These S.C. cadaver dogs uncover what humans cannot

“Jaco, work!”

All legs and nearing 100 pounds, the loping 12 year-old Great Dane/black Lab mix doesn’t look like a working dog. We’re in the backyard of a home set off a winding country road in Swansea — about 30 minutes outside of Columbia. The property extends into dense woods. Birds chirp, squirrels rustle dead leaves. It’s a dog’s dreamland. But Jaco doesn’t bound away when he’s let off his lead. He immediately homes in on a space between the pool house and the shed, no more than 20 feet between both buildings. Buried in the ground is a tiny piece of gauze treated with human remains. A few feet from the target is a buried latex glove, a decoy. Jaco spends some time by the glove, circling, circling, looking to his trainer for a moment. “Jaco, work!” He wags his tail, circles a bit more, closer to the center of his search area. Nose to the ground, ears pinned, Jaco lifts his square head and backs off, barking. He’s found it.

The S.T.A.R.R.s

It’s not happenstance, this amazing ability to seek out a needle in the olfactory haystack. Jaco is a single purpose dog, trained to find human remains at all stages of decomposition.

Jaco’s handler and Search Tactics and Rescue Recovery Team (S.T.A.R.R.) head K-9 trainer Candice Braun knows the subtleties of movement that signal the dog is on the right track, understands how quickly a dog must be rewarded for a good find.

Using dogs to sniff out death is nothing new — there are the cadaver dogs, as they’ve come to be called, tracking and trailing dogs, pups trained to smell bombs, to smell drugs. Our four-legged friends can be conditioned to do just about anything, and Braun says local law enforcement, at least in Richland County, S.C., are realizing just how useful these animals can be.

Braun is perhaps one of the most qualified individual in the Midlands, and probably the whole state, to train dogs for such a niche and critical job. She’s been working with canines for 15 years; it started with fostering, training rescues so well that they were adopted in record time. After that she transitioned to behavior modification, working with aggressive dogs. “I got burned out,” says Braun. “If you stay in rescue longer than four years — you’re a superhero.”

click to enlarge Braun and Tiffany conduct an interior search - SEAN RAYFORD

  • Sean Rayford
  • Braun and Tiffany conduct an interior search

Braun had moved away from the training world, until one day in 2013 someone spotted Jaco and Braun when they were out, observing the way in which the two interacted. “They told me ‘hey, your dog needs to get evaluated for this team.'” Braun brought Jaco to STARR headquarters on a whim, “I just wanted to see if he’d pass,” having him “work” in front of the group’s founder and Richland County Sheriff’s Dept. K-9 handler Stephen Pearrow. “It only took 30 seconds,” says Braun. “They said ‘if you won’t bring him we’re going to take him.'”

Braun joined S.T.A.R.R. that year, becoming assistant trainer soon after, then moving up to head trainer and handler. Founded in 2001, the nonprofit all-volunteer organization works only with official agencies, county police departments and the DNR spanning both Carolinas. “We don’t work for families, a lot of the stuff we do is criminal in nature,” says Braun. “This is the first time we’ve talked to media.”

Drive, drive, drive

click to enlarge Handler Brandy Baxley and Zoe - SEAN RAYFORD

  • Sean Rayford
  • Handler Brandy Baxley and Zoe

While many cadaver dogs are used to recover bodies after a natural disaster, like Hurricane Katrina or the November 2018 California wildfires, Braun says that S.T.A.R.R. is currently working “two to three call outs” a month for criminal cases.

It’s a basic question of law enforcement when searching for a perpetrator — who had the means, the motive, and the opportunity? For cadaver dogs like Jaco, all they need is drive, drive, drive. “We look for ball drive, that’s how we know if they’re going to be a working candidate,” says Braun.

There’s a jarring disconnect between the temperament and treatment of the S.T.A.R.R. dogs — they have four full-timers, Jaco, Tiffany the Lab mix, Zoe the Catahoula, and Pearrow’s German shepherd Remi — and the jobs they’re asked to do. Braun, Pearrow, and trainer Brandy Baxley love on the dogs, play with them, reward them. These aren’t the working dogs kept in outside kennels year-round — Pearrow says a lot of the dogs sleep in their owners’ beds. But when they’re asked to work, they work.

“When you do stuff like explosives and narcotics, the odor never changes,” says Braun. “Pot is pot, bomb is bomb, but decomposition — as the process takes place it formulates different stages, and that odor changes at each state. We have to not only change the material, we have to change the part of the process, the age at which it occurs in the process. It is by far the most complicated, difficult odor.”

click to enlarge Zoe the catahoula lays down next to her find, a sample of human remains - SEAN RAYFORD

  • Sean Rayford
  • Zoe the catahoula lays down next to her find, a sample of human remains

Training dogs to find and indicate — indications can range from barking in a general area, to “pin-pointing” an exact spot and laying down nearby — for human remains means training with old teeth, bones, and “body purge,” fluids expelled from a body when it dies. Braun says they’ll work with the local coroner to retrieve these items, and Pearrow notes dentist offices are a boon for old teeth, especially when they need an age range. On the weekends, S.T.A.R.R.’s team of dog handlers (they’ve also got a ground team of human-only folk to assist with search and rescue operations) trains the dogs with obstacles meant to confuse them, hence the buried latex glove — a secondary odor often found at crime scenes — a stone’s throw from the actual target.

