Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

A Nose for Bones

Dogs are typically known for burying bones, but some dogs have been trained to unearth them

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

They smell dead people.

If you read mysteries, you’ve probably run across more than a few where a random dog finds a dead body or uncovers buried bones. Or perhaps the detective is working with a cadaver dog: one trained to detect the odor of human decomposition.

The next one you read might feature a dog helping to solve archaeological mysteries.

In a 2018 paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, archaeologist Vedrana Glavas and ethologist and dog handler Andrea Pintar proposed that human-remains-detection dogs could be valuable tools for locating ancient burial sites. They based this idea on their work with four dogs at a prehistoric site in Croatia. Their research demonstrated that HRD dogs could detect trace amounts of specific human decomposition odor and indicate burial sites considerably older than had previously been thought possible. Using radiocarbon dating and analysis of material culture (the objects found at the site), the excavated burials were dated to the eighth century BCE.

Dogs have formally played a role in finding bodies for criminal investigations since at least 1974, and it’s no surprise that other professionals have wondered if dogs could contribute to their work, as well. Forensic anthropologist and K-9 handler Paul S. Martin’s interest in the abilities of cadaver dogs to aid archaeological surveys and cold case investigations began in 2002, when he established HRD Specialized K9 Training. He says the most interesting and rewarding work he has done -- in partnership with Ziva, an 11-year-old black Lab -- has been participating in the search for and recovery of the remains of missing American service members from World War II through a nonprofit organization called History Flight.

“These men died in the service of our country 75-plus years ago, and families were told they were unrecoverable,” he says. “Some of these were intentional burials, but with the air crews, they became buried due to impact or accumulation of sediment over time.”

When it comes to more ancient burials, Martin, who was not involved in the study performed by Glavas and Pintar, says several universities are working on understanding human decomposition and the volatile organic compounds -- the odors that the dogs detect -- that it produces.

“One of the things we can already see is that, due to the changes in diet, there are compounds present in modern remains that don’t present in historic or older remains,” he says.

Archaeologists use techniques as basic as field surveys -- gathering information through observations, sketches and interviews with local people, for instance -- and as high-tech as ground-penetrating radar, satellite imaging and aerial photography. Like those techniques, HRD dogs provide information in a non-destructive way. At the Croatian site, geological characteristics and environmental conditions made visual inspection and GPR impractical, but didn’t deter the dogs.

Canine scenting abilities, in conjunction with geophysical surveys, help archaeologists establish a more complete picture of where human remains may lie.

“The dog adds the ability to gain another layer of information about what might be in an area,” Martin says.

That’s important, especially at sites that may be facing development. Dogs can help to focus searches before bulldozers move in.

“Locating burial grounds using HRD dogs has great potential in preventive archaeology,” Glavas and Pintar write in their paper. That’s the detection and study of archaeological sites prior to construction or other development.

Currently, Glavas isn’t working with HRD dogs on any site, she writes in an email, but she doesn’t rule it out.

“We have some plans for the future, but we will see.”


Make the most

of new dog park

Q: We have a new dog park in town, and I want to start taking my dog there. What should we know about having a good time and staying safe?

A: Dog parks have their issues, but for some dogs, they are the only opportunity for a good off-leash run-and-play session. Here’s how to have fun without having problems with other dogs or humans.

It seems counterintuitive, but give your dog some exercise before you head to the park, especially if he’s a high-energy hound. Taking him for a walk first or giving him a puzzle toy to figure out can dampen his energy a bit so he doesn’t overwhelm other dogs with his antics or run them down in his excitement to be there.

Avoid the park if your dog is aggressive or fearful, or go at times when you know you will have it to yourself. It’s not fair to your dog -- or other dogs and people -- to put them at risk of an unpleasant or harmful encounter.

Leave your dog’s favorite toys and treats at home if he doesn’t like sharing them. You don’t want to start any fights.

Most parks have a double-gated entry. Take your dog off leash once you’re through the first gate so he can enter the park leash-free. That ensures that he won’t feel vulnerable when other dogs approach. For safety reasons, be sure he’s wearing a breakaway collar or one with a quick-release buckle.

Pay attention. It’s tempting to use the time to peruse Instagram or read emails, but your focus should be on your dog to ensure that he’s playing nicely and not being bullied -- or being a bully.

Lastly, pick up after your dog so you’ll both be welcomed back. -- Mikkel Becker

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Watch animal videos

for good health

-- Watching animal videos is good for the heart and soul, according to researchers at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. They found that heart rates dropped in participants who watched videos and images of cute animals. Also, the average blood pressure of the group moved into the ideal range, and participants’ stress and anxiety levels were reduced by up to 50%. Heart rate and blood pressure were measured before and after participants watched the videos. The 19 participants consisted of students waiting to take an exam and academic support staff who felt stressed from work.

-- Dogs walk with us in death as well as in life. Have you ever heard or seen the word “psychopomp”? In mythology, a psychopomp is a spirit guide who leads souls from life into death, helping them cross over to whatever that culture believes comes next, such as judgment or an afterlife. Our best friends, the dogs, play the role of psychopomp in many cultures. The jackal-headed Anubis, an ancient Egyptian god, is one such canine escort. Others include the black dogs, or “grims,” found in English and Welsh lore. They often make an appearance when someone is near death. And in Mesoamerican cultures, such as Aztec and Mayan, people were laid to rest with the figure of a clay dog in which their spirit could reside as they made their journey to the afterlife.

-- Domestic chickens are believed to have originated in southern and Southeast Asia. Four species of wild jungle fowl are still known in those areas: Gallus gallus (red jungle fowl); Gallus lafayetti (Ceylonese jungle fowl); Gallus sonnerati (gray jungle fowl); and Gallus varius (black or green jungle fowl). The red jungle fowl has long been considered the progenitor of today’s domesticated chicken strains and breeds. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.