The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Cadaver Dogs: Information for Writers with Kate Flora

Today, I'd like to introduce you to Kate Flora. Award-winning
mystery and true crime writer Kate Flora is the author of 14 books, including the true crime story Death Dealer and the novel And Grant You Peace, both forthcoming in the fall of 2014. 

Her book Finding Amy (true crime), co-written with a Portland, Maine deputy police chief, was a 2007 Edgar Award nominee. Kate’s other titles include the Thea Kozak mysteries and the starred-review Joe Burgess police series, the third of which, Redemption, won the 2013 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction.

A former assistant attorney general in the areas of battered children, deadbeat dads, and employment discrimination, Kate is a founding member the New England Crime Bake conference, a founder of Level Best Books where she worked as an editor and publisher for seven years and has served as international president of Sisters in Crime. When she’s not riding an ATV through the Canadian woods or hiding in a tick-infested field waiting to be found by search and rescue dogs as research
for her books, she can be found teaching writing at Grub Street in Boston.

Fiona -
Kate, you have an interest in cadaver dogs and have included them in the plot line of a few of your books. Can you tell me about your background with working dogs?

Kate - 
To be absolutely clear, I have no working dog myself. I got into the realm of search and rescue and cadaver dogs when I was helping a friend, who was a police captain, write about a murder he investigated. He wanted to tell a story, and I knew how to write. In that case, the victim was buried in the woods and the police couldn't find her. She was ultimately found when a Maine game warden decided he had to help out, and organized a search with SAR (search and rescue) personnel and trained cadaver dogs.

In order to write that story, I needed to know more about how cadaver dogs and handlers worked, and that meant watching them train. 

Fiona -
Can you tell us about your experience?

Kate - 
I started out like many people, thinking the handlers just ran the dogs through the woods. I was so wrong. 

It's years of training bringing those dogs along and getting them certified for the various search expertises. The most important thing I learned by watching the training, is that these handlers and their dogs are a genuine team--it is important for the handler to be able to read his or her dog and become attuned to the nuances of the dog's messages. It is also critical to learn to trust the dog and not override the dog's messages.

It is almost balletic, watching the synchronized actions of a good dog team. The handler can tell from the dog's body language, speed of movement, and even from the dog's breathing what the dog is discovering, when the dog has a scent, and when the dog is close to a find. And those dogs will work all day for the reward to playing with a ball or playing tug of war with rope.

Fiona - 
In search and rescue events that I've participated in the dog is on a 30 foot lead - this was a search for live people. Can you tell us what the dog wears on a search, the equipment involved, and what the handler wears?

Kate - 

In general, the dogs I've observed are not on a lead, unless the conditions--adjacent highway or other dangers--calls for it. These are primarily air scent dogs and to do their job, they need to be able to range some distance in order to try and pick up that scent cone.

Equipment varies, but in general they wear a vest, which helps to signal to the dog that he or she is going to work, and often a bell, which is especially helpful in thick brush or woodlands or during nighttime searches so the handle can keep track of the dog's location. Handlers say that they can tell when a dog is on a scent, and often when the dog has made a find, by the increasingly excited ringing of the bell. 

The handler? Again, this depends on the weather and the organization. If they are a uniformed searcher, it will be a uniform. Many of the volunteers also wear a shirt or something that indicated their affiliation. The other gear depends on the search--weather, time of day, time of year, the search parameters and how long a search team may be out to clear a block of land, whether there is an expectation that the person may be found alive. And there is always the dog's favored play object or food treat.

Fiona - 
These are mainly air scent dogs, which means that they keep their nose in the air. There are also dogs who prefer by nature to do ground scent, they are great for following trails. But you have also worked with water scent dogs - dogs who can find cadavers in bodies of water can you talk about that experience?

Kate - 
I haven't actually worked on a case where they used water scent dogs. I spent a couple of years with a retired Maine game warden who trained and ran cadaver dogs, and he has told me a lot. In the book we've just finished, there are some stories of dogs who have found bodies in the water. 

One interesting thing that the wardens say is that dogs can scent bodies in the water within a few hours of death, which I found amazing, and that many other branches of law enforcement are unaware of this as a resource and usually fail to employ it in search situations. 

There was a case recently in New Hampshire where a young girl disappeared and was found days later in a river. A water scent dog could probably have found her days earlier. The scent molecules released by the body travel through the water and can be scented by the dogs from the shore or from a boat. 

