Monday, August 22, 2011

The Nose Knows

What I'm reading: Breaking Loose by Tara Janzen.

What's in a Name? is the Frugal Find of the Day. Please check it out (and send friends that way!)

On Saturday, I went to a small writing seminar, focused on writing crime/mystery stories. One of the presenters was a bloodhound handler, and I found her talk fascinating. Through her talk, I discovered that despite my research for a scene in Finding Sarah, I didn't know the right questions to research, so I have an error in that scene. Once the rights revert to me, you can be sure I'm going to fix it!

(And no, I'm not going to tell you what the mistake was. If you've read the book, then you can check for yourself.)

Our speaker was Ingela Tapper, and she provided a most entertaining session. Highlights of the session:

The bloodhound breed goes back to the 7th century. They are "man trackers" and work on recognizing and finding a specific scent.

They can be cross trained to find live victims/suspects, as well as cadavers.

Almost all the training involves teaching the human to learn to read the dog. The dogs know what they're doing and should be trusted to do their jobs. They become single-minded about finding their target, and their handler has to be in excellent physical shape to keep up. Ingela is a very slight woman, and she mentioned going airborne behind her dogs, which often outweighed her by more than 25 pounds.

Bloodhound anatomy is designed for tracking. Their ears and facial skin folds trap the scent in a kind of "scent bank". Also, their large paws will stir up the scent for trails more than 24 hours old.

These dogs are also prolific at saliva production. This moistens the scent and helps them find scent trails over 36 – 48 hours old.

Much of Ingela's work involves finding missing children, and she says in about 75% of the cases, there's a criminal element involved. Usually the abductors are people known to the family. But she's also helped track and find murderers and criminals such as bank robbers.

The best scent items are items containing bodily fluids of the missing person. She says the best item for tracking a missing young child is a dirty diaper, but any used underwear or socks also make excellent scent items for the dog.

She gave an example of having to work on a murder case where the body was found six months after death. The victim was badly decomposed, but the murder weapon, an axe, was near the body. In this case, there's no need to find the victim; it's already there. But the axe handle likely has scent traces of the killer. Using tongs to avoid any cross-contamination, she applies a piece of gauze to the handle of the axe, and then places it in a plastic bag. She lets the dog sniff the bag, and then it's turned over as evidence. That's all the dog needs – one sniff, and it takes off in search of its target. (For parents concerned that someday you might need your child--or elderly parent--found, here's a tip):

Have the person exhale into a plastic ziplock bag and put it in the freezer. The scent will be all the dog needs. (Or, you can freeze a dirty diaper, but that might not be as appealing--especially if you're putting it next to that layer of wedding cake you've frozen for your anniversary)

She told us that her dog once found a body buried at some depth under a concrete pad. Although the deputies told her it wasn't possible that the body was there, the dog refused to leave, and she convinced the deputies that the dog knew more than any of the humans.

Handlers keep logs of every case and every training session. As long as the bloodhound is purebred with a pedigree on record, the courts will accept the evidence the handler presents. Other breeds need to have certification of training, but it's accepted that a bloodhound knows its job.

If the criminal is long gone (and Ingela tries very hard to convince the law enforcement officers to bring in the dogs immediately because it makes their job easier), the dogs can still determine direction of travel, and she stated one case where the dog led her to a bus depot (even though it had been several months since the crime had been committed). They called in all the buses leaving from that depot on or about the date and time of the crime, and the dog found evidence on the seat of one of the buses. They were able, using the cameras on the buses, to determine his identity.

Bloodhounds are friendly. They'll find their target, but they're not attack dogs. Dog handlers will have police backup and it's the police who do the apprehending.

Alzheimer's patients are difficult to find because a person's scent is intensified by adrenaline, which is released when a person feels fear or aggression. However, these patients normally are unaware they're lost and aren't afraid. Ingela spoke of finding an 80 year old woman Alzheimer's patient who had "wandered" over 8 miles from her nursing home, walking down a freeway and ending up on the top of a very steep hill.

Some misconceptions (including the one I have to fix in Finding Sarah):

If the target is in a car, the dog won't be able to find him. Cars aren't airtight, and there's still a scent trail to follow.

