Four-Legged Forensics Experts Sniff Out Historic Burial Grounds

Think your dog might have a nose for grave sleuthing?

By | Posted: July 6, 2014, 6 a.m. PST

At least one nonprofit is putting this talent to good use. "As far as we know, our group is the only one in the country that trains dogs to detect historical burials,” notes John Grebenkemper, a member of the Institute for Canine Forensics.

For now, at least, certification trainings are available exclusively in the San Francisco Bay Area, although ICF teaches workshops all over the country. And it’s hard work to get a dog qualified at detecting human remains, Grebenkemper cautions. "It takes about 10 hours of work a week, and then it’s usually at least two years before a dog can be certified,” he notes.


Dog Sniffing


Training is done with positive reinforcement, using treats or a clicker. "Dogs like jobs,” Grebenkemper laughs. "Once you train for the specific scent you want to find, they can repeatedly go and find it.” Like cadaver dogs, which are frequently used in police work to find the recent dead, historical human remains detection dogs are trained to respond only when they pick up the unique scent of human remains, and will not alert to decomposing animal remains.

Once dogs learn to correctly identify the proper scent, they are taught to give an appropriate alert. "That part can go surprisingly fast,” Grebenkemper says. "I got my second dog (when she was) 8 weeks old, and by 10 weeks she could locate a bone and sit by it. But it took until she was 2 years old to have the maturity to work consistently over an area where we had hidden bones.”



Dog Sniffing


While most of the dogs used for the group’s 2012 cemetery project in Markleeville, Calif., were Border Collies, other breeds have successfully completed the training as well. "We don’t discriminate in the dogs that we train,” Grebenkemper notes. "But over half the dogs we have certified are Border Collies. They’re very work-oriented, and this kind of searching is hard work.”

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ICF-certified canine forensics teams usually work on about half a dozen projects a year, Grebenkemper says, typically responding to calls for assistance from archaeologists. Projects for these specially trained dogs have included locating historical burial sites at a Donner Party campsite and at California’s Bodie State Historic Park, a gold-mining ghost town. They’ve even worked on projects as far afield as Europe and South America.

So just how old a grave can these super-sleuths find? "The oldest burial one of our dogs has found was in the Czech Republic,” Grebenkemper says. "Archaeologists asked a handler to search a field where they didn’t think anything would be found, but the dog gave an alert. When they dug down, they found a tomb with grave artifacts that dated the burial to about (A.D.) 450 — over 1500 years old.”

For more information on the Institute for Canine Forensics, go to

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