I've heard discussions about whether a dog could work from a plane but they've been inconclusive. One thing that's often missing from these discussions is that first the dog has to go through all of those other cadaver scent training, and then also has to be trained to be comfortable in a boat. 

And an aside, one of the differences between tracking dogs and air scent dogs is that tracking dogs are generally working from a known scent following a known person, while air scent dogs are often working away from the scene (which is often contaminated by the many people their and by fear scent, which is very powerful) and trying to find the scent in the air.

Fiona - 
What would surprise us most to learn about using a cadaver dog and are there any cool details a writer might include in their plot line?

Kate - 

Well, gee. In the first true crime I wrote, Finding Amy, the dog came to the scene and didn't first hit on the grave site where the victim was buried, but about ten or twelve feet away under some trees. Later, when the suspect confessed the crime to his mother, what he told her was that he had killed Amy and left her lying under those trees for a few days, and then gone back and buried her. The dog was reacting to that first scent pool where the body had been lying, and the dog's reaction was corroboration of the confession at trial. 

Other cool details? Well, because cadaver scent can move through the ground and into growing plants, you can often find an old burial through the scent that has become embedded in trees or shrubs.

Sometimes bears or other predators have been at the bodies and the dogs can find small bone fragments that are sufficient to show that there was a body. 

Find the guy, get to play!

The dogs can find burials that are 50 to 100 years old. Other cool things? Not so much about cadaver dogs, but dogs can also be trained to find find shell casings, shotgun wads, cigarette butts, all kinds of evidence that might have been discarded by the killer that a human searcher would never find in the woods.

Fiona - 
They can indeed find very cool things. On a personal note, my daughter has Type 1 diabetes. She has a medical alert dog who tells her when her blood sugar number goes over 180 or under 100. Those are very specific parameters. He is both a ground scenting dog (I trained him to find our family members so, for example, in the library when I can't find my son, I just tell our pup to "Find the boy," and pup follows the trail until we land on him) and an air scent-er. When pup is checking my daughter's blood numbers his nose will go in the air. When he does it repeatedly over a span of time, I know he's just waiting for it to hit the number that will get him his treat. Then he comes to alert.

Kate, thank you so much for sharing your experiences. Any last thoughts?

Kate - 
One thing I would add is that many of these events take place at night…and if the body was dumped at night, the wardens are looking at the environments, decided where someone might hide a body. 

Fiona - 
Can you talk more about that last bit?

Kate - 
Well, that last really goes much more to suspect behavior than to cadaver dogs, but that's something else there's some writing and thinking on. 

This is really in my game warden/outdoor search realm which is practically another interview. We think that searches are just a bunch of folks going out and walking through the woods--whether for a dead person or a live person, but in reality they are far more complicated and planning intensive than that. In Finding Amy, one of the most interesting moments is when the wardens come to interview the cops, to plan a search operation. Of course, we know that cops are territorial and certain, but this was the woods, which is warden territory. Wardens read the woods like cops read the streets. Hey…now that is a great line. Must remember it. Anyway, when they're dealing with a situations where someone may be hidden in the woods, they're looking for a million different things that brick and mortar cops might never think of. On another note, I forgot to mention that dogs are extremely good at finding weapons, so if the writer's bad guy has dumped his gun in the woods, human eyes might never find it, but a dog's nose will.

Fiona - 
Amen. Kate, please tell us about your favorite scar or your most harrowing story.

Kate - 
Well, my most harrowing experience was a hot air balloon crash…but let's talk about scars. I've never been in a gun fight, a knife fight, or any other kind of fight outside a courtroom, but I have a scar from back surgery that represents a fight with myself. After emergency surgery for a ruptured disk and having to give up running and skiing, I also had to fight my way back from the throes of "I'll never do anything again" into a braver world of taking different kinds of chances--chances with my writing, with stories I didn't know how to write, and ultimately, with other people's stories--co-writing a true crime with a police captain and working on a memoir with a Maine game warden who worked with search and rescue and cadaver dogs. Those books have taken me to some pretty interesting places.

Fiona - 
And could you tell us about some of your writing?

