How to Select a Top Notch Human Remains Detection (HRD) Dog

How to Select a Top Notch Human Remains Detection (HRD) Dog

Human remains detection (HRD) dogs (also known as cadaver dogs) are an incredibly useful tool for law enforcement units, search and rescue teams and coroners alike. They make possible the locating of critical evidence, necessary to close some of the most heinous cases and bring justice to victims. They also provides many families with the closure necessary to heal when they may otherwise be forced to live the rest of their lives wondering what happened to their loved one. Without HRD K9s, some of the worst cases would go unresolved, which could result in even more innocent lives being unnecessarily lost.

Training an HRD K9 is not a quick process; it requires a great deal of time, dedication and education in order to do it correctly. Cadaver dogs are not just imprinted and trained on decomposition. They must understand that their job is to locate any human remains present, whether they are fresh and sitting on top of soil, or 150 years old and buried under the ground. HRD dogs are expected to find everything from traces of adipocere when a body has been moved or tiny remnants of human remains undiscovered by the human eye, to multiple bodies in a disaster scenario when the environment is saturated with the scent of early decomposition. They are expected to completely ignore animal remains, litter, environmental distractions and more, while serving as our forensic anthropologist who can recognize whether remains are human or not before their handler even recognizes the signs that evidence is present. These dogs must also have enough control to indicate so closely on cadaver that there is no doubt regarding its location, but not pick up the find or disturb critical evidence.

The first critical step in training a quality HRD dog is finding and choosing the right partner. In a world where many people have access to hundreds of adult dogs or puppies, it can be difficult to know how to choose the right one for the job. In this article, we will take the guesswork out of selecting the right HRD K9. From breed to temperament and drive, you will learn how to find the right dog for your needs.

Selecting Your HRD Partner: Breed

Deployments can be long and tedious for HRD teams. Depending on the job, you may have to trek through acres of dense woodland, tread lightly through dangerous disaster scenes, move meticulously through miles of field, operate a search pattern on a boat through water, work the streets of an urban environment or travel through mountainous, arctic or desert terrain depending on your location of operation.

Because HRD work can be dangerous and exhausting, it is critical that your dog can work hours in difficult-to-navigate terrain. Remember that this dog may be asked to search for miles without locating odor, so make sure to choose a breed that is not only renowned for its working ability, but also comes from “working lines.” 

When choosing a puppy, you will likely run into a variety of breed sub-categories: working lines, conformation/show lines, pet dog lines, etc. You will ideally want to ensure that your future partner comes from working line lineage, as this will give you the best chance at finding a puppy bred for stamina, focus and drive. It is important to find a breed that is durable, capable of working in a variety of weather conditions, not overly sensitive to new stimuli, and athletic.

german shepherd cadaver dog

Very large breeds could present problems for HRD handlers, as they typically possess less natural stamina than smaller breeds. Medium or smaller “large” breeds (such as labs or working line German Shepherds) are the standard choice for HRD candidates. Some typical breeds found in HRD work are:

Selecting Your HRD Partner: Socialization

socialized cadaver dog

Testing a potential candidate for environmental and social stability is critical when evaluating a potential HRD candidate. Handlers may find themselves thinking, “Why would my dog need to be social when it is working independently out in nature most of the time?” 

Unsocialized dogs, in general, can present pretty severe issues for their owners. Undesirable behaviors such as aggression, severe timidity, spooking and becoming overly excited are typically witnessed in unsocialized dogs. Matters become even more concerning where working dogs are involved – an unsocialized K9 can:

  • Cause harm to innocent bystanders
  • Cause harm to your team mates or other dogs on the team
  • Forego obedience to trained odors in favor of becoming distracted by new surroundings
  • Panic, and refuse to work
  • Take significantly longer to desensitize to potentially frightening stimuli

You will want to test how your puppy or dog reacts when it is exposed to traffic, new people, other animals, slick floors, dark spaces and unfamiliar obstacles. If you are attempting to raise a puppy for working purposes, it is very important to socialize them well so that they remain stable in every possible environment. By practicing on obstacle courses and agility equipment, you can help boost your pup’s confidence and condition them for the physically demanding work they will face in the field.

