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Event in New Hamburg Ont. trains dogs to detect human remains

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It's a busy weekend for Heather Parsons and her two-year-old Dalmatian, Murder.

“I’m really proud of how my dog is working and really excited to see her training come along,” Parsons said.

She says don't let the name of her dog fool you - Murder is nothing but a loving companion.

“The bond that you have with your dog is a beautiful thing no matter what you're doing and even more so when you're working towards a goal that's really meaningful like this.”

Parsons traveled from Belleville to New Hamburg on the May long weekend to take part in a three-day event tailored for dogs and their handlers.

“I really wanted to do something that that was, you know, an opportunity to volunteer, to put that sort of skill to work in a different way [and] to take it to a different level,” she told CTV on Saturday.

A farm in New Hamburg became the training grounds for the event which brought in dogs, their owners and trainers from across North America.

“We have trainers and participants [from] as far as Wisconsin and Florida here and across Ontario,” said William Bolton, senior trainer of Advanced Tactical Training Search & Rescue.

“We have a bunch of different scenarios set out to mimic a real search and all of these dogs are going to be working to fulfill the requirements of that search,” said trainer, Heather Wisner.

The event, organized by Bolton, focuses on honing advanced skills in scent work, targeting, search and rescue, and human remains detection.

“If the emergency services require services, they then know the standards we're at and we're able to then basically work with them on other things like search and rescue,” he said.

While Bolton has been training dogs for years, this specific form of advanced training is only in its second year.

“We've now officially started the training about two years ago. The big benefit is standardization so we can actually make sure that everyone is doing things the same way.”

One of the highlights of the event is the search and rescue training.

“I’ve set up little scenarios in that area - kind of like a rubble pile or a disaster where a building has collapsed and let the dogs search that,” said canine handler, Harold Ruslander.

Another critical component is the human remains detection (HRD) training. Dogs trekked through a field with the goal of identifying objects that emit the scent of cadavers - a skill that is vital for forensic investigations and disaster response.

“There's the live finding where you find the person that's walked away who may be vulnerable due to their age or maybe health conditions,” Ruslander explained. “Then you have the cases that we do, which is where somebody is missing and presumed to be dead and you're trying to find them to bring closure to the family.”

Bolton says the most common training aid is placenta, which can be donated by new moms. Usually handlers will train a dog with the same odour source for a few months so the dog learns the changes that take place during decomposition.

William Bolton stands with his dog Sheeba, who recently retired from her search and rescue work after 11 years. May 18, 2024 (Hannah Schmidt/CTV News)

How long does it take to train a dog for HRD?

For dogs to become properly certified, it can take up to approximately three years.

“It takes a lot of time, a lot of money to train these dogs. You have to get them nationally certified,” Ruslander said.

Ruslander said it’s also not a low-cost feat.

“Be prepared to spend a lot of money, it's not cheap. You have to be dedicated to it. I mean, this is not just a weekend thing. We train our dogs almost every single day in one form or another, Whether it's obedience or actual searching. Then you have to be willing to travel to different seminars.”

What kinds of dog usually become certified?

While the breed of dog isn’t overly important, Ruslander says dogs need a specific kind if mindset, energy level and strong work ethic.

“I think that one of the deciding factors a person would have to make is what kind of dog they want. And you need a dog that has a high drive, a pre-drive and a play drive. Those are the three things that we look for. And, you know, they're not taught to bite people. They're not aggressive dogs. They're not like patrol dogs that are trained to track and apprehend these guys. Their sole job is to find whether it's an alive or dead person and so we don't train them in any aggressive manner. But you need a dog that has stamina and has a good ability to cool itself. The longer snout dogs, they pant and that's how they cool and you need the dog that has the drive for that.”

However, Malinois, bloodhounds, Labrador retrievers and German shepherds rank among the top breeds for human remains detection.

‘A lot of relief from the families’

The event on the weekend is not only a rigorous training opportunity, but also a community-building experience for dedicated teams of people who hope to further their work in search and rescue.

“There's a lot of relief from the families to see us,” Bolton said. “Police have limited resources. They do an exceptional job, but they always have to move on to other things. So I've had cases moved onto me where they've given me all the information and then we will take it over and continue.”

“So being able to do scent training, which is really fascinating, but do it in a way that we can make a difference in people's lives - that we can maybe help bring some closure,” Parsons said.

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