How I Turned My Problem Pet into a 'Cadaver Dog'

Author Cat Warren trained her dog to sniff out human remains as a "cadaver dog." In this exclusive excerpt from her book What The Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs, she explains how this experience taught her about the longstanding connection between dogs and death.

Top image: Son of Groucho


Excerpted from Chapter 2, Death and the Dog, What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs by Cat Warren (Touchstone, October 2013).

Although they have been cherished for their good qualities—hunter, guard, herder, friend, worker—the inverse dog is the spoiler of human graves and eater of corpses, the keeper of hell’s gates. . . .

—Paul Shepard, The Others: How Animals Made Us Human, 1997

Two months after our impossible German shepherd pup, Solo, arrived like a hurricane into our tranquil home, I found myself in a dog trainer’s backyard in rural North Carolina. I perched on the edge of an aluminum folding chair. Nancy Hook, the trainer, slumped back in her sturdy canvas chair, her hand wrapped around a foam beer insulator wrapped around a Gatorade. She was mellow except for the warning she occasionally gave the dogs quarreling in the kennels next to the yard: “Don’t make me come over there.” They stopped. It was mid-July and too hot to fight, in any case.

Japanese beetles clattered past. Tent caterpillars had wrapped up and skeletonized half the leaves of the huge pecan tree we sat under.

I knew Nancy from when I’d taken my former German shepherd, Zev to her parking-lot obedience class some years before. She had been welcoming and kind to both of us, though not particularly interested in Zev. He had been so mild-mannered that he tended to disappear in a dog crowd.

Solo, our new pup, didn’t disappear. He would growl and leap on the nearest dog, whether it was a Sheltie or a pit bull.

I hadn’t seen Nancy much since, but I started to remember as I pulled into the drive and read the black bumper sticker on her pickup: “Gut Deer?” modeled after the “Got Milk?” campaign. Her hair was still copper, her dark chestnut eyes still surrounded by smile wrinkles. She wore camouflage pants.

I had e-mailed Nancy, remembering her sense of humor and practicality. I needed both. Solo had flunked three obedience classes. Sure, she said, come on out to Camp Hook. Bring the dog. She was competent and relaxed; I was edgy and talkative. Solo, more obnoxious than any four-month-old German shepherd should be, was hackled and humpbacked, wild-eyed and ungainly. From time to time, he surged toward the kennels, a dark hybrid of colt and Tasmanian devil. He would snarl and bounce off the cyclone fence. I bounced off the lawn chair, wrestling Bil-Jac dog treats out of my fanny pack, trying to distract him and minimize the behavior that Nancy was witnessing. “Solo? Solo? Watch me! Gooood dog!” I funneled liver into his mouth.

“Stop chattering at him,” Nancy said. “And stop giving him so many treats. You’re making him into a wuss.” My hand froze in mid-dive. “He’s just a jackass,” she said. “What do you want to do with him?”

And with that simple question, my weird dog world started righting itself. By “What do you want to do with him?” Nancy didn’t mean endless rounds of dog counseling and dog tranqs, creating a sedated and submissive shepherd who needed an occasional cautionary Dog Whisperer “hisst” with an index finger held up to keep him in line. Nor did she mean that I could click-and-treat this dog into executing perfect obedience routines. that didn’t work with him; besides, I was bored with the obedience ring. Nor did she mean that Solo, who was the first dog-aggressive shepherd I’d ever had, was capable of becoming the quintessential park dog who would allow me to sit on a bench with other tranquil owners, gossiping, watching our dogs romp and bark into the sunset.

She meant: What would you like this dog to do?

I had no idea. I wanted him to be so busy that he didn’t have time to do what he was doing in front of Nancy. I wanted him to have a job, if possible. Not a pretend job that would simply exercise out his little heart of darkness. Probably not a job as a therapy dog in a nursing home, because of his rhino ways. I wanted his work to have meaning, as I was constantly struggling to find meaning in my own work as a professor of English and women’s studies.

Nancy didn’t indulge my angst for long. “Stop thinking so much,” she said. “that’s part of your problem.”

She ordered me to leave Solo alone. I pulled my hands away from the greasy treat bag and put them at my sides. I turned my gaze away from Solo’s evilness. Within a couple of minutes, he came over and flopped in the shade. Being bad wasn’t as interesting if I weren’t reacting.

Nancy and I talked, running down my options. She taught everything from housebreaking to bite-breaking to obedience and trailing. Training Solo for search and rescue wasn’t ideal. I couldn’t leave students waiting in the classroom for a lecture on feminist essentialism because I was running off to search for a lost three-year-old who was in fact playing with Transformers at the next-door neighbors’ house. Nor could I count on my own middle-aged body being the ultimate fitness machine, capable of running for miles after a dog tracking in thick underbrush; I might end up asthmatic, shambling, sciatic nerves aflame, eyeglasses either fogged or smashed. Lost people needed better odds than I offered.

