MEXICO, N.Y. — A well-trained cadaver dog almost never gets it wrong, according to experts.
If the dog has the proper training in picking up the full range of scents of human decomposition, his accuracy rate is about 95 percent, said Sharon Ward, a cadaver dog trainer in Portland, Ore.
“So if a dog says it’s there, there’s a darn good chance it is,” she said tonight. “They’re pretty darn accurate.”
A New York State Police cadaver dog alerted twice in the same area Monday outside a cabin in Mexico where Oswego County sheriff’s investigators are looking for the remains of 1994 kidnap victim Heidi Allen, according to a lawyer for the man imprisoned on a conviction of kidnapping her.
The dog indicated it smelled a body in an area around a fresh footprint, Federal Public Defender Lisa Peebles said she was told by Oswego County District Attorney Greg Oakes.
The footprint is unlikely the source of the scent the dog picked up, Ward said.
“Any properly trained dog will ignore a fresh-set print,” she said.
The fact that it was a state police dog makes it more likely its owner knows very well when the dog has found a body, she said.
“The handler, especially a state police handler, should know if a dog lies to him or not,” said Ward, a trainer with Pacific Crest Search Dogs, a nonprofit that uses the dogs to find human remains in Oregon and the state of Washington.
Depending on the type of soil, its aeration and the presence of tree roots in the ground, a cadaver dog can pick up the scent of remains deep underground, Ward said. She cited a case where police asked her if her three cadaver dogs could pick up a scent of remains 30 feet deep.
” I said, ‘I have no idea. I’ve never trained on that, but I’ll try,'” she said.
All three dogs put their noses in the same area and alerted, she said. She told the police to bring in a bulldozer, and they found a body 15 feet down, Ward said.
Cadaver dogs are trained to not alert on dead animals in the area — only human remains, she said.
“In my yard, I have a cow bone and and elk bone out,” she said. “If my dog hits on one of those, he’s in trouble.”
How old can the skeletal remains be? Hundreds of years, said Cat Warren, a cadaver dog expert from North Carolina who published a book, “What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs.”
But she and Ward both warned that the dogs are like people. They do make mistakes sometimes.
“The dogs are not magic,” Warren said. “It depends on their training.”
Contact John O’Brien at firstname.lastname@example.org or 315-470-2187.