Selecting Your HRD Partner: Search Drive

Search drive is a vital component to any sort of detection work. When selecting an HRD dog, you don’t want a dog who will look for a couple of minutes and give up – you need a dog who will search for hours, day after day, vigilantly and enthusiastically. 

Search drive is typically tested using a toy that the dog likes. This can be accomplished by holding the dog back while throwing the toy into an area that is not easy for the dog to find it (tall grass, forested ground, rubble), and watching how long they will look for this toy. When testing search drive, you will want to analyze a couple of different factors:

  • How long does the dog/puppy search?
  • How enthusiastic are they when they are searching?
  • How much ground do they cover when searching and what does their “pattern” look like?
cadaver dog in training

Your future HRD dog will likely be required to search for miles, so the ability to keep hunting is incredibly valuable. If you are planning on imprinting with odor inside a PVC pipe (which is typically the fastest way to do so), they will need to be willing to hunt for and play with a piece of PVC pipe. You can increase your future HRD candidate’s enthusiasm for the pipe by playing fetch with it for a bit before proceeding to throw it into the long grass or woods. The optimal candidate will not stop searching until it locates the pipe.

Selecting Your HRD Partner: Environmental Stability

An HRD K9 faces deployment in a variety of situations. Working deep in the woods, inside buildings or houses, over acreage and fields, in disaster situations, along residential developments and more are not uncommon places for searches to take place. It is critical that your future partner is 100% focused on their job regardless of where you take them. 

Although socialization in the early days helps to build this, some dogs are naturally nervous and will not be comfortable working in new places. Triggers such as new sounds, smells and sights can make dogs uncomfortable, and although this can be worked through to some extent, it will make your life significantly easier if you find a dog who is already confident and focused. You can test this by using a toy or your imprinting PVC pipe, and having your dog hunt for it in a variety of places. What does their body language look like while they are hunting in new environments? How enthusiastic and focused are they? 

Make sure to work indoors and outdoors, in light and in darkness, in loud and quiet environments, and on slippery floors and unstable (but safe) surfaces. Your pup should be willing to hunt for the pipe regardless of the environment, because it implies that their toy and hunt drives are so strong that they will be happy working anywhere as long as there is a toy on the other side.

cadaver dog searching car

In Summary

Quality HRD teams are an incredibly valuable asset to society. They accomplish things that neither humans nor technology could do on their own by helping to bring closure to the desperate families of lost loved ones, and providing the evidence necessary to bring justice to the victims of individuals who commit heinous crimes – while stopping them from being able to commit any more. The first step in creating the optimal HRD team is choosing the right K9 partner for the job. Breed, temperament, stability, physical health, socialization and drive are all vital components of finding the right HRD dog, and will make or break your team’s effectiveness. Finding the right dog may be one of the most critical steps in the process of training an HRD K9, but once you have them, the real journey begins.

Four Great Options For Finding New Track Layers For Your K9

Four Great Options For Finding New Track Layers For Your K9

matt mckeown k9 trainer

This blog article was written by Matt McKeown, a K9 Trainer and Instructor with Highland Canine Training, LLC. Originally from Australia, Matt is regarded as an expert in trailing dogs.

In this article, Matt explores new possibilities for K9 Handlers who may be struggling to source new track layers to keep their dog’s training at an optimum level.

“The best investment is in the tools of one’s own trade."
benjamin franklin portrait
Benjamin Franklin

Society’s foundation as we know it has been orchestrated due to mankind’s unique ability to fashion and employ the use of tools. Depending on the texts you consume the origins of humanity can be controversial – however it is undebatable that we would not be where we are today, waving our flag at the top of the food chain, without the use of sturdy, reliable tools.

Benjamin Franklin said it best, and his quote on the subject in my opinion is both layered and multi-dimensional. Historical statements are oftentimes open for interpretation with its message being as broad as the audience’s own imagination. Benjamin Franklin does not only speak of investing in tools for one’s own trade; he also talks of obtaining high quality tools and investing time and resources into the maintenance of one’s own tools.