That made sense to Nancy. Besides, she had become less enamored of search-and-rescue team politics over the years. She described them in ways that made them sound similar to my English department, without the Victorian charm. More issues emerged. I didn’t want to wear search gear that would make me look like a Girl Scout. then there was the idea of a team. I could collaborate, but I couldn’t really relate to the cheery phrase “Remember, there is no ‘I’ in team.” It didn’t suit Solo, either. Better that he didn’t constantly have to deal with the hurly-burly of dog society. Sending him out to track alongside several self-assured search dogs? they wouldn’t put up with his nastiness. they’d reduce him to tufts of black-and-red fur spread over the trail.

There was one way around all of the scheduling problems, my team-player problems, and Solo’s psycho-puppy problems. Nancy was pleased with herself for coming up with it: “a cadaver dog.”

I didn’t know exactly what Nancy meant, but I could guess. Dead dog. I’m good at putting words together and knowing what they mean. It’s what I do for a living.

It’s ideal, she told me. the dead will wait. In the meantime, they emit scent. With a few frozen exceptions, more and more scent over time. And cadaver dogs and their handlers work mostly by themselves, in methodical search grids, not alongside other dogs and handlers. the dog’s job is both simple and complex: to go to where the scent is the strongest and tell the handler it’s there. It’s work that needs to be done. Families and law enforcement, mostly, although not always, want bodies found. Besides, she told me, beaming, her smile lines in full evidence, “It’s a ton of fun. You’ll love it!”

Nancy avoided mentioning that my salmon-colored linen pants were probably not the ideal thing to wear on searches.

At the end of our session, she sent me and Solo off down the road. I was sweaty, I reeked of liver treats, and I was filled with inexplicable happiness about those who go missing for a long time. Solo, exhausted, slept soundly in the backseat, although his outsize feet continued to twitch, pedaling air-conditioning instead of cyclone fence.

Nancy, knowing my compulsive habits, expressly forbade me to read about training dogs on cadaver scent. I would screw up Solo’s training by reading too many theories too soon. She had two exceptions: Bill Syrotuck’s Scent and the Scenting Dog and famous cadaver dog handler and trainer Andy Rebmann’s book, Cadaver Dog Handbook. I ordered the two books. then, because waiting isn’t my forte, I sneaked onto the web to learn the basics of death and dogs.

No house would stand firmly founded for me on the Ahura-created earth were there not my herd dog or house dog. —Ahura Mazda, Zoroastrian god

In 2012, archaeologists in the Czech Republic published their discovery of three skulls of what appeared to be domesticated dogs, shorter of snout and broader of braincase than their wolf cousins. One of the skulls, 31,500 years old, had a flat bone fragment, probably that of a mammoth, inserted in its jaws. It was so purposeful and evocative that the archaeologists couldn’t help speculating: Was that bone part of a funerary rite, appeasing the spirit of the animal, inviting it to come back, or encouraging it to accompany deceased people?

The speculation wasn’t much of a stretch. For all that dogs seem to lurk on the edge of civilization, we’ve also let them in and granted them special status. For thousands of years and in numerous religions, the living have depended on canines to help guide the dead—to get us from here to there, wherever there is. Few myths have such worldwide resonance. One can see the temptation of assigning dogs this task: they appear custom-designed for it. Dogs howl at the moon, warning us that death is just over the horizon. they can hear and smell, growl and hackle, warning us of specters that our dull senses miss.

They also like to eat things. Even us, given the opportunity. Dead people aren’t so different from other dead animals. We’re protein. Given an opportunity, dead people get smelly. We become deeply attractive not only to bottle flies but to more developed animals. Like dogs.

Part of the religious connection of death and dogs no doubt comes

from a ritualized spin on the grim but useful reality that dogs and other canids, like jackals, scavenge. People witnessed that behavior— done with joy and impunity—and came to the obvious conclusion that dogs and their close relatives must be powerful, immune to the demons of death surrounding bodies. that made canids useful beyond the simple housekeeping function of getting rid of bodies. So in ancient Egypt, in a simultaneously pragmatic and religious switch, the jackal-dog became a god. Anubis, friend of the dead, was a protector, not a predator, of the deceased in their tombs.

While artwork and accounts of Anubis are plentiful, we have only one or two nineteenth-century accounts about how the ancient Bactrians (in what is now Afghanistan) and the Hircanians (then part of the Persian empire) handled this canid propensity. those accounts note that the Bactrians used dogs called canes sepulchrales. The dogs had a specific job description: to eat the dead. In exchange, they received the greatest care and attention, “for it was deemed proper that the souls of the deceased should have strong and lusty frames to dwell in.” It was a pretty nice deal for the deceased, who then got to hang out in a mobile furry coffin. the limited history doesn’t note what happened after the dog died.

