Highly trained dogs take on mission of finding Hawaii fire victims

By Brad Brooks

(Reuters) – A year of intense training to discern the difference between human and animal remains is a must for the specialized search dogs deployed to work on Maui following last week’s deadly wildfires.

But it also takes a dog born with the particular personality needed for the job to find remains of the missing and help bring closure for anguished families, said Mary Cablk, an expert in detection and systems at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, who has trained hundreds of canines, designed training programs for handlers and still goes out on dozens of searches a year with her own dogs.

“Dogs that really want to play, that are obsessive about their toy, that are confident and agile, that are not afraid of loud noises or weird surfaces, bring a lot to the table,” she said. Cablk is not involved in the Maui recovery operation.

The wildfires that ravaged Maui last week killed at least 101 people, officials say, making it the deadliest U.S. fire in a century.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) urban search rescue teams had 20 dogs on the ground as of Monday supporting state and local officials combing through the ashes.

Jeremy Greenberg, FEMA’s director of operations, said on a call with reporters on Monday that the treacherous conditions on Maui meant that the search is difficult.

Greenberg underscored that while searchers understand that families are desperate to know the fate of missing loved ones, they must “conduct that search in a safe and respectful manner.”


Each cadaver dog, which can undergo a year of intense lessons before being ready for missions, can search up to a couple dozen homes’ burned down “footprints” each day. That number varies depending on conditions.

Hawaii’s government has said that at least 2,200 structures were destroyed in the fires, 86% of which were residential buildings.

Dogs that will work fire scenes are trained to detect burnt flesh – and can distinguish human remains from those of pets and other animals. In the aftermath of a fire, the dogs are taught not to become excited and run back and forth from remains they have found to a handler, which could damage a scene. Cadaver dogs working fires will simply lay down once they have found something, Cablk said.

Dogs are also now being trained not to enter the “footprint” of a burned down house at all, but to signal to handlers that they have hit upon remains without approaching them.

That training came from lessons learned in deadly wildfires in California in recent years, such as the Paradise, California Camp Fire in which 86 were killed.

“It used to be that people would just go in and they would look, they would rake, they would shovel, and it made the job of the forensic anthropologists more difficult.

“You ended up with remains that were more difficult to identify. And where you had multiple individuals together, those bones got commingled, making the job of investigators even more difficult,” Cablk said.

Just as teaching hospitals to use cadavers to teach medical students, Cablk said, trainers use human flesh and blood to train dogs. Some countries don’t allow human remains in such training, and in those places dogs are taught using animal remains, making rescues more difficult.

Cadaver dogs are trained to associate the scent of human remains with a reward, typically a chew toy, Cablk said. If the dog successfully locates remains, it gets to play with the toy.

“That’s the dog’s paycheck,” Cablk said. “Handlers will carry the reward toy with them, and many dogs, in fact, will come around to the back of the handler and check to make sure that the toy is in their pack.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Longmont, Colorado; Editing by Donna Bryson and Stephen Coates)

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