As a Law Enforcement Officer, maintenance is no doubt a part of your daily routine and has evolved to dictate and manipulate much of your life. Uniforms must be kept clean and presentable, vehicles need to be washed and inspected regularly, firearms must be kept up to the highest standard – to list just a few examples.

As you have found yourself reading an article on a Police Dog Training website, it is safe to assume that you have already predicted my impending point that a highly trained K9 unit is a tool well worth investing in.

If we remember Mr. Franklin’s quote, the word investment made more than one point. This article will be pointing a finger at only one of these with its siblings to be analyzed in future articles. Of course, investing in a K9 can be a priceless asset to all departments and investing in the highest-quality K9 available is the foundation to all future success. Now, we reach this article’s focus point, because success will be short lived if we do not invest ample time and resources into the maintenance training of our K9s.

police k9 trailing dog

A responsible investment of time leads to better results

Most Departments have a minimum training requirement for every given month of the year. Training is structured differently from department to department, however it is common that most units meet a mandatory minimum of 16 hours training per month. All too often, the only reasonable way to manage the logistics of this requirement is to hold a couple of lump sum training sessions lasting an entire working shift (or two).

It is an observation of mine that when training is structured in this way – with significant breaks between sessions – K9 units are simply working to maintain the lowest of standards. Complacency is maintained, yet skills are never developed and improved upon. Some skill sets often even disintegrate completely and cannot be regained until there is a responsible investment of training resources and time.

Often one of the most neglected tools, covered with spider webs and rust, is the tracking/trailing. To an extent, this discipline is a perishable skill and when training takes place only once or twice a month the neglect can become obvious fairly quickly. To put it simply, if you do not use it you lose it – and if you lose it, what was the point of your initial investment in the first place?

tracking dog handler training course

Trailing differs from a skill like detection. Detection can be easy to train for and is often not neglected like the tracking/trailing, as it does not have to be terribly time-consuming and does not require the support and manpower of the tracking/trailing.

The same can be said for the training of patrol functions, with sessions not needing significant time to set up and complete. Sessions can take place easily on shift so that they fall neatly into routine.

As K9s become more advanced with their tracking/trailing, the time it takes to organize and complete training sessions is significantly greater than that of other disciplines and more often than not why it can become neglected. Everybody serves a purpose and it can be difficult for some to pause that purpose and obtain the freedom to work their tracking K9 appropriately during a shift.

Dedicating more time in trailing is vital

If training a dog in your off time sounds undesirable, then this could be for a few different reasons. Perhaps you do not genuinely enjoy a K9 handler’s position. Maybe you enjoy the work during regular hours, but do not possess the motivation and drive to truly excel at the position. Either way, if you are not beyond enthusiastic to wake up every day of the year to train, then it is for certain that the position of K9 handler is not for you and it would be ethical to remove yourself so that somebody more suitable secures the best job in law enforcement.

However, you have found yourself on a Police Dog Training website reading blogs in your spare time, so the person in the previous paragraph is almost certainly not you. You possess as much drive as your K9 partner and are willing to invest whatever it takes to keep your blades sharp and hack away at any training discrepancies.

One frustration I find myself hearing all too often is that your enthusiasm is not matched by your peers and support staff. I am willing to bet that you have one or two people in your department as addicted to the K9 chaos as you are that will lay tracks regardless of weather, terrain or number on the calendar – however you cannot secure any more assistance than that. I know for a fact you have other associates that refuse to get their feet wet, let alone break a sweat for the sake of your K9 training.

tactical tracking police k9 seminar

Finding a mix of track layers

Dog training philosophies vary from trainer to trainer, however, we all agree that having an unpredictable mix of people to lay your tracks is crucial to an unstoppable tracking dog. Your two mates are fantastic, and my gratitude for their assistance immeasurable. I hope one day they secure a handler’s position of their own. But to truly test your dog’s tracking capabilities, we need more track layers with a healthy mixture of age, race, gender, diet and addictions. Everyone’s odor is different, and we want your K9 to become proficient at finding anybody – not just Gary and Kevin.

So how exactly do you find such a mixture of people? For anybody who is willing to protect their department’s investment by investing their own time yet cannot find the resources, here is a list of possible solutions for you to facilitate the training you need. We must think outside the box and start searching the very same world our K9’s are to be working in for resourceful track layers.

