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Would Your Dog Make a Good Cadaver Detection Dog?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Sitting on the couch, with your dog curled up by your side looking ever-so-peaceful, maybe you’ve been overcome by the thought, “Gosh, wouldn’t Banjo make the most perfect therapy dog!?”

Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to being a therapy dog than many realize, reminds certified applied animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell in a recent article for The Bark. Ultimately, many dogs don’t meet the requirements (which is in no way an insult to the dog, the owner, or the dog’s skills as an excellent cuddler).

What about other types of work? If dogs went to high school, what would their career counselors recommend? You probably don’t hear many people saying, “Gosh, wouldn’t Banjo make a great cadaver detection dog?”

But there’s a lot more to scent detection work than you probably know, and lucky you! The ‘career counselors’ are holding an info session on Wisconsin Public Radio on Tuesday, January 28. Read on.

Cat Warren, author of What the Dog Knows, The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs, is the first to sympathize with your hesitancy. Warren spent the last decade training her dog Solo as a cadaver detection dog, raising more than a few eyebrows at her day job as a university professor. (I mean, how do you go about training a cadaver detection dog? See ‘One Day, You Will Smell Like a Dead Chicken.’)

For Warren, the work is rewarding: “What appears to motivate [Solo] is not just the tug-toy reward at the end (although that pleases him greatly) but also the work itself, as he sweeps a field like a hyperactive Zamboni on ice, tracking will o’ the wisps of scent down to their source.”

Just as there are requirements for therapy dog work, certain attributes are helpful for dogs in tracking and detection fields, like “drive, a good nose, and an ability to focus.” Personally, I can think of more than a few dogs and their owners who might be up for scent detection work — maybe not at the level of working in the field, but certainly as an activity or sport. Many are now involved with the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW/Facebook), described as “an activity that develops your dog’s natural scenting abilities through fun and games.”

Ádám Miklósi, Chair of the Ethology Department, Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, explains why engaging the nose is so important: “People think that dogs have fantastic abilities when it comes to smell, but that’s an oversimplification. Dogs have a fantastic potential for smelling, but if the dog spends its whole life in an apartment and never uses its nose, then I would assume that dog would have poor smelling abilities.”

Dogs With Jobs
This is an interesting time for working dogs. The field is expanding, both in the types of jobs that dogs are performing and the science supporting (and enhancing) their performance. Recently, Australia held their inaugural Working Dog Alliance Conference, bringing together researchers and practitioners to optimize the well-being and performance of Australian working dogs. Here in the States, the Penn Vet Working Dog Center holds yearly conferences, and topics range from defining, developing and documenting working dog success to managing physiological stress in the field.

I was not surprised that Cat Warren’s book comes with the subtitle, The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs. What dogs and their handlers do together is both scientific and wondrous. Warren explains: “My epiphany was not that working dogs are miraculous — by themselves, they aren’t — but instead, how inextricably linked their success is to the quality of their handlers, and the trainers who train the handlers. Working dogs’ success is far from a given: It takes imagination, deep knowledge, and constant work to train and handle dogs who work with their noses for a living.”

Working Dogs on Wisconsin Public Radio
To learn more, on Tuesday, January 28, 2014 from 11-11:45 AM Central, join Dr. Cat Warren and Dr. Patricia McConnell on the Larry Meiller show on Wisconsin Public Radio. You’ll hear how working dogs are trained, with special attention to cadaver detection work.

See why Virginia Morell, author of Animal Wise, had this to say about What the Dog Knows, The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs: “A gifted story-teller, Cat Warren takes us on a fast-paced journey into the scents—some foul, some sweet, some softer than a breeze—of police detective work. This is a book for anyone who loves dogs, and has watched them catch a scent on the wind or in the leaves on the ground, and wondered about that brilliant organ they possess: the nose.”


Additional Reading
Hecht, J. 2013. One Day, You Will Smell Like a Dead Chicken. Scientific American
Hecht, J. 2013. Great Thinkers On Dogs. Six leading canine researchers talk about their work. The Bark
Lineberry, C. 2013. Q&A: What Makes a Good Cadaver Dog? National Geographic
McConnell, P. 2012. Dog Assisted Therapy: Is Your Dog a Good Fit? The Bark
McConnell, P. Animal Assisted Therapy Resources
Pet Partners: Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA)
Pet Partners: Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT)
Pet Partners: Understanding the Differences Between AAA and AAT
K9 Nose Work (Video). 2010. The Bark
National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW)
Warren, C. 2013. What the Dog Knows, The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs

Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher, science writer, and PhD student at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. RonBurke 11:38 am 01/8/2015

    There hasn’t yet been a better scent detection device discovered that’s more reliable than the well trained detection dog.

    Link to this

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