Canine Forensics

The Society for California Archaeology is holding their annual meeting in Ventura this week. In conjunction with that, Connie and I attended a presentation last night from the Institute for Canine Forensics. This group trains and promotes the use of dogs to locate dead humans both of recent and long-buried vintage. It is an outgrowth of the use of dogs by search-and-rescue teams.

Two members of the Institute and their dogs (both Border collies) gave a talk and demonstration of how the dogs are trained, the types of projects they have done, and their potential to help archaeologists in their research. It was interesting and entertaining. At the beginning of the talk, the dogs were taken out of the room, and some “targets” set around the seating area: human teeth, dirt fill from around a human burial, lumps of cement, and pig teeth.

The dogs are trained to “signal” by taking a down or sit position when they encounter the scent they are trained for. After the talk, the dogs were allowed to search the room and signalled at the human teeth, ignoring the pig teeth and cement. They hesitated at the fill dirt that was sitting in an open bag on the floor. The handlers said that when the dogs get a visual with the scent, they sometimes doubt themselves, as though they are thinking “This is too easy to be real.”

The handlers freely admit that the dogs have problems picking up scent in hot and dry conditions or when areas are waterlogged. They also have trouble in heavy clay soils or when burials are very deep. But it appears they can be of value. Please look at their website for descriptions of projects they have worked on.

One interesting project they discussed was the excavation of the Donner Party Camp at Alder Creek here in California. You may recall that I posted on this controversial project in January. The archaeologists who conducted the excavation there reported that though they recovered large amounts of bone they found no direct evidence of cannibalism, something surprising to most who know the history of the Donner Party.

The handlers from the Institute were invited by the archaeologists to visit the Alder Creek site while it was under investigation. In the talk last night, they said that their dogs signalled all over the meadow where the site is located. They said the dogs’ reactions seemed to indicate that the scent was scattered and diffuse, not concentrated as they get over a burial. The dogs reacted most strongly to the hearth areas that were excavated.

I found this very interesting. Perhaps cannibalism did take place at Alder Creek, and the bone was smashed into such small pieces that the archaeologists couldn’t identify it. The ladies from the Institute seemed quite unaware that their dogs’ reactions contradict the archaeologists’ conclusions.

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