When Mark Polakoff pulls human body parts from an old ammo can, it’s just a regular working weekend.
Polakoff is a seasoned search-and-rescue dog handler. With nearly 40 years experience, he’s one of Absaroka Search Dogs’ best handlers. He’s also one of the best to talk to about a common issue faced by search dog training around the country — access to human remains.
At Absaroka Search Dogs, which operates from Billings, the dogs are trained not only to seek out live people, but also those who have died. When the recent search for missing hiker Tatum Morell pivoted from a live search to a recovery, Absaroka’s handlers needed only to give their dogs a different command.
In a state like Montana, where dog handlers number in the mere dozens, having highly flexible dogs is critical. When a sheriff calls for a dog team, they might be the only team available, so the dogs need as many skills as possible.
The dogs are trained to follow given scents along the ground, to sniff out human scents in the air, and to know the difference between the smell of a live person and one who has died.
To train dogs in those various odors, trainers need access to materials with the right smells. The live scents are easy — one of the trainers heads out into the woods and gets “lost,” and the dogs sniff them out. For variety, volunteers may be the ones "getting lost," so that the dogs learn to search for different people.
However, to train dogs for the smell of dead bodies, trainers need dead bodies. Until May of this year, trainers operated in a legal gray zone — the law would neither allow, nor prohibit, possessing human remains. In order to get the needed smells, search teams relied on scarce leftover tissues from surgeries, donated teeth or small body parts from industrial accidents, and bloodied clothes provided by coroners.
A new law passed in late May makes it easier for Montana search dog handlers to train.
Eliminating gray areas
House Bill 641 authorized search and rescue units to possess human remains for the purposes of training dogs. The new law also provides a framework for the teams to receive “anatomical gifts” from donors. This allows the handlers not just to possess human remains, but also to receive a variety of donated parts from hospitals, clinics, and private donors.
“Oftentimes, knees are replaced, all the joint surgeries … all that stuff is just thrown away,” said Chris Dover, another one of Absaroka’s seasoned handlers. “The value of the legislation right now … allows us to get donations.”
For Dover, it’s 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’re not going to be as effective.”
According to Dover, other states had legislation like HB 641 long before Montana. Wyoming’s had this legislation for probably 10 years, she said. In Wyoming, some search teams have had entire bodies willed to them, allowing the dogs to train in the most realistic manner possible.
“For us to be able to train on those things is extremely important,” said Dover, “because every human in decomposition smells different.”
To dogs, every new body is a brand new smell, and that requires the dog to process and determine if that smell is what they’re looking for. An unprepared canine might not recognize that the new smell is indeed a cadaver — and when they find the body, the dog could be overwhelmed or frightened.
Training in the Beartooths
It’s a bit of a long drive to where Absaroka trains their dogs. The first turn comes after the Beartooth Pass on the Wyoming side of the border, about halfway to Cooke City. The next turn heads onto a gravel road just barely wide enough to fit two vehicles, and then onto a two-track dirt trail.
Over a ridge and past a copse of trees is a clearing where Polakoff, Dover, and the other members of Absaroka Search Dogs set up. Their camp is a motley collection of campers, tents, and canopied trucks. The site overlooks a landscape of forest, boulders, and bluffs, against a canvas of mountain peaks.
Training starts early, usually around seven or eight a.m. Dover, as the most experienced of the group, leads the exercises.
The handlers often start with basic obedience training, walking their dogs in circles and issuing commands. This not only helps get the dogs in the mindset to work, but also gets them comfortable around each other. While the dogs may frequently work alone, they could also be working with other search teams, so they can’t afford to be distracted by each other while lives are on the line.
Any dog can be trained to search, but not all dogs are suited to the task. Some simply don’t have the drive to work, becoming easily bored or distracted. Others may not be physically capable of doing the job — if they’re too small, they could be lost between boulders or unable to mount obstacles. Large, hardy dogs with thick coats are ideal for searching in cold, rugged mountain conditions.
After the obedience exercises come the drills. In live training exercises, the trainers will send someone out of sight, while the dog is unable to see where they go. Then, the dog’s handler brings them out and sets them to work.
There’s a routine to how the searches operate. The handler sets the general area of search, reads their animal’s signals, and manages the dog’s direction. Their canine partner deals with tracking the scents in the air, reporting back if they find someone.
“Once I give him the 'find' command, he’s going to go out and look for odor, and he’s going to do that on his own,” said Dover. “Once he hits odor, he’s going to go to where the odor’s coming from, the subject.
“Then he’s going to come back to me and tell me that he’s found someone, and go back to the subject,” she said. The cycle repeats, with the dog navigating back and forth between the searcher and the lost, until contact is made.
When searching for cadavers, the routine is the same. However, the handlers use different commands than when searching for the living. Usually, each dog will have a unique command to start them searching for a body, to prevent false starts.
To prepare for a cadaver training drill, the team distributes some of the death-scented apparel and body parts. A shoe from a car crash might be hung in a tree, a small container of fingertips placed in a hollow log, or bloodied shirts hidden behind a boulder. 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 a surplus Army ammo can, but there’s a problem — that’s not enough. It doesn’t do much good to train the dogs on the same smells over and over, as the dogs need variety and challenge to improve their skills. Worse yet, the materials lose their smell over time, rendering them less effective across multiple uses.
For the love of the dogs
While the new legislation will make it easier for the handlers to train their dogs, there may still be a long way to go until they have the support that they need.
The search teams are entirely volunteer. The handlers cover the costs of purchasing the dogs, the costs of commuting to and staying at search locations, and put in countless hours every year living with and training their animals.
“Really, it depends on the county that’s asking us to go search, and whether they can afford to reimburse us,” said Polakoff. If a county is able to, they may cover some of the search teams' meals, lodging, or travel costs, but payment is never guaranteed. A state fund exists to which handlers can apply for reimbursement, but the fund is low-priority in the state budget, and isn’t always available.
In some cases, the cost of the initial training for the dogs may be upwards of $20,000, not accounting for the ongoing costs of training over the course of the dog’s life or the costs of food and medical care, which could be upwards of $10,000 per year.
Additionally, because search dogs tend to have highly driven personalities, they can’t just be left home alone like a normal pet — they need constant attention and frequent training to remain satisfied. The dogs are a full-time commitment, and plans are made around their needs.
Despite the cost, time commitment, and difficulties of searching, those who stick with the search 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.
“It’s an opportunity to help people that get into situations that prove to be too much for them,” said Polakoff. “It’s a way of helping people, combining my love of the outdoors, and my love of working with dogs.”