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For cadaver dogs, success doesn't smell so sweet

Sheriff James Cordova congratulates Arlinn Williams, Kaya, Tina Hendricks and Thumper for placing high in the Utah Peace Officers Association competition.

Sun Advocate associate editor

It is a necessary job they do, a public service that cannot be left undone.

But the bottom line is that the job is finding human bodies, and cadaver dogs cannot find those bodies until they've been dead for a while.

"It takes about two days," explained Tina Hendricks, who recently placed third - with her dog, Thumper - in statewide competition of the Utah Peace Officers Association for specialty dogs.

Hendricks and Arlinn Williams, who placed second, earned congratulations from Sheriff James Cordova for the high showing.

Williams's dog Kaya was also congratulated, but couldn't hear it because she is deaf. But it's the nose that counts in this business, not the ears.

Those noses get training, as do the noses of drug and bomb sniffing dogs, but this is a bit different.

The cadaver dogs are trained to recognize the scent they are sniffing for with such things as scraps of clothing provided by the State Medical Examiner, Hendricks said.

Those scraps don't come from people who are newly dead, either.

As Hendricks explained it, "When we're alive, we all have our own scent, like finger prints. But when we're dead, we all smell the same."

Decomposing human bodies exude a common chemical mix that the dogs are trained to seek.

Whether the bodies are out in the open, hidden, even buried, the dogs can find them. In fact, according to the sheriff, dogs have been known to find ancient burial sites. Given time, he explained, the smell of decomposition will move up through the earth and remain a long, long time.

The dogs showed their usefulness two years ago in preventing a tragedy from becoming worse. An adult and two children were killed and buried by a mudslide in Logan. It took 47 hours, but dogs found the bodies, which were gently removed.

"It prevented the bodies from being desecrated by the heavy equipment that was removing the mud," the sheriff noted.

The dogs a kept in readiness by regular training. Sometimes the trainers will stage something akin to a scavenger hunt. "We give hints like, 'Look for a place where the food is free but you don't want to eat there.' That means the jail, so we'll go out and search around the jail."

The competition involved hunting for evidence in rooms and burials, and was timed. In addition to that, the dogs had to show caution in investigating what may be a crime scene, meaning they could not move or damage anything and definitely not leave anything behind.

Kaya can't listen to commands, but she does just fine because she understands sign language, Williams said.

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