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Cadaver dogs can play a key role in high-profile murder investigations

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Posted: Saturday, February 18, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 12:11 pm, Thu Feb 23, 2012.

Cadaver dogs, like the ones that helped locate human remains believed to belong to victims of Wesley Shermantine Jr. and Loren Herzog, have been used in a number of high-profile cases in recent years.

And Galt resident Julia Priest has bred and trained some of them.

Dogs used for this work are most commonly from the herding or sporting breeds, such as various retrievers or herding dogs like the border collie, Australian shepherd or German shepherd. They are chosen for their strong desire to pursue the source of scent, physical adaptability to difficult terrain or conditions, intelligence and guidability, according to Priest.

They must be calm and controlled in sometimes very chaotic environments, and need to be focused on their task and not easily distractible.

"These are working dogs that catch bad guys and find remains," said Priest, a former News-Sentinel features editor.

In her current vocation, Priest performs "puppy tests" for certain traits to discover what characteristics the future owner of a working dog is seeking. After she sells the dogs, Priest keeps in touch with the owners.

She knew when one she bred was on the search team for missing millionaire Steve Fossett in the Sierra Nevada in 2008, and when the same dog helped locate bodies in San Bruno when the PG&E gas line exploded last year, according to Priest.

"Theirs is a specialized, important task that has been instrumental in solving crimes, locating evidence and allowing families to finally put their loved ones to rest," Priest said of the dogs' work.

Unique satisfactions

Patti Pearson, who volunteers with the Sacramento County Search and Rescue team and is on-call 24 hours a day, said her story is not unique. Search-and-rescue handlers are typically not paid and have regular day jobs.

"People in search and rescue do so to help the people who get lost, to return them to their families. In the case where the loved one is found deceased, we hope we can bring some closure to the family," she said. "There is an unique satisfaction in knowing that somehow we helped."

Handlers like Pearson must pay for their dogs, the training and extensive travel out of their own pockets. She bought her first border collie in 1998 and started search-and-rescue training when the dog exhibited a good ability to pick up the scent of a cadaver. It is not unusual for a handler to spend two years and $10,000 or more in travel and expenses to get a dog ready or certified to be dispatched to a crime or accident scene.

"As a breeder, I'm breeding dogs with certain characteristics, and I've been very successful," Priest said. "You can't teach a dog drive. It has to be there. But you can teach them to do what you want."

Pearson said there is a lot for the handler and dog to learn, and they develop a working relationship, which allows the handler to read their dog.

"The dog's nose is an amazing tool. The way dogs can discriminate between different smells is mind-boggling," she said.

This scent work begins by training the dogs on leash and hiding very small amounts of particular scent specimens. Handlers teach the dog the scent by pointing to it and having them take a good sniff. The specimen is then moved into various containers so the dog is not identifying the container smell but the scent they want them to find, Pearson said.

"Once the dog learns what we want them to find, then we progressively make it harder for them to find the scent, in larger areas and harder conditions," she said, adding that trainers try to simulate what the dogs could be asked to find in the real world.

"We search in the heat, cold, wind and rain so the dogs have that experience in finding scent," Pearson said. "Handlers have to learn how to use wind and weather conditions to their dogs advantage."

Rewarding the dogs

Some dogs are trained to find specific human remains such as teeth. The dogs are sent into an open field and not only have to find a single hidden tooth, but also lay down to indicate they have located the scent of the item trained to find.

Dogs are rewarded by hearing their trainers say "yes" or using another sound, and being consistently rewarded with a ball or a tug toy.

"Having a strong desire to play tug is very useful in working dogs because we need to be able to reward them for their finds. You can't let them play with the find ... so they are told through the marker sound that they did the right thing, and they understand that the sound means they will be rewarded with something they like, a game of tug," Priest said. "It's like the sound a slot machine makes when you win, and you know that means you will get money immediately following the sound."

Although it's not often, the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department has contracted with private search-and-rescue cadaver dog handlers in the past, according to spokesman Jason Ramos.

The last instance he can recall was a 2010 case when a human torso was discovered in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and cadaver searching dogs were brought in to check the area for other body parts. Police dogs are not cadaver dogs.

"Our K-9 units are either trained in firearms detection, narcotics detection, apprehension or, in some cases, explosives. That makes them more suitable and practical for everyday, mainstream law enforcement use," Ramos said in an email.

"Most dogs aren't cross-trained," he said. "It's not practical because it confuses the dog. They don't know if they're supposed to search for a suspect or bite a bomb if they're cross-trained."

Pearson joined the Sacramento County Search and Rescue team when it was exclusively a mounted horse unit because she said she wanted to give back to the community. Today, she and her two cadaver dogs are among the dozens called up in special circumstances.

"Most of us who spend the time training our dogs live for the call-out and opportunity to use the dogs," Pearson said.

"Both of my dogs love searching, whether for live find or cadaver work," she added. "They see me put on my uniform and get excited. That enthusiasm is something we look for in our working dogs."

Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com.

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