaid force. The searchers buy their own dogs, cover
their own expenses, do their own training and take their own work leave
when their support is needed.
That can be at any hour of the day or night. Last weekend, numerous teams
spent hot and fatiguing hours trying to narrow territory for a pair of
Maryland investigations. The greater Washington region has at least four
prominent search-and-rescue organizations, including Mid-Atlantic D.O.G.S.,
to which Servais belongs. In 2001, members helped on 18 cases as far afield
as the Midwest.
"They are very dedicated," said Officer Alice Hanan of the Maryland-National
Capital Park Police, one of only two local departments with cadaver dogs.
Hanan works with Stryker, a German shepherd with quite a reputation, yet
she has nothing but praise for her volunteer counterparts. "In this
area, they're top of the line, as good as any law enforcement canine."
The question is how the dogs do it -- how they trace the microscopic particles
and unseen gases that a corpse gives off. To put it delicately, there
are five stages of decomposition. A human nose can smell the pungently
malodorous stage of major decay, as well as the cheesy or musty smell
of a body on its way toward mummification. But a knowledgeable dog can
perceive putrefaction from start to finish, and from a considerable distance
if conditions are right.
The animals and their handlers may specialize. Some focus on water detection.
A few have become adept at
archaeological searches. Eleven-year-old Eagle, a celebrated Doberman-pointer
mix from Michigan, recently surveyed a golf course on Mackinac Island
where American and British troops fought a bloody battle nearly two centuries
ago. "We don't know what is too deep, what is too subtle," said
Eagle's owner, Sandra Anderson, who several years ago took him to Panama
to look for victims of Manuel Noriega's terrorizing reign. "We just
don't know about that olfactory."
Not every canine has the talent, though, and even the best require lengthy
and continual training. Stryker arrived from Czechoslovakia when he was
13 months old. A failed patrol candidate -- a "doggie-bite-school
dropout," according to Hanan -- he immediately excelled in the pursuit
of narcotics and, since 1998, bodies. She began with him by "imprinting"
the odors of human remains through repetitive exercises.
initially use a manufactured chemical that replicates some of the odors.
Then they graduate to field work. Hanan keeps a strange variety of aids
in the back of her police truck -- a bagged, rotting squirrel, human bones
obtained through a legitimate Internet source, a knife with traces of
her own blood, soil samples from past crime scenes -- and on any given
workday, she may pull over as she drives her beat in Montgomery County
and put Stryker through his paces in a convenient wooded area.
He generally works off leash, chest up, tail up, keying off her specific
commands to find or seek. He knows to ignore other interesting smells
and rarely disappoints, "indicating" his discovery in his unique
way by pawing and barking excitedly. "He loves it," Hanan said,
rewarding Stryker with his favorite tug toy.
Weather can greatly affect any dog's success. Heavy rain stacks the odds
because it keeps scent down. A hot day moves the scent straight up, which
also is not conducive to good searching. Still, in their career together,
Hanan and Stryker have recorded 16 finds, from bodies and scattered remains
of them to blood evidence and rape crime scenes.
Like other teams, they have made believers of onetime skeptics in law
enforcement. "I never foresaw that it would gain as much acceptance
as it has," said Andrew Rebmann, a retired Connecticut state trooper
who taught one of the country's pioneering cadaver dogs in the late 1970s
and is now the field's leading expert.
His phone in Washington state rings constantly with requests for searches
and instruction. Hanan trained with him, and she in turn trained the three
D.C. police officers who began working with cadaver dogs within the last
year. King, another German shepherd, was among the first at the Pentagon
after Sept. 11. As he went to work, finding tiny pieces of tissue that
recovery crews had missed, FBI officials did a turnabout. "They'd
said, 'Let's see what you can do,' " remembered his handler, D.C.
police officer James Lugaila. Suddenly, the attitude was, "How many
dogs can you get?"
Staff writers Petula Dvorak and Allan Lengel contributed to this report.
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