Vicki Wooters is impressed, but rarely surprised, when a cadaver dog makes some grisly find and breaks a stalled murder investigation wide open.
That happened this week when those finely-trained canines helped investigators locate the bodies of four missing men that were burned and buried on a Doylestown-area farm.
Wooters, president of Chester County-based nonprofit Search and Rescue Dogs of Pennsylvania, has seen similar scenarios unfold scores of times. She’s usually holding one end of the leash.
She said she is often amazed at what her dogs, specially trained to detect the scent of human death, are able to do.
Like the time, she said, when one of her canines, floating in a boat, picked up the scent of a corpse 60 feet below the surface of a lake. Or when another dog found a corpse wrapped in a tarp and buried 4 1/2 feet underground.
Wooters, who has 25 years of experience with search dogs, said Friday that it isn’t an exact science – but perhaps more of an art – to find the right dog with the right nose for that highly-specialized job.
On average, two to three years of training is needed to hone a talented would-be cadaver dog’s natural skills and focus its unparalleled sense of smell, she said.
The fact that “dogs like dead things” and are intelligent helps, Wooters said, but you also have to pick just the right dog, one not only with natural talent, but also an animal with a penchant for persistence.
“Pretty much the kind of dog you need is one that might not be the best house pet,” she said. “Our best dog is sort of a pain to live with.”
A forceful personality is essential. “We do not want a dog that is going to say, ‘OK, whatever you want.’ We want what we called ‘trained disobedience,” Wooters said.
Her dogs are trained – through a reward system – to stay focused on finding the source of the scent, regardless of what the human handler is doing. “The dog has to be, ‘I’m not listening to you. I’m doing my job,'” Wooters said.
Sometimes, she said, a dog will pick up the residual scent of a corpse that was laid on the ground, then trace it to where the body was later buried or hidden. Handlers often use probes to stir up the ground, freeing scent particles for the dog to detect, she said.
Wooters said that, while her animals are all German Shepherds, any breed of dog, including a rescue dog, is a potential cadaver hunter, depending on personality, olfactory ability and trainability.
Dogs are even bred for the job and training can commence at the puppy stage, she said. “Some of the puppies as they’re being weaned are getting their target odor,” Wooters said. Expert cadaver dogs often must pass a test that involves finding “very minute” pieces of a corpse that might have been buried for a long time, she said
The human handler is there to provide the guidance to let the dog do a job that not even a person with the most sensitive nose could perform.
“We see with our eyes what they see with their noses,” Wooters said. “You have to put the dog’s nose where it can make the find.”