Montana law allows cadaver dog training with human remains
COOKE CITY, Mont. (AP) – When Mark Polakoff pulls human body parts out of an old ammo can, it’s just a normal work weekend.
Polakoff is an experienced search and rescue dog handler. With nearly 40 years of experience, he is one of the best handlers at Absaroka Search Dogs. He’s also one of the best to talk about a common problem search dog training is facing across the country – access to human remains.
At Absaroka Search Dogs, which operates out of Billings, the dogs are trained not only to find living people, but also those who have died. When the search for the missing hiker Tatum Morell recently moved from a live search to a rescue, the Absaroka dog handlers only had to give their dogs another command.
In a state like Montana, where there are only dozen of dog handlers, having highly flexible dogs is critical. When a sheriff calls for a dog team, it may be the only team available, so the dogs need as many skills as possible.
The dogs are trained to follow given smells across the floor, sniff out human smells in the air, and know the difference between the smell of a living person and a deceased one.
In order to train dogs in these different smells, trainers need access to materials with the right smells. The living scents are simple – one of the trainers goes into the woods and “gets lost” and the dogs sniff them out. For a change, volunteers can be the ones who “get lost” so the dogs learn to look for different people.
However, in order to train dogs to smell corpses, trainers need corpses. Until May of this year, the coaches were in a legal gray area – the law would neither allow nor prohibit the possession of human remains. To get the smells they needed, the search teams relied on scarce tissue remnants from operations, donated teeth or small body parts from industrial accidents, and bloody clothing provided by coroners.
A new law passed in late May eases the training of search dog handlers in Montana, The Billings Gazette reported.
House Bill 641 authorized search and rescue forces to possess human remains for the purpose of dog training. The new law also provides a framework for teams to receive “anatomical gifts” from donors. This allows the handlers not only to own human remains, but also to receive a variety of donated items from hospitals, clinics, and private donors.
“Often times knees are replaced, all joint surgeries … all that stuff is just thrown away,” said Chris Dover, another experienced handler from Absaroka. “The value of legislation right now … enables us to receive donations.”
It is important for Dover to train dogs on a variety of scents. “It is extremely valuable to us to be able to use it,” she said. “If our dogs can’t exercise on human tissue, they won’t be as effective.”
Dover said other states had laws like HB 641 long before Montana. Wyoming probably had that legislation for 10 years, she said. In Wyoming, some search teams have been given whole bodies so the dogs can train as realistically as possible.
“It’s extremely important for us to be able to train on these things,” said Dover, “because everyone in decay smells different.”
For dogs, every new body is a brand new smell and that requires the dog to process and determine if that smell is what it is looking for. An unprepared dog may not realize that the new scent is actually a corpse – and if it does find the corpse, the dog may be overwhelmed or scared.
It’s a bit of a long drive before Absaroka trains her dogs. The first corner comes after Beartooth Pass on the Wyoming side of the border, about halfway into Cooke City. The next bend leads onto a gravel road just wide enough for two vehicles and then onto a two-lane dirt road.
Over a ridge and past a grove is a clearing where Polakoff, Dover and the other members of Absaroka Search Dogs have settled. Your camp is a colorful collection of RVs, tents, and covered trucks. The place overlooks a landscape of forest, boulders,
Training starts early, usually around 7 or 8 a.m. Dover, as the most experienced of the group leads the exercises.
Dog handlers often begin with basic obedience training, walking their dogs in circles, and giving orders. Not only does this help the dogs get used to work, but they also feel comfortable around each other. While the dogs often work alone, they can also work with other search teams so they can’t afford to be distracted while lives are at stake.
Any dog can be trained to search, but not all dogs are suitable for the task. Some just don’t feel like working, get bored easily or get distracted. Others may not be physically able to do the job – if they are too small, they could get lost among boulders or fail to overcome obstacles. Large, sturdy dogs with thick coats are great for searching in cold, harsh mountain conditions.
After the obedience exercises come the exercises. During live training exercises, the trainers send someone out of sight while the dog cannot see where he is going. Then the handler brings her out and puts her to work.
There is a routine to how the search works. The dog handler defines the general search area, reads the signals from his animal and controls the direction of the dog. Your canine partner will take care of tracking the smells in the air and reporting if they find someone.
“As soon as I give him the order to ‘find’, he’ll go out and look for smells, and he’ll do that himself,” Dover said. “As soon as it encounters smell, it will go where the smell came from, on the subject.
“Then he’ll come back to me and tell me he found someone and then come back to the subject,” she said. The cycle repeats itself, with the dog navigating back and forth between the seeker and the lost until contact is made.
The routine is the same when looking for corpses. However, the handlers use different commands than when searching for the living. Usually each dog has a unique command to start looking for a corpse to avoid false starts.
To prepare for a funeral exercise, the team hand out some of the death-smelling clothes and body parts. A shoe from a car accident could be hung in a tree, a small container with fingertips in a hollow tree trunk, or bloody shirts hidden behind a boulder. A particularly effective material is a small block of concrete made by mixing quikrete with human blood and discarded placenta.
The team has at least enough supplies to fill a five-gallon bucket and some excess army ammunition, but there’s one problem – that’s not enough. There is little point in training dogs to use the same smells over and over again, as dogs need variety and challenge to improve their skills. Worse, the materials lose their odor over time, making them less effective in multiple applications.
While the new legislation will make it easier for dog handlers to train their dogs, there can still be a long way to go before they get the support they need.
The search teams work exclusively on a voluntary basis. The dog handlers cover the costs of buying the dogs, the cost of traveling to and staying at the search locations, and invest countless hours every year in the life and training of their animals.
“Really, it depends on the district asking us to conduct a search and whether they can afford to compensate us,” Polakoff said. If a county is able to do so, they can pay some of the search teams’ food, accommodation, or travel expenses, but payment is never guaranteed. There is a state fund that traders can apply to for reimbursement, but the fund has a low priority in the state budget and is not always available.
In some cases, the cost of initial dog training can be in excess of $ 20,000, with the ongoing cost of training over the life of the dog or the cost of food and medical care being in excess of $ 10,000 per person can not be taken into account year.
Also, because search dogs tend to have highly motivated personalities, they can’t just be left at home alone like a normal pet – they need constant attention and training to keep them happy. The dogs are a full time commitment and plans are made based on their needs.
Despite the cost, time, and difficulty of finding, those who stay with the search team are a dedicated bunch. They don’t do it for the money, but out of love for their partners and the ability to help others.
“It’s an opportunity to help people who get into situations that turn out to be too much for them,” Polakoff said. “It’s a way to help people by combining my love of nature and my love of work with dogs.”