In Persia, the Zoroastrians made canids’ roles more layered and central to mortuary rites. Like the Egyptians and Bactrians, they clearly decided to make the best of canids’ tendency to love smelly protein. Zoroastrians were already using working dogs as a central part of their ancestors’ nomadic herding existence. Mary Boyce, considered the greatest scholar of ancient Iran, wrote that “mortal dogs receive a striking degree of attention” in Zoroastrian holy texts. They likened the dog to fire, both protective and destructive. “It seems probable that this power came to be attributed to the dog because dogs are the animals always referred to in the Avesta as devouring corpses,” Boyce wrote.

It takes some real mojo for dogs to do that and not be harmed by Nasu, the demon that brings putrefaction. the funerary rite in Zoroastrianism was called the sagdid, “seen by the dog.” It took a special kind of dog for this work. A kind of German shepherd-like dog. the ideal sagdid dog was to be at least four months old and male, “brownish-golden” with “four eyes”—perhaps not unlike rust-and-black Solo, with twitchy black spots of fur over his eyes. One of the small cast-metal art objects in the Tehran museum looks like a stocky German shepherd, although German shepherds didn’t exist then. the dog could be white with tawny ears, probably not unlike what we see in the Canaan dog of Israel, an ancient herding breed still in existence, or one of the guard breeds of that area.

The dogs chosen for sagdig got paid for their work. Zoroastrians knew their dog training. three pieces of bread were placed on the corpse to induce the dog to approach, gaze steadily on the body, and drive Nasu away. that would be exactly how I started training Solo to both recognize and happily approach the scent of human death—only I used liver treats and then toys, rather than bread, to draw him in.

The work of dogs didn’t end with sagdid. After the four-eyed dog was done with his job, corpse bearers took the body away, and the village dogs and vultures followed and feasted.

How I Turned My Problem Pet into a 'Cadaver Dog'

Zoroastrian dogs—from the herders to the hunters to the house dogs and the village dogs—had a pretty good deal: they got especially well fed when people died, and not just by getting a bit of bread or helping dispose of the bodies. they were given a whole egg and portions of the food offerings for the dead. When Zoroastrian house dogs died, they got extra-special treatment: Boyce noted, “Until the mid-20th century when a house dog died, its body was wrapped in an old sacred shirt tied with a sacred girdle, and was carried to a barren place, and brief rituals were solemnized for its spirit.”

All the rituals sounded lovely, especially the one for the house dog. It was a step up from what my husband and I did with our beloved German shepherd Zev after he died: We got his ashes in a hard plastic canister from the vet. the canister came with a burgundy velvet sack with a small rainbow bridge embroidered on it. the canister still sits in my great-grandfather’s oak secretary. I don’t know what we’re waiting for. We should probably carry his ashes to a barren place.

Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring

Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!

That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign

The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;

Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,

Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore. —Homer, the Iliad

Westerners haven’t been nearly as kind to canids as the Zoroastrians were, although we should have been deeply grateful to the female wolf who fed and raised Romulus and Remus so they could found Rome, our version of civilization. In the Western world, we balk at the notion of including dogs in our religious life. We’re genuinely repulsed by the idea of dogs eating people. Homer used dogs’ attraction to bodies to open the Iliad, the perfect frame for horror and chaos.

The large, evil, and almost always dark dog lurks on the edge of Western civilization: Hecate, the Helenic goddess of ghosts and witchcraft, had a black bitch familiar at her side. Greeks used to sacrifice black puppies to Hecate; dogs were a favorite sacrifice in a number of religions. Cerberus, the three-headed monster dog, let new spirits enter the realm of the dead, though no one could leave. Gamr, a bloodstained watchdog of Norse mythology who looks a lot like a German shepherd, guarded the gate to the underworld where evilgoers went. The Cwˆn Annwn, Welsh spectral dogs, foretold death.

At least those polytheistic religions allowed dogs to play a variety of roles—they might devour bodies, but they were guardians and guides, too. Homer may have opened the Iliad with ravening dogs, but in the Odyssey, he used his hero’s dying dog as a symbol of faithfulness: Argos was the only being to recognize Odysseus when he returned from his travels after a twenty-year absence. those diverse dog roles didn’t carry over to monotheism. Historian Sophia Menache of the University of Haifa posits that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions were threatened by dogs and the “warm ties” people had to them. Dogs had a central role in agrarian life; they reminded monotheists of the ever-present competition of animal-worshipping cults. So when we ask questions about organized religion and we ask, “Yes, but was it good for the dogs?” the answer is no. the New Testament’s thirty-two mentions of dogs are mostly negative. though the antipathies and insecurities of the three religions have softened and shifted somewhat in intervening centuries, dogs get short shrift in many Muslim countries, and some Christians want dominion over the natural world.

