Training Dogs Beyond the Grave

Admittedly, my friends thought I was crazy when I told them I wanted to continue training dogs after my death. Death is an uncomfortable thought for some, yet it’s the topic of discussion in the Compassion Consortium Animal Chaplaincy Training Program from which I’m about to graduate. 

When I began studying dog behavior in the early 2000s, I gained an appreciation for their extraordinary abilities as a species. But in 2010, after reading Alexandra Horowitz’s book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know, my interest and appreciation skyrocketed.

Horowitz helped me understand that dogs see the world through their noses, unlike humans, who see the world through their eyes. Dogs possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to 6 million in humans. The part of their brain that analyzes smells is 40 times bigger in dogs than humans. That’s a lot of capability!

It’s that keen sense of smell that helps drug dogs sniff out illegal drugs, search and rescue (SAR) dogs find lost people, and cadaver dogs pick up the scent of human remains and find bodies. Cadaver dogs play an essential role in resolving cases of missing or deceased persons and bringing closure to family members.

As with my prior dogs, I’m training Keaton, my nine-month-old Australian Shepherd, in K9 Nose Work. It’s a fun search and scenting canine sport inspired by working detection dogs. I get such pleasure watching him do what he was born to do: use his nose to find the odors used in the sport (birch, anise, and clove). And it’s fantastic mental enrichment for him, too.

While I enjoy K9 Nose Work for fun, I know trainer colleagues who train their dogs to work as cadaver dogs. They spend untold hours training their dogs to perform this vital service. These teams undergo rigorous training and must meet strict standards before being used on a mission. Ongoing training and education are required to maintain their skills at the required levels.

It’s because I appreciate the work cadaver dog teams do and their essential ongoing training needs that I decided after my death to have my body donated to Western North Carolina’s body farm. It’s part of the university’s Forensic Anthropology Program, where they maintain what’s referred to as “The Forest,” where bodies decompose to help forensic scientists understand how to solve cases of the missing and murdered and where cadaver dog teams train. It’s one of seven facilities in the United States.

I never thought there would be a way to continue training dogs beyond the grave, yet I found a way. What joy it gives me knowing that my decomposing body will someday help cadaver dog teams hone their skills. 

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