The dogs are led through buried, surface, and interior training scenarios, each posing its own difficulties. Zoe the beautiful leopard Catahoula pin-points a four-year old tooth tucked beneath a few leaves in the front yard, hidden there only hours earlier. The scent is new and the air is crisp, but Zoe obediently lays down next to the leaves, waiting patiently for her ball. Tiny Tiffany, a dog who failed at her last job because she wouldn’t bark to signal, jumps as high as she can to sniff each PVC pipe in a homemade “odor board,” a six-foot long board with pipes mounted at varying levels, with one containing a body purge sample. Tiffany glances at Braun and sits without a word. “Good girl mama!”

Braun says in training scenarios, Jaco currently rates at 96 percent accuracy, with Tiffany following close behind with 92 percent. In the field, though, “right now we’re 100 percent.”

From yard to field

click to enlarge Remi the German shepherd is still in training - SEAN RAYFORD

  • Sean Rayford
  • Remi the German shepherd is still in training

While police departments have the big shepherds and Belgian Malinois that will chase down the bad guy on payroll, cadaver dogs are typically found through volunteer organizations — the time and maintenance required to train and keep cadaver dogs does not easily fit in a department’s budget — and age and breed do not matter. “We’ve had some of the ugliest dogs you’ve ever seen do some of the best work,” says Pearrow.

The shepherds and Mals are effective, but with that they can often show signs of aggression. You won’t see any aggression with the S.T.A.R.R. dogs. “We don’t tolerate that,” says Pearrow. Whether the dog is a mutt, a third generation full bred, or something in between doesn’t matter. For Pearrow, “If you can get them with high drive, they can do anything, they’ll make you a sandwich as long as they get the ball after it’s over.”

The S.T.A.R.R. dogs often handle cold cases when the department lacks resources, “They don’t have the assets to pay officers to search 25 acres of point of last seen,” says Braun. “In comes us because they don’t have to pay us, we’re solving cases they’ve run out of money to pay for investigating. Without us, it gets left behind.”

Braun says that during a seminar to demonstrate the dogs’ cold case acumen, the team did a house search to try to find the scene of a crime committed 24 years ago. Apparently a couple was sitting in their living room and the wife “stood up from the chair and the husband shot her in the chest and she flew back against the wall,” says Braun. The body was disposed of, house cleaned, and 24 years later, Jaco, in “two minutes and two seconds” indicated where the woman’s body hit the wall. “This is evidence that is not visual,” says Braun. “These dogs are doing things that investigators don’t have the assets — things they physically cannot do.”

Braun says that S.T.A.R.R. had been getting about five to six call-outs a year, “they were bigger, had our ground team and everything we stayed at hotel rooms.” But since she’s gotten out there and talked to more investigators to explain what the team can do, and how departments can utilize them (for free!), the team is up to “20 something” cases a year. And for some of these cases, the dogs are helping to put criminals in jail in real time.

click to enlarge The S.T.A.R.R. team meets up on the weekends to run through obstacles with the dogs - SEAN RAYFORD

  • Sean Rayford
  • The S.T.A.R.R. team meets up on the weekends to run through obstacles with the dogs

“A lot of times, we’ve worked several cases that we went on the search warrant and we went back and played out the whole case up to a recovery,” says Braun. “We’re leading from evidence to body recovery in a span of over three days.” The dogs are not only able to find human remains attached to a corpse, they’re able to detect body odor, say, on the shovel in the garage used to bury the victim. Whether the dogs find hard evidence, or find absolutely nothing, they’ve assisted in the apprehending of criminals. When a suspect is being questioned and alludes to a potential burial site and the S.T.A.R.R. dogs search it thoroughly but come away with nothing, Braun says that’s not a loss. “Those are bigger to me than confirmations of recovery, our blanks have been confirmed.” The dogs will clear a 30 acre field and pond so that detectives can spend more time looking for the actual burial site.

“We’re finding crime scenes, we’re finding murder weapons, clothes, and once these people hear the dogs are indicating, no one wants to mess with the dogs, they’re rolling over taking [plea] deals, giving up other information that’s leading to other cases. These dogs literally scare.”

Jaco, with his gray and grizzled muzzle, whines for his ball. He’s an old man, gentle, nuzzling into Braun’s hand — he’s the farthest thing from scary. But when the stakes are high and the bad guy thinks he wiped everything clean, when the detectives have utilized all their resources and are coming up empty handed, Jaco will be there, ready to work.

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