Running into water will throw the dogs off the scent. In fact, water intensifies the scent, and Ingela is thrilled when a target runs into a creek. The dog has no trouble finding him (although Ingela's not always so happy about having to run through the water. She has her dogs on a 30 foot lead, but often that doesn't allow her to run along the bank.) She told us about her dog diving off a dock in San Francisco to find a man who'd fallen into the water. He'd been trapped at the bottom and had drowned, but that didn't seem to bother the dog. He found his target, although it took some "convincing" of the humans who couldn't see anything in the murky water.

Bloodhounds don't bark and bay as they track. Occasionally, one might make noise after the target is found, but they're silent trackers.

Tomorrow, my guest is Linda Rohrbough, and she's talking about pitching. She has some great pointers, so come back!

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LD Masterson said...

Fascinating information about bloodhounds. Thanks.

Terry Odell said...

LD - as always, happy to share, especially when I learn great new stuff too.

Jan Morrison said...

I love this! Keep your ears and eyes open and you never know what you'll learn.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Yes, there's lots to know about the canine scenting ability (and dog behavior as well). So glad that mystery authors strive to get this, "write" *s* because that's a pet peeve of mine and a mistake makes me lose interest. Bravo! I will share this post with my pet writing colleagues.

Rosemarie said...

I'm a member of our local k-9 search and rescue team (SAR). If you plan on writing a search dog into a story, it is best to contact several active SAR folks to get a range of opinions. For example, dirty underwear or diapers are not commonly used by many SAR folks as a scent item, though some claim they work. Recommendations for people who deal with Alzheimer patients who wander off is to take a pillow case they slept on, put it in a sealed baggie and store it in case it is needed. The breath in a bag thing? Not all SAR people believe that is more than a parlor trick. Two good books to read on this topic are "Ready!" and "How to train a Police Bloodhound". Also if you are serious about including a SAR scene in your book, spend the couple hundred bucks and take one of the many week long courses offered by professionals for professionals, or better yet, volunteer to help out. They always need helpers and 'rabbits (aka victims) to find'. You learn a lot as everyone has their own methods as well as gaining great contacts.

Different parts of the country have different SAR needs so it is important to understand what SAR methods are used in the SW desert as opposed to NYC.

Oh and BTW, not only bloodhounds make excellent trailing dogs. I use a briard, many use GSDs and we even have a boxer/pit bull mix on our team who is excellent (hint purebred doesn't necessarily mean better).

Terry Odell said...

Amy - this is just a brief overview, but I agree if you're going to write something, it's important to know as much as possible about the subject.

Rosemarie - this recap was devoted expressly to bloodhounds, and not really SAR. Different breeds have different methods of finding/tracking, and I can only quote what this veteran bloodhound trainer and handler said. I've heard the breathing in a bag thing from more than one dog handler. And, yes, it's always important to learn as much as possible when writing a book. Thanks for your extended input.

Kari Wainwright said...

Such a fun talk she gave and it was great to learn so much. I only wish she could have brought her dog with her. Thanks for sharing with others some of the knowledge we gained.

Karen C said...

I thought this was a very interesting post today and really enjoyed it. Well done!

Terry Odell said...

Kari - yep, it would have been the frosting on the cake to have the dog present.

Karen - thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.

Craig Faustus Buck said...

Great post, Terry. Makes me want to track someone down!

Karen Emanuelson said...

Thanks for this interesting article. I love bloodhounds (okay, all dogs...okay, all animals..) and they are an example of extreme specialization seen in dog breeds more than any other animal. When I worked for the government, I volunteered to head up the annual fund drive. I'd always bring in local ANIMAL charities to give a talk & bring the animals. One year it was Freedom Service Dogs, that rescues dogs from the pound & trains them to be assistance dogs. Another year I brought in Bloodhound Investigators, which actually rescued bloodhounds (!!) and rehabilitated them to do what they do so very well.

Kathy said...

Interesting Terry I was just wondering if a dog could trace my missing toddler if somebody else had been carrying her. I wondered if the bloodhound would be used more than other dogs. My story is set in Hawaii guess I could if you have her email address email the speaker and ask her more detailed questions? Thanks for a fascinating post.

Terry Odell said...

Kathy, from what I learned, a bloodhound (and probably other trained scent hounds) should be able to zero in on the child's scent. Our speaker told us about training sessions where the "victim" was dressed in full HazMat attire, sprayed the suit with pepper spray, and did everything possible to mask his scent, but the dogs zeroed in with no trouble.