By SULLIVAN HUEBNER, The Billings Gazette
COOKE CITY, Mont. (AP) – When Mark Polakoff removes human body parts from an old ammo box, it’s just a normal working weekend.
Polakoff is a seasoned search and rescue dog handler. With almost 40 years of experience, he is one of the best trainers of Absaroka Search Dogs. He’s also one of the best to talk to about a common problem with training search dogs across the country – access to human remains.
At Absaroka Search Dogs, which operates out of Billings, dogs are trained not only to search for living people, but also those who are deceased. When the recent search for missing hiker Tatum Morell changed from a live search to a recovery, Absaroka’s handlers only had to give their dogs a different order.
In a state like Montana, where there are only dozens of dog handlers, having very flexible dogs is essential. When a sheriff calls a team of dogs, they may be the only team available, so dogs need as many skills as possible.
Dogs are trained to follow given smells on the ground, to smell human smells in the air, and to know the difference between the smell of a living person and that of a dead person.
To train dogs to these different smells, trainers must have access to equipment with the right smells. Live smells are easy – one of the trainers goes into the woods and “gets lost” and the dogs sniff them. For the sake of variety, volunteers can be the ones who “get lost”, so that dogs learn to look for different people.
However, to train dogs to smell corpses, trainers need corpses. Until May of this year, trainers were operating in a legal gray area – the law neither allowed nor prohibited the possession of human remains. In order to obtain the necessary scents, the research teams relied on the rare remains of tissue from surgeries, donated teeth or small parts of the body from industrial accidents and bloody clothing provided by coroners.
A new law passed in late May is making it easier to train Montana dog handlers, The Billings Gazette reported.
House Bill 641 authorized search and rescue units to possess human remains for the purpose of dog training. The new law also provides a framework for teams to receive “anatomical gifts” from donors. This allows manipulators not only to possess human remains, but also to receive a variety of parts from hospitals, clinics and private donors.
“A lot of times the knees are replaced, all the joint surgeries… all that stuff is just thrown away,” said Chris Dover, another of Absaroka’s senior managers. “The value of the legislation right now… allows us to get donations. “
For Dover, it is important to train dogs on a variety of scents. “It’s extremely valuable for us to be able to use it,” she said. “If our dogs can’t train on human tissue, they won’t be as effective.”
According to Dover, other states had legislation like HB 641 long before Montana. Wyoming has had this legislation for probably 10 years, she said. In Wyoming, some search teams have been left with entire bodies, allowing dogs to train as realistically as possible.
“For us, being able to train on these things is extremely important,” Dover said, “because every decaying human smells different.”
For dogs, every new body is a whole new scent, and that forces the dog to process and determine if that scent is what they are looking for. An unprepared dog might not recognize that the new scent is indeed a corpse – and when it finds the body, the dog may be overwhelmed or frightened.
It’s a bit of a long drive to where Absaroka trains his dogs. The first turn comes past Beartooth Pass on the Wyoming side of the border, halfway to Cooke City. The next turn heads onto a gravel road barely wide enough to accommodate two vehicles, then onto a two-track dirt trail.
Above a ridge and in front of a grove of trees is a clearing where Polakoff, Dover, and the other members of Absaroka Search Dogs have settled down. Their camp is a motley collection of campers, tents and four poster trucks. The site overlooks a landscape of forest, rocks,
Training begins early, usually around 7 or 8 a.m. Dover, as the more experienced of the group, leads the exercises.
Dog handlers often start with basic obedience training, walking their dogs in circles and giving orders. This not only helps the dogs to work, but also makes them feel comfortable with each other. While dogs can often work on their own, they could work with other search teams as well, so they can’t afford to be distracted by each other while lives are on the line.
Any dog can be trained for research, but not all dogs are suitable for this task. Some people just don’t have the will to work, get bored easily or are distracted. Others may not be physically able to do the job – if they’re too small, they might be lost between rocks or unable to climb obstacles. Large, sturdy dogs with a thick coat are ideal for searching in cold, rugged mountain conditions.
After the obedience exercises come the exercises. In live training drills, trainers will send someone out of sight, while the dog is unable to see where he is going. Then the dog handler takes them out and puts them to work.
There is a routine in the way research works. The handler defines the general search area, reads his animal’s signals and manages the direction of the dog. Their canine partner takes care of tracking scents in the air and signaling if they find anyone.
“Once I give him the order to ‘find’ he’s going to come out and look for a scent, and he’s going to do it on his own,” Dover said. “Once he touches the scent, he’s going to go to where the scent is coming from, the subject.
“Then he’s going to come back to me and tell me he’s found someone, and get back to the topic,” she said. The cycle repeats itself, with the dog navigating between the seeker and the lost, until contact is made.
When searching for corpses, the routine is the same. However, handlers use different commands than when searching for the living. Usually each dog will have a unique command to launch them in search of a body, in order to avoid false starts.
To prepare for a cadaver training exercise, the team hand out some of the death scent clothes and body parts. A shoe from a car accident can be hung in a tree, a small container with your fingertips placed in a hollow log, or bloody shirts hidden behind a rock. One particularly effective piece of material is a small block of concrete, made by mixing Quikrete with human blood and discarded placenta.
The team has at least enough material to fill a five-gallon bucket and some surplus Army ammo, but there’s a problem – it’s not enough. There is no point in training dogs on the same scents over and over again, as dogs need variety and challenges to improve their skills. Worse yet, materials lose their odor over time, making them less effective for multiple uses.
While the new legislation will make it easier for dog handlers to train their dogs, there may still be a long way to go until they have the support they need.
The research teams are entirely voluntary. Dog handlers cover the costs of purchasing dogs, travel and living expenses at research locations, and dedicate countless hours each year to living with and training their animals.
“Really, it depends on which county asks us to go look, and if they can afford to reimburse us,” Polakoff said. If a county is able to do so, it may cover some of the costs of meals, accommodation, or travel for research teams, but payment is never guaranteed. There is a state fund that managers can request reimbursement from, but the fund is low priority in the state budget and is not always available.
In some cases, the cost of initial dog training can be over $ 20,000, without considering the ongoing costs of training throughout the dog’s life or the costs of food and medical care, which can amount to more than $ 10,000 per year.
Plus, since search dogs tend to have highly motivated personalities, they can’t just be left home alone like a normal pet – they need constant attention and frequent training to stay satisfied. Dogs are a full time commitment and plans are made based on their needs.
Despite the cost, the time commitment, and the difficulties of the research, those who remain with the research team are a dedicated bunch. They don’t do it for the money – rather they do it for the love of their partners and for the opportunity to help others.
“This is an opportunity to help people who find themselves in situations that are too difficult for them,” said Polakoff. “It’s a way of helping people, combining my love of the outdoors and my love of working with dogs.”
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