'Incredible unused tool': RCMP officers train dogs to detect human remains
Training exercises in Innisfail, Alberta are the first to use real human tissue.
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The first RCMP dog teams to be trained for detection with real human remains are wrapping up their work in Alberta this week.
Sgt. Robert Heppell, the RCMP dog team trainer in charge of the exercises, said they are the only police force in Canada to train using real human tissue. Edmonton's RCMP K Division is one of four divisions to take part in the training exercise.
“What we had to do was teach them the unique scent of human decomposition,” Heppell said. “There’s a baby-step process they go through to actually learn the identity of the scent.”
Officers used tissue from human skin, muscles, brains, livers and lungs at their training centre in Innisfail.
Once the dogs learned to recognize the scent, they started training in more realistic environments.
Dogs are seeking out remains hidden in the forest, buried underground, elevated in trees, and in the midst of a “disaster zone” that simulates a tornado, earthquake, gas main explosion or terrorist attack.
“Currently we’re using private companies that collect waste, such as used concrete pillars and things of that nature, and we’re using their facility to simulate a disaster zone,” Heppell said.
Historically, RCMP dogs have sometimes been able to find human remains, but have not had formal training to do so.
With this new training, Heppell said the chance of finding remains in unsolved deaths has greatly improved.
“It’s an incredible unused tool that we’ve never had at our disposal before,” he said.
Sgt. Jack Poitras, spokesperson for RCMP K Division in Edmonton, called the training new and innovative.
“It’s a great asset to have, especially when we’re dealing with older files where … we do get tips for human remains located or seen, and if they’ve been there for a while a lot of time they’re scattered by wildlife,” Poitras said.
“These dogs can find those pieces. So it sure saves a lot of time and gives you a lot of clues.”
Obtaining the human remains for training is complex in itself.
RCMP made a deal two years ago with Nova Scotia Medical Examiner Service Director Sean Margueratt to occasionally collect donations from people who have died unexpectedly, with consent of their loved ones.
The medical examiner has a team of nurses who speak with families of the deceased and, if they feel it’s appropriate, ask if they feel their loved one would have wanted their remains to be used for training purposes.
“We deal with fatalities that are unexpected, it’s just the nature of the work we do. So there’s always a trauma there. The families are always upset and distraught because it’s unexpected,” Margueratt said. “So that’s all taken into account in terms of when it’s suitable, when it’s appropriate to discuss this type of topic with the family."
He said families have always been supportive when asked, and the medical examiner service follows up with letters of thanks, and updates on the training exercises.
Margueratt said it’s never a whole body that’s used, but fragments collected during an autopsy and shipped, usually in ice, by RCMP.
“In some cases it may be a bone, so a bone doesn’t decompose if it’s not refrigerated,” he said.
“In some cases it might be just a cloth that we used during the autopsy that has some bodily fluids on it that they would use for the dogs.”
RCMP have 166 dog teams across Canada that will be trained on human remains detection according to the needs of each divisions.