Today, I had the privilege of speaking with Joseph Huston, TEXSAR K9 handler, about his job and how bones play a role in it.
Many people are aware that dogs are used in all sorts of crime scene investigations, such as bomb-sniffing, drug detection, and search and rescue. Human remains detection dogs do the important work of finding the missing and the murdered.
This is Jillian McIntosh’s Human Remains Detection dog practicing with real human bones!
In describing the process of training his dogs to do their jobs, Huston said he creates scenarios for the dogs to learn the scents of various aged bones in different levels of burial. Younger dogs who are just learning to sniff out human remains require fresher, visible bones. As they grow older, the bones will be buried deeper, or be less covered in soft tissue. The level of smell can also be overwhelming to a young dog, so taking care to not oversaturate the dog with smells is very important. Huston also states that the less reliant on soft tissues a dog is to locate remains, the more effective the dog is. Tissues like placentas, livers, or other parts of the body degrade more quickly than bones and can be eaten by animals. Bones do not degrade as quickly, and while they can be scattered by animals, they are rarely eaten by them. A dog in this specialty needs to be able to find fragments of skeletons, not just complete skeletons for this reason. Exposing dogs to a wide variety of bones is also important because factors like diet, drug use, and other lifestyle factors can affect the scent.
Huston personally looks for 85% accuracy in his dogs, while the FBI requires 90% accuracy in the dogs and dog handlers they hire. He described a case that his dog Orion assisted within 2017, where a woman was killed in 2005, buried at a motocross track in 2006, and remained undiscovered for eleven years, four feet underground. Orion was able to find her, giving invaluable information to investigators and forensics teams. His accuracy led to answers for the woman’s family and was deeply appreciated.
When I work with human remains recovery dogs and their handlers, I provide bones to practice with, so a dog can get good at their job before the time comes for them to put their skills to the test in a real-world environment. While the bones in my collection are typically sterilized, I do occasionally get pieces that are older, and therefore cleaned differently that would be helpful for this purpose. Huston also asks that orthopedic surgeons or anyone getting a joint replacement surgery consider donating the bone fragments removed to HR detection dog trainers so that they can continue their important work.