On a recent morning in the cool mountains of western North Carolina, Carl Robinson and his dog Czar go hunting for bodies. Robinson straps a wide collar with a large bell around the dog’s neck, and gives the command, “go find ‘em.”
The property is covered with a mix of shallow human graves, and composted human remains, which can confuse even the keen canine sense of smell.
Florida will soon be home to the nation’s 7th body farm – a forensic research facility to study human decomposition.
Organizers hope it will become a national destination for law enforcement agents, training to interpret and process crime scenes. But humans aren’t the only ones who will train at the facility. K-9 search and rescue dogs typically get their only cadaver training at body farms – and the one at Western Carolina University hosts regular dog training classes.
Robinson can use any just about any piece of clothing to train to find the living – missing kids and Alzheimer’s patients -- but training to find the dead requires a body.
“We’re here to train off the scent of actual bodies. The reason we like to come to a place like this is, unless you’re doing a real search you don’t get whole bodies. To train on something like this is just awesome.”
Czar hunts for the reward of a tug toy. Some dogs do it for treats or praise.
“It’s a game to them, and they want to be successful and they want to please you at the game,” says handler Patti Braski Mitchell, working with her dog Nala. While some handlers rely on bones or bits of tissue to cadaver train dogs, she says there is no substitute for real-world experience.
“Sometimes the dogs will pause and look at you for direction, so what you want them to do is work it out.”
The value of the Western Carolina site is it allows dogs on range of human remains, she says, from fresh to fully skeletonized. “I’m grateful that is here. The more you can practice and facilities you can have across the country to practice the better.”
And while the dogs are having fun, Braski Mitchell says, “It’s certainly not a game to us. We take it very seriously. I can only imagine what it’s like losing someone and not knowing where they are. To be able to come and train it’s a wonderful program hope it continues – and expands.”
Now that facility offers regular cadaver dog training – including one coming up this week.
Florida’s new forensic training research facility plans to have a K-9 training unit as well, when that site is up and running.