Even today, in a secular Western world, we remain oddly fascinated by the role that dogs play in death. Scamp, a schnauzer at an Ohio nursing home, got wide news coverage in 2007 for his habit of barking and pacing near patients’ rooms when they were about to die. He had “eerily” raised the alarm for forty deaths in three years, the director of nursing told Inside Edition. Far from shunning him, the patients adored him. “It’s not like he’s a grim reaper,” director of nursing Adeline Baker told the reporter. “It’s kind of comforting to know that maybe at the end of our lives, if we don’t have family members, there will be somebody there to be with us.”

Perhaps Scamp was a comfort because he wasn’t large and black but small and gray with quizzical eyebrows. the darker side of our superstitions has also survived: More big black dogs are reportedly eu-thanized in U.S. shelters than any other size or shade.

In modern times, we have updated and sanitized the Homeric language of “devouring dogs.” Forensic scientists now call it “canine predation.” Despite having a name for the phenomenon, we tend to keep an uneasy distance. Yet, a few years ago, children streamed into our local science museum for one of its most popular shows ever, on bugs and death. Shows like CSI and Bones have made us surprisingly comfortable with maggots, and what they tell us about the stages of death, and have contributed to the popularity of an entire discipline: forensic entomology. Scientists know a fair amount about bear activity; they know less about dog activity. Yet the handful of available studies show that dogs and their coyote cousins account for much of the scavenging on human remains.

The media appear to know a lot about dogs finding the dead. the problem is that stories are scattered everywhere, hundreds and thousands that all have the same innocuous story line: A person walking a dog finds a body. I am convinced that an analysis would show that untrained dogs out for walks or roaming neighborhoods find more bodies than trained dogs do. It’s a simple question of acknowledging the millions of dog noses out there working unpaid overtime.

Depending on your perspective, it’s either good or bad to let your dog roam off-lead, but let’s face it: Dogs on leads don’t find bodies nearly as often. Generally, finding a body is a good thing, although the dogs’ owners and walkers are never thrilled when it happens.

Ollie, a golden retriever, was in Hollywood Hills on an unleashed walk in January 2012. A professional dog walker and her mother had eight other dogs with them. Ollie dashed into the underbrush and started playing enthusiastically with a plastic bag: “He was digging, digging, digging, barking,” the dog walker, Lauren Kornberg, told the local radio station. Ollie shredded the bag and came away with something big and round in his mouth. He dropped it, and it rolled into a ravine. Kornberg admitted that it was her mother, “a responsible adult,” who went to investigate—and found the head that Ollie had dropped.

A four-year-old black Labrador named Fish brought a decaying human arm into the front yard of his Mission, Texas, home in August 2011. Police were able to get the hand and arm bone before they disappeared down Fish’s throat. The dog’s adult owner was traumatized. Not so his eight-year-old daughter, who chatted with the television reporter. their dog, she said, likes to visit the neighbors’ chicken coop as well: “Fish gets everything. He brought eggs on Easter.”

I understand her father’s repulsion. I wouldn’t accept Fish’s gift of eggs.

When dogs become, in Paul Shepard’s term, “the spoiler of human graves,” it’s a reminder of how we tend to deal with human bodies. We Westerners tuck them away fairly quickly. Dogs like Fish remind us of the disorder and chaos inherent when there’s an arm or hand lying around where a dog can find it. We prefer hands either made into sterile ash or nicely preserved with formaldehyde and gently crossed over the body in a coffin. On the flip side, turnabout should be fair play. Both historically and in current practice across the world, people eat dogs without much compunction. There’s good evidence that dogs were and are raised for meat; they were the first agricultural animal in a number of societies, and they remain so in some today.

None of my early research on cadaver dogs grossed me out. I realized there was a difference between reading about it and coming face-to-face with it, but abstractly, the idea of cadaver-dog work didn’t offend my sensibilities. It made me happy. Perhaps my childhood in the woods and fields, growing up with fishing and hunting and gutting and plucking and skinning, was a factor in my sanguinity. Or the fact that I had taken care of my paralyzed mother and worked in nursing homes for years. Perhaps it was because my father was a biologist who taught me to look at dead organisms with a disinterested but not uninterested gaze.

Cadaver-dog work seemed straightforward to me. As one medical examiner and early cadaver-dog trainer, Edward David, noted with great cheer, “love of the putrid” is inherent in canines. So why not take that love and channel it toward something more socially useful than rolling in dead squirrel?

Why not take that love and see whether it might be used not to increase the chaos but to restore, even if only slightly, a sense of order?