The Dogs That Sniff

July 6, 2020

On a sunny, cloudless afternoon in Croatia, a fierce wind known as a bora can whip over the Velebit mountain range and across the Adriatic Sea. When it reaches hurricane force, this cold and dry blast can render the steep, arid terrain—dominated by a porous rock topography known as karst—freezing at midday.

Despite the area’s challenging conditions, humans have eked out an existence here for thousands of years. Archaeologist Vedrana Glavaš, at the University of Zadar in Croatia, grew up in this landscape. “That was where I played as a child and became interested in history and prehistory,” she reflects.

In 2014, she and a team were working on Velebit Mountain when they uncovered parts of a 3,000-year-old hill fort and necropolis. To explore further, she needed more help. In 2015, Glavaš hit upon a surprising and inexpensive innovation: She teamed up with dog trainer Andrea Pintar, whose company Canine Caffe offers specialized “cadaver” dogs that have helped sniff out cold cases for police and find mass graves for local officials.

“Some of the police cases Andrea has worked on are 30 years old,” explains Glavaš. “We both wondered how far back in time her dogs could smell.” What they did not expect was that the dogs would lead them to remains that had been buried in the eighth century B.C. Glavaš, who with Pintar published her research in 2018, says the dogs ultimately turned up more than six unique graves, one some 50 meters away from the rest. Glavaš excavated six of them, yielding stone burial chests, artifacts, and human finger and toe bones.

The dogs proved invaluable, Glavaš says. They uniquely enhanced the capability of typical grave-finding methods, such as field survey, aerial photography, infrared satellite imaging, ground-penetrating radar, and other technologies. And Glavaš isn’t the only archaeologist turning to canine detectives.

Dogs have long been humans’ best friends—fearless protectors, loyal companions, fabulous Frisbee players—and now it seems they may be ideal archaeological assistants too. Like Glavaš and Pintar, other researchers are building on canines’ well-established ability to uncover remains, showing that this skill can be honed to hunt much older quarry.

New research demonstrates that a properly trained pup can pick up the so-called scents of death from remains that are centuries old. Precisely what compounds they’re sniffing out remains a mystery, but the dogs’ efforts could help illuminate bygone millennia.

A dog’s nose can perform at least 10,000 times better than ours. Specifically, dogs can pick up on low-molecular-weight compounds that easily evaporate at room temperature and often carry an odor—what scientists call volatile organic compounds. Canines can detect one such part in every trillion.

As a result, dogs have demonstrated uncanny olfactory abilities. They’ve sniffed out melanoma skin cancer in humans and detected pregnancy in cows just by picking up scents in bodily fluids.

So what exactly are canines detecting at archaeological digs? “Our dogs are not actually searching for bones,” Glavaš emphasizes. “They are searching for the molecules of human decomposition.”

In the case of human remains, dogs could be sniffing for one of several specific molecules. One possibility is that dogs detect the fatty acids in adipocere, a material that scientists have noticed for centuries and is sometimes called  “ corpse wax” or “the fat of graveyards.”

This is a natural byproduct of decomposition. Human fat is converted by bacteria into free fatty acids, which then harden into the soap-like adipocere that can effectively mummify the dead.

Adipocere can also help scientists date corpses. This material has persisted on frozen remains estimated to be more than 300 years old, such as those found in glacier melt in northwestern British Columbia in Canada. In 2009, scientists reported on adipocere found on the 1,600-year-old remains of a child in Germany.

  • Most Recent News

    Big Dogs Need Owners

    October 9, 2020

    When the shutdown orders took full effect, it became nearly impossible to find a small dog available for adoption as Southlanders sought furry companions. In many Southland shelters, only larger breeds remained available for adoption. Now Los Angeles Animal Service is touting the joys of big dogs while offering discounted adoption fees for larger breeds […]

    Read more

    Service Dog Walkathon

    October 9, 2020

    On Saturday, October 3, hundreds of walkers from across 15 states joined the path to bettering the world for children with autism and their families as part of BluePath Service Dogs’ fourth annual walkathon. The family-friendly fundraiser – this year held virtually – raised more than $120,000 to further BluePath’s mission of providing autism service […]

    Read more

    Service Dog In The Marching Band

    October 9, 2020

    In a year that is anything but normal, the Jones College Maroon Typhoon Marching Band has welcomed its first known service dog member this fall. Laurie, a 3-year-old golden retriever, is baritone saxophone player Sara-Beth McKellar’s service dog. The Vicksburg native was diagnosed with epilepsy as a sophomore in high school after her first seizure. […]

    Read more

    Church Blesses Animals

    October 9, 2020

    St. Mary’s Church of the Immaculate Conception in Port Jervis hosted a special outdoor service last Sunday afternoon to bless the community’s pets, animals and other living creatures. In keeping with current pandemic rules, pet owners wore masks, remained distant, and took part in praying for dogs, cats, turtles, and other pets and animals around […]

    Read more

    Police Welcomes New Canine

    October 9, 2020

    Young Kingston Police service dog Bask may look small, but his handler says his training and energy are proving that he’s up to fill the shoes of his predecessor. “I think he’s going to be a great little dog,” Const. Jeff Dickson said, looking down at his new partner. A partner that, wearing the right […]

    Read more

    Dog Park For Travelers

    October 9, 2020

    St. Petersburg is widely recognized as a dog-friendly city, and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport is making sure its four-legged visitors and their humans feel welcome by rolling out the artificial turf carpet. With the completion of the airport’s parking and roadway project – part of a series of multi-million dollar improvements at the airport over the […]

    Read more

    Service Dog Helps Firefighters

    October 9, 2020

    Firefighters battling the Archie Creek and Thielsen fires have had some long, exhausting days. But for some, their troubles seemed to melt away once they got back to camp. Why? Meet Ralph Colombo. He hauls oversize loads. And joining Ralph is his service dog, Cowboy – the morale boosting, firefighting puppy. “He just keeps my […]

    Read more

    Pet Therapy Program

    October 9, 2020

    Saturday, October 10 is World Mental Health Day, which this year has a new sense of urgency for many. Covid-19 has taken a mental and emotional toll on healthcare workers across the U.S but there is a program boosting the spirits of doctors and nurses on the frontlines. At UC Irvine Medical Center in Southern […]

    Read more

    A Service Dogs Place

    October 9, 2020

    A new Pineville nonprofit that helps people with disabilities obtain service dogs has made its first match. The Saber Life Foundation was started in March by Danea Key and her husband Joel. They provide people with trained service dogs, paying 51 percent of the cost, with the client paying the other 49 percent. Service dogs […]

    Read more

    Dog Beating Cancer

    October 9, 2020

    A little over a year after a local dog was given only a few months to live after being diagnosed with bone cancer, she is still in remission and will be celebrated her twelfth birthday this month. Cocoa has been with her owner, Bucyrus resident Christie Auck, since she was nine-weeks-old. “On Aug. 18, 2019, […]

    Read more

    More Recent News