Option 1 - Family, Friends and Neighbors

The first possibility is likely to be the easiest to organize for a number of reasons. These are the people that you are closest to in this world of ours. You have an easy and open line of communication, there is no paperwork to be completed or searching through the calendar to set appointment times. It is likely that you share a number of interests with your friends and family, so the prospect of laying tracks for you might truly excite them but perhaps they never thought that it was a possibility.

It is a fantastic opportunity to strengthen relationships, bond and build memories to endure a lifetime. Your children have no problems getting dirty and your friends have no problem really testing your abilities and laying challenging tracks. Thinking outside the box even further, you could help the new neighbors unload the moving truck if they promise to lay tracks for you next Saturday. If your mother-in-law is a source of grief and frustration in your life, then for all your wife knows when she is scheduled to visit this coming Sunday, you need to go and run some tracks with your cousin because the Sheriff has insisted that you must train and he needs to see the training records on his desk come Monday morning.

I do not know your family and your relationships, but if you start thinking outside of the box, a mixture of friends and loved ones can skyrocket your K9s tracking ability.

Option 2 - Social Media/Craigslist

We operate and run a successful School for Dog Trainers, which has hosted alumni from over 30 different countries worldwide. It is a luxury that we possess the opportunities for our dogs to hunt for people from so many varied walks of life, and is a huge contributing factor to why our Police K9s see such success in real world deployments. Our program is structured to include a well-rounded mixture of hands-on practical training and classroom time for theory work and to discuss training philosophies.

When students are in the classroom, it is not unheard of that we advertize for volunteers to aid us in the track laying of our working K9s. Applicants are in contact with us almost immediately and it has proven a reliable way to obtain people to lay tracks for our working dogs. Often times it has led to the building of relationships within our local community, and permissions have been granted for us to train dogs in locations we never would have thought to be possible.

Sometimes when we spend enough time in a position, we can forget how gifted we are to be in that position to begin with. The view from our back window does not seem as romantic as when we first moved in, yet new visitors to the house fall in love with its charm immediately. It is important to remember that K9 handler is the best job in Law Enforcement and the position holds a lot of respect and intrigue to the general public. What can be day-to-day for you is beyond comprehension to them. If you advertize for volunteers, I guarantee the quantity of potential applicants will get so large you might have to turn some away.

amber trailing on train tracks

Option 3 - Clubs/Sports and Social Groups

This is where thinking outside the box will bring you the most variety in your trail layers. Tool is an American rock band from Los Angeles, and one lyric that really stands out in my mind is “boredom is not a burden anyone should bare.” People despise the feeling of boredom, and as a result, we find hobbies to occupy our spare time. Many of these hobbies are spent outdoors and with a little charm and manners it could be organized that you combine your passion with another’s.

Think about the Boy Scouts, for example. Not a single one of those kids is going to deny a request from his new hero (the K9 handler of the local Sheriff’s department) to lay tracks for his dogs. You could liaise with the local Scout group on their next camping trip, and spend anywhere from a few hours to a few days working your K9, building relationships with the local community, accessing training areas you could never use in the past and inspiring the next generation of leaders to navigate through life with a strong moral compass. You could even organize for them to receive a K9 scout patch for their uniforms.

My uncle’s hobby is that of an amateur historian with a particular interest in the history of the city he grew up in. He hosts guided walking tours around the city where he educates tourists of times past. If his audience agrees, somebody could leave a scent article and a period of time after the tour has left the designated start point you and your K9 partner could track them down. At night time most communities have people doing something similar and offering ghost tours, so now you potentially have assistance training at night time too.

Recently, myself and my coworkers found ourselves working a trailing dog through a Frisbee golf course. While I was the one actually laying the trail and we were not in need of help, it was clear to me from the positive reaction of the public that anyone there would have been eager to go about their game with a reward for our dogs when we eventually catch up to them.

I developed an interest and a curiosity with the sport of falconry a few years back. I was lucky to spend time with the local falconer’s guild and participate in some hunts. These sportsman spend hours in the woods hunting with their birds, and many socialize these birds with dogs to assist in flushing out game. Strike up a relationship with a local falconer’s guild and you might just find yourself tracking down somebody who has been wandering through the woods for hours.

