What is a Cadaver Dog?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A cadaver dog or human remains dog is a special type of police dog which has been trained to search for cadavers and human remains. With the use of a cadaver dog, rescue crews can identify dead bodies in wreckage for future removal, and cadaver dogs can also be used by crime units to find areas where a cadaver might have been buried, stored, or dismembered. These canines may have macabre jobs, but they are very useful additions to the police forces in the areas where they are used, and they have some of the best noses in the business.

A cadaver dog is trained to find human remains.
A cadaver dog is trained to find human remains.

As human remains decay, they produce a variety of very distinct odors. While most of us would probably prefer to avoid ever experiencing such odors, for cadaver dogs, the odors are like a signature, because they appear nowhere else in nature. A cadaver dog can actually detect human remains through concrete, buried underground, or at the bottom of a body of water, using its extremely well-honed noses to search for faint traces of the chemicals emitted by the human body during decomposition.

A cadaver dog may be used at a crime scene.
A cadaver dog may be used at a crime scene.

In search and rescue operations, cadaver dogs can be used to ensure that every body on the site is found, so that the bodies can be given a proper burial after examination. A cadaver dog can also be used on the hunt for a missing person, or for someone who is known to be dead, and because the animals are often used on crime scenes, they are trained to be very gentle and respectful of the areas where they work. Unlike search and rescue dogs, which are typically trained to bark and claw where they sense someone in need, cadaver dogs are usually trained to sit quietly or lie down when they detect human remains.

In addition to being used to find whole bodies, cadaver dogs are also trained to react to any trace of human remains. This can be very useful in crime investigations, because a cadaver dog can indicate that a cadaver was in a particular location at one point, even if it is no longer there, and these dogs can also find traces of bodies which criminals attempted to conceal by destroying the evidence.

Like other police dogs, cadaver dogs come with handlers. Some very renowned cadaver dog trainers travel with their dogs, responding to individual requests, and in other cases, a full-time handler is maintained as part of a police force or crime unit. Cadaver dogs typically live with their handlers and accompany them everywhere, and they tend to become tightly bonded with the people they work with; they are also treated like police officers under the law, which means that interfering with the work of a cadaver dog can have serious consequences.

Search and rescue dogs undergo lengthy training.
Search and rescue dogs undergo lengthy training.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Read these questions and the answers, from instructors, handlers, forensic scientists are stated in the book "K9 Team: Beyond the Basics of Search and Rescue and Recovery." It is for anyone interested in what dogs can and cannot reliably do and discusses myths and misconceptions, credentials and a lot of other topics. The author is Vi Hummel Shaffer. Published by Brush Education and sold all over the world by book sellers.


Thinking of hiking the side roads along B.C.'s "highway of tears."

It might be a worthwhile public service. Or a nice hike.


The book "K9 Teams: Beyond the Basics of Search and Rescue and Recovery" by Vi Hummel Shaffer, published by Brush Education answers most if not all of the questions asked thus far. It is the most comprehensive book on this subject.


My brother as been missing since 1997; he was 16 years old. I have been told by a few people that my brother was beaten to death then was buried in the footing of a school that was being built at the time. Would a cadaver dog trace my brother after all these years? The local police say no.


Can cadaver dogs detect a human body buried for about four years? What are its limitations?


Can a cadaver dog trace buried human cremated ashes?


It says in the above that cadaver dogs can be used to find traces of bodies which criminals have attempted to conceal by destroying evidence. Would this mean they can detect a body that has been burned before being subsequently buried?


i get irritated when lawyers or media state cadaver dogs can hit on fingernails or dirty diapers, and not always a dead body or parts. Can you clear this up? this is in reference to baby lisa.


In the case of missing baby Lisa Irwin in Kansas City, MO, it is being said that cadaver dogs could pick up the scent of fecal matter and not always be a dead body. Is this possible? Thanks in advance!


Please answer how long a body needs to be dead before a cadaver dog will hit on it. Is a few minutes or a half hour long enough? You ignored the question.


How long would a body need to be dead before it would cause a cadaver dog to hit? Like, if someone was dead for only minutes to a few hours would the dog still hit?


I have two cadaver dogs. A cadaver dog is trained to find only human remains. Cadaver dogs will bypass any dead animals they come across because the scent is different from the scent of a human decomposing.

The dogs will alert (hit) on the smallest bit of human remains. I have seen dogs alert on 100+ year old graves (before embalming was used). I have also seen them alert on soil where a body was once laid. They will alert to a bloody bandage as long as it is human blood. All it takes is a drop of blood.

My dogs are also search and rescue dogs and drug detection. You can train a dog to find live and deceased subjects. The search command is different depending on what you may be looking for that day.

Cadaver dogs aren't limited to police forces. There are numerous "civilian" organizations that train cadaver dogs and assist police departments.


Can a cadaver dog differentiate a human corpse from a dead animal? Also, are cadaver dogs called "K9"s, or is there another designation/abbreviation for them or their units?


My boyfriend Muni Bart Perzov has been missing since April 30th. On Thursday, May 14th, law enforcement searched the Big Basin State Park using tracking and cadaver dogs. They started the search from his campsite covering about a 3 mile radius in a densely vegetative area. There are a total of 20,000 acres in this particular park. A few days prior to the search we did find what appeared to be a suicide letter left in the tent at his campsite. Assuming that he did commit suicide, how close in proximity would a cadaver dog need to be to the deceased before they catch the scent? Because the terrain in this area is steep and/or covered with dense growth our only hope of finding him will be with the assistance of dogs.

Thank you for sharing your expertise.


The dogs I've seen will alert the handler at the presence of blood, bone, teeth, organs, etc. The handlers I was with this weekend train their dogs with everything from 300 year old dry bones to fresh (yes, gross) amputations legally acquired from a hospital.


Trying to understand if I read the information correctly re a "hit". Does the material have to be cadaver related for the dog to hit?

For instance, if a bloody bandage is in a dumpster near a construction site where a child's remains may be would the dog "hit" on the bandage? or do they "hit" only on cadaver related substances or evidence?

Thank you.

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