Bay Area Recovery Canines (BARC) is a volunteer canine search and recovery organization dedicated to providing agencies with with highly trained canines and handlers to assist in the recovery of missing persons.


Southside Messenger Article 2009

In April 2009, BARC instructor, Heather Roche, taught a weekend HRD class at Canfield K9 Training in Virginia.  The class was designed to expose dogs to new sources and stretch the handlers skills to search more advanced problems in a distraction rich environment.  All participating handlers worked long hours pushing themselves and their dogs, and walked away successful and confident in their skills.  For some it identified weaknesses that they will now go home to their local teams to help work through and improve their team trainings to include some ideas shared at class. 

A reporter, Evan Jones, walked with the students as they worked their dogs.  The Southside Messenger newspaper dedicated a full page of pictures and the article to the seminar. dogs.txt

FEATURE STORIES Published: Friday, May 1, 2009 9:08 AM CDT

The Search for Human Remains

By By Evan Jones

When Hurricane Katrina hit, more than 1,800 people lost their lives. An important part of the cleanup that followed was locating the bodies buried in mud and debris. One of the valuable tools used in this tragedy, and many others, was a cadaver dog. 

It seems to be a simple proposition: teach a dog to find human remains and alert the handler upon finding them. That sounds simple, right? 

In reality, it is much more complicated than that. Heather Roche, from Bay Area Recovery Canines in Maryland, has been training cadaver dogs for more than 20 years. She’s has made more than 300 finds in the field and her dogs, to say the very least, are incredibly well-behaved. 

Joe Canfield, local bloodhound trainer and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) consultant, arranged for this weekend’s cadaver dog training seminar on land in Charlotte and Lunenburg county.

Handlers from Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, Kentucky and West Virginia gathered to train their dogs. 

To begin the day, several of the trainers walked the area that they would be using and hid various articles for the dogs to find. “We use a variety of scent sources to train the dogs. There is a synthetic scent that is easily available and we have other sources as well,” Roche said when asked what exactly the dogs would be finding. Upon closer examination, it was found that the day’s sources varied, but most were environmental objects that had been in close proximity to human remains which means that it has traces of blood or dirt from a crime scene. Also included were several items intended to be distractors to the dogs, foul smelling animals that had died in the recent (or not so recent) past. To humans, the smell of a dead squirrel would not be distinctive from the smell of human remains. To dogs, however, the difference is obvious.

Every cadaver dog has been trained to completely ignore the presence of any distraction like a dead squirrel. 

Once the sources were hidden, the various handlers brought their dogs around, one at a time, to test their skills. Some of the handlers worked the area “blind,” not knowing where the sources were and trusting the dog’s instincts to alert them as to the location of the source. If the dog was right, the dog was rewarded immediately. If not, the search continued. More often than not, however, the dog was exactly right and rewards quickly followed. Other handlers preferred to know where the source was, allowing them to watch their dog’s reaction in that particular area and learn what their dog’s reactions to different scents and distractions would be. 

It was more than impressive to watch the dog and handler team approach each different scene. There is far more to finding human remains than just turning a trained dog loose in a field. The handler is an active member of the search team and is responsible for directing the intense focus of the dog. More than once a handler called the dog over to a recently disturbed hole and asked, “What’s this?” The dog would dutifully sniff the disturbed dirt and alert the trainer if this hole contained human remains or was another hole dug to test the dog and trainer. 

On Sunday morning, the handlers and dogs gathered at a junkyard in southern Charlotte County to test their skills in a different environment. While the dogs waited patiently in carefully parked, shaded vehicles, the handlers ventured out into the yard of nearly 2,000 cars.

They took with them various sources and distractors, each hiding a few as they went along. 

The first dog out that morning was released from her crate in the back of a specially converted van. She jumped out of the van, stretched and sat completely still, looking up at her handler for instruction. He attached a lead and walked into the yard, dog at his side. He stopped, the dog sitting at his heel, looking expectantly into the sea of cars in front of her. Once released, she ran, almost excitedly, through the rows of parked cars. Roche and I knew where the first source was hidden, the handler and dog did not. While we watched, the dog sniffed each car on the road individually, walking around the perimeter of each vehicle and, if the handler opened the door for her, jumping into the front and rear seats of each vehicle, thoroughly checking each vehicle for any residual scent of human remains. 

The first alert came far before we reached the car where we had hidden the first source. The handler opened the front door of a wrecked sedan, the dog climbed into the front seat where the dog sat down suddenly and looked expectantly at the handler. Upon closer inspection, the dog had found a residual scent on the seat belt of the vehicle. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that the occupant of that sedan was killed in the accident, a small amount of blood was visible on the seatbelt. In a search for a person, alive or dead, this would provide a valuable clue and investigators would know, based on the amount of blood, the tentative condition of the victim. 

Traveling further down the row, the dog walked right past a green sedan missing a taillight [see above]. Earlier that morning, Roche had placed a source in the trunk of that very car. There was a moment where it looked as if the dog had completely missed the find. Then, the dog’s head snapped around violently and she ran back to the green car’s trunk.

Sitting just behind the rear bumper, the dog again looked expectantly in the handler’s direction. Roche revealed that this find was one of hers and the dog was praised and rewarded with her favorite toy. After a quick celebratory game of catch, the search continued. Several more finds were quickly made, some planted, some unexpected, but visually verifiable.

By the end of the weekend, the exhausted handlers and exuberant dogs returned to their hotel rooms to catch some rest. Their job, however, is far from over. The call could come in at any time that their services are needed in some far off locale. The handler and dog teams might be able to bring closure to an on-going investigation or find the injured victim of some violent crime. Until then, they will train constantly to sharpen their skills and teamwork at seminars like this.