Kate - 

About Death Dealer:
When Miramichi resident Maria Tanasichuk’s husband David reports her missing, the local police force is perplexed: they have had a close relationship with the Tanasichuks and know David as a loving and supportive husband, yet his account of Maria’s disappearance contains disturbing inconsistencies. Through conversations with Maria’s many friends and loved ones in Miramichi’s small, close-knit community, the police soon discover that David has been using drugs heavily and Maria’s efforts to stop him have frayed the marriage. Witnesses report he has been selling Maria’s belongings to support his drug use, has been involved with another woman, and has engaged in suspicious, nighttime comings-and-goings. Further disclosures suggest that he played a role not only in Maria’s disappearance, but also in several unsolved murders.
The fact that they cannot locate Maria’s body -- combined with David’s clever, deceptive ways -- make it impossible for the Miramichi police to prove their suspicions. As signs that David may in fact be a dangerous killer mount, the police officers tracking him fear, rightly, that at any moment he could unleash his vengeful violence on their families. Only when they look across the border into Maine and enlist the help of the Maine Warden Service and trained cadaver dogs and dedicated handlers are Miramichi’s police officers able to undertake the long and grueling search for the evidence they need: Maria’s body.
New Horizon Press Books ISBN: 978-0-88282-476-5

About And Grant You Peace:

This 4th book in the Joe Burgess mystery series finds the Maine detective pulled into a case rife with religious tensions after screams for help lead him to a woman and a baby locked in a closet inside a burning mosque. The baby dies. The very young mother survives, but suffers from traumatic muteness. She has no ID, and no one has reported her missing. When the autopsy shows the baby was gravely ill, and needed surgery to survive, Burgess suspects someone was trying to keep mother and baby away from hospitals that might have asked questions.

The mosque’s Somali Imam claims to have no knowledge of the girl, or of who was responsible for scrawling anti-Muslim graffiti on the mosque’s walls. Burgess learns that the “Iron Angels,” an outlaw motorcycle gang led by William “The Butcher” Flaherty has been harassing the mosque’s members. Then someone tries to steal the baby’s body. Burgess has been hoping to regain a semblance of “normal family life,” but there, too, things are complicated. First, by the threat that his son will be suspended from school. Then by the chilling knowledge that his family is being stalked.

As Burgess tries to sort out the tangle of a suspicious and uncooperative immigrant community, an outlaw gang, and a mysterious man who may be involved with both, clues lead to another body, a stash of stolen guns and ultimately, a tense confrontation in which the staggering extent of death and destruction that’s been sowed in the name of greed is revealed.
Five Star/Cengage ISBN 978-1432829391

If you need more information about cadaver dogs, Kate suggests these references:

* Andrew Rebmann, Edward David & Marcella H. Sorg, Cadaver Dog Handbook: Forensic Training and Tactics for the Recovery of Human Remains

* American Rescue Dog Association Search and Rescue Dogs: Training the K-9 Hero

* Susannah Charleson, Scent of the Missing

* Cat Warren, What the Dog Knows

Fiona - 
Thanks Kate!

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


  1. I think more people need to discover just how much work these volunteers and their dogs do. Also the police and their dogs.


  2. Time was, I could have been the greatest admirer of Maine’s justice system extant. That might have been because I spent a quarter century as a federal agent (ATF, Organized Crime & Racketeering Strike Force, INTERPOL), or perhaps it was my enormous respect for federal judge Edward T. Gignoux.
    My respect was sustained by my experiences with scores of Maine officers during my final five years of government service when I was stationed here.
    Then came the murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry, the conviction of Dennis Dechaine for that heinous crime, and the appearance of a group calling itself “Trial & Error” running all about the state claiming Dechaine was innocent.
    That was too much for me. I contacted those T&E people, introduced myself and offered to “look into the case.” My intention, of course, was to demolish their arguments that Maine had imprisoned an innocent man and send them back to their homes, disappointed but better informed.
    It didn’t work out that way.
    Long story short: I ended up writing Human Sacrifice about how the Maine State Police detective proved totally incompetent (even dismissing the “advice” of the state police tracking dog), and prosecutors from the Office of the Attorney General exacerbated matters by defying science, hiding evidence, ignoring awkward facts, and other assorted misconduct.
    What I learned of interest to writers is, writing about true crime is great if you tell a story where the cops did excellent work (like Kate Flora’s Finding Amy). Not so wonderful if you write about the system failing. After Human Sacrifice came out, and especially after the 2nd edition which exposed documents found in the AG’s “confidential file,” the situation went from bad to worse. (Read about it, but only if you want a downer, at )
    Bottom line: preserve your (and your readers’) happy perception of the justice system in Maine; write about the many cases where cops did outstanding work and prosecutors put bad guys in prison.

    NOTE: for what it’s worth, back in 2006 I offered $1,000.00 to anyone who could point to any untrue statement I make in Human Sacrifice concerning the evidence or official misconduct. It’s been eight years now, and nobody has made any effort to collect that cash.
    Jim Moore,