The list could go on and on – mountain bike clubs, geocaching, hikers, marathon runners – the only thing limiting you from finding an abundance of track layers is your imagination. Get out there and combine your passion with somebody else’s!

Option 4 - Track the Locals

trailing dog

Perhaps you just witnessed one of the local drunks stumble out of the pub and make the responsible decision to walk home instead of drive. If he has a friendly and outgoing reputation, you could easily approach and ask to track him down on his way home. If he does not have such a reputation you could not ask and just track him down on his way home anyway. When you catch up to him, you can be the one to reward your dog for a successful track.

The local homeless gentleman you saw walking down the road 30 minutes ago will likely not be upset that you tracked him down with your K9 if you have a few dollars or a sandwich to offer him when you eventually find him.

In Summary

Your department has made an investment and purchased a K9. You have been chosen as the handler.

Ideally, you possess as much natural drive as your dog does, and you are willing to go above and beyond the bare minimum standard of training.

When you begin to think outside of the box and source a variety of trail layers, you and your K9 are going to be unstoppable. These are just a few ideas to hopefully spark some creativity and problem solving.

Remember, the community is invested in your success – they might just be able to help you make it happen.

Four Common Handler Cues To Avoid

Four Common Handler Cues To Avoid

Detection dogs are incredibly beneficial for a variety of purposes. Whether it be searching public areas for bombs, locating narcotics, or helping in conservation efforts, detection teams make an enormous difference in their areas. 

The key to a reliable detection team is a dog totally reliant on odor and indicating reliably at their trained source of odor. However, this is easier said than done. Sometimes, dogs are much more intelligent than we think and sometimes learn how to cue off their handlers. Dogs can pick up patterns to access their reward item based on information from their handler. 

These dogs usually appear to be falsing or walking hides, when in reality they have discovered an easier way of accessing their reward without hunting for odor. 

Here are four common cues dogs pick up on, which handlers should avoid.

1) Velcro

Many handlers keep their reward items in their pocket. When the dog shows they are close to indicating, the handler pulls the toy out of their pocket to get ready to pay – opening the Velcro in the process. 

After repetition, the dog can learn to cue off the sound of Velcro, resulting in a final response early – committing to the hide before the dog is sure of the location. 

This can be avoided by keeping reward items away from velcro.

velcro pocket

2) Detailing to odor

detection dog in training

Oftentimes, when dogs are having trouble working a problem or searching a new area, handlers have a hard time waiting for the dog to solve the problem on their own. In an attempt to assist the dog, they detail the dog to the source of odor so the dog can indicate and get paid. 

However, the danger of this is that the dog learns that when times get tough – and problems arise during a search – everything will be okay, because they have a wonderful detection human on the end of the leash. 

In order to keep dogs independent and confident, they need to have the time to work out problems for themselves. This will go a long way in building reliability in a team.

3) Cocking ARM

When dogs start getting close to odor, our natural reaction as handlers is to get excited and want to pay. In order to pay a perfect indication, many times the reward item is held in the air so the handler can pay as soon as the dog offers the desired behavior. 

Dogs have a much larger peripheral vision than humans. If done consistently, the dog can cue off the arm being cocked and result in a false indication.

sheriff with detection k9

4) Stopping

drug detection dog

It is easy to move with a dog while they are searching. However, when they start getting close to odor, it’s also easy to stop in anticipation of paying them. 

If the handler stops every time the dog gets close to a hide, the dog can cue that there is something close by – even if they have not gone into odor. This can result in a handler-dependent dog.

It is therefore vital to move naturally and not unintentionally cue the dog that a hide is nearby.

While working detection dogs, it is incredibly important to keep them independent and reliable. Watching out for unintentional cues can go along way in keeping teams reliable. 

Remember – dogs are far smarter than we think they are, and are very capable of picking up on established patterns in order to access their reward item. Avoiding creating patterns when the dog comes into odor is the best way to keep a dog reliable and independent.

Why You Should Be Running Blind Trails

Why You Should Be Running Blind Trails

There is little that is more impressive than witnessing a well trained K9 team find a person at the end of a challenging trail. Trailing exemplifies an incredible ability that dogs possess that humans couldn’t even begin to dream of experiencing. Many times, when you are part of a police K9 team, your dog is taught to trail by a professional organization. After your K9 is proficient, you may take a handler course where you learn the skills necessary to work your dog on the streets. Just as with any learned skill, continuing to practice trailing regularly after certification is vital to maintaining and improving your team’s trailing ability. 

Although practice is vital to a trailing team’s success, practicing the correct way is even more important. Many well intentioned teams hit the street solid after their handler course, but eventually begin to experience problems. “My dog doesn’t look like he’s working.” “He keeps coming back to me.” “She’s all over the place.” Issues like these generally occur after a while when a K9 team or a unit begins practicing on their own. Many times handlers are not certain about the best way to troubleshoot the issues or concerns they may begin experiencing with their dog and unintentionally begin cuing them in an effort to help. 


trailing dog

Cuing occurs most frequently when a dog handler knows where their subject is hiding. As the difficulty of the trails increases, the handler may begin losing confidence in their K9 or they begin feeling like they have to “help” their dog. This results in a dog who does not have a clear idea of what is expected of it, and who looks to their handler for direction. The best trailing dogs have been taught to work independently of their handler, and are motivated and enthusiastic about their work. 

The most effective way to avoid over cuing your K9 while improving your teams trailing skills is by running “blind trails.” The concept behind running a blind trail is that the handler does not know where their subject is hiding, and must trust their dog fully to locate them. Instead of telling your subject the exact location you’d like them to hide, you will simply agree on timing, let them run their trail and hide wherever they’d like (without telling you where they will be), and then you and your K9 will go out looking for them. Not convinced that you should be running blind trails with your K9? Avoiding the cuing trap is not the only benefit of running blind trails. There are other benefits of implementing this strategy during your practice sessions as well.

Reading the Trail

Blind trails keep your focus on the dog you are working with. Since you are trusting them fully to find the person you are looking for, you become more adept at analyzing your dog’s working style and signals. It is vital that a handler can recognize when their K9 is on the correct trail and when it is not, as well as recognize when their dog is signaling that the trail has changed direction. Dogs do not all have the same working styles, and it is important that you can read your dog’s specific cues (especially when they may not replicate other dogs you have seen working in the past). By only running “known” trails, it is easy to become disengaged and consequently fail to focus on reading your dog.

amber trailing on train tracks

The Cuing Trap

Handlers cannot cue their dog when they are running blind trails because it would be pointless. When a trail is difficult enough, a dog must learn to work through it because their handler cannot help them. This is especially true in a real world scenario where you literally have no idea where your suspect is located. When a K9 is forced to work out difficult problems on its own, while the handler focuses exclusively on reading the signals their dog is sending them rather than trying to help “lead” the dog, a more skilled and reliable trailing team is formed.

trailing k9 unit

Recognizing Proximity Alerts

Recognizing your K9’s proximity alert near the end of the trail is incredibly beneficial. Knowing that you are close to the individual you are searching for allows the trailing team and their back up to plan accordingly rather than approaching a suspect unprepared. When a handler always knows where their trail layer is hiding, they do not have the opportunity to recognize the proximity alert for their self – typically because they know that they are very close and simply watch to make sure that their dog continues moving in the correct direction.

Blind Trails Build Team Trust

Handlers who frequently run blind trails are significantly more confident in their dog while working in an operational environment. These handlers trust their K9 to get the job done, rather than panicking or experiencing concern when suddenly they don’t know if they are following the right trail or they can’t be certain if their dog is working when a trail becomes more difficult. Simultaneously, dogs that often work blind trails do not rely on their handler’s cues but rather their own natural ability to effectively follow a trail. 

Developing the ability to work as an effective trailing team is incredibly important. You can help ensure that you and your K9 are always improving your trailing skills by implementing enormously beneficial strategies such as running blind trails. Regularly running blind trails will help you break though a plateau, make your team significantly more solid in an operational environment and will ultimately take your team to the next level.