Whether it's the result of a crime, an accident or a natural disaster, if there is a need to find a deceased person, a dog trained to detect the slightest odor of human remains can be brought in.
"It could be a wide range of human remains," said Heather Swift, instructor with The Alliance of Search K9 Specialists, from Wichita. "You think about suicides, homicides, things like that -- drownings, people getting lost. We have some folks that even do historical. So, they will go out to a potential historical grave site where maybe the graves aren't marked."
She headed up a training workshop for a group of such dogs and their handlers from around the country and one from Canada, April 26 through 28 at the Combined Arms Collective Training Facility.
"They have a lot of really good buildings, venues, things like that, here at Fort Riley," she said. "Chris [Hallenbeck, Fort Riley Emergency Management Coordinator] has been amazing helping us navigate through all the military lingo, ins and outs, paperwork, things like that."
Hallenbeck said T.A.S.K.S. has been one of Fort Riley's emergency response partners for several years.
"Heather and her team are one of our response capabilities," he said. "This is just one of those things, she needed somewhere to train that had all the buildings and stuff and we've got the perfect spot."
While the need to call on the recovery or the search and rescue teams is not frequent, Fort Riley Police Chief Will Paskow said he is glad they are a phone call away.
"We paired up with search and rescue folks summer before last, that was the most recent time," he said. "They are certainly a valuable asset we appreciate the fact that when we have a situation, we can call them and they will show up and assist us."
The main difference between human remains detection animals and bomb and drug detection dogs is the HRD dogs are privately owned.
"Most drug and bomb dogs are going to be run by police departments, the military police -- those type of folks," Swift said. "All of our handlers are volunteers. So, when we come out to things like this, it's our dime. The dogs are ours; they are working dogs, but they're pets too."
Some of the dogs are cross-trained between HRD and search and recovery, but most are one or the other. Swift explained disaster dogs cannot be cross-trained, but wilderness dogs can be.
"If you have a disaster, somebody could be buried and still alive," she said. "If you have a cross-trained dog in a disaster situation and you're doing hasty search, you're just trying to find live people to get them out and get them medical help. If you have a cross-trained dog who hits on someone (who is) deceased, underneath the rubble, then the first responders are going to start putting their energy into the deceased person rather than continuing to put energy into live people."
The methods of training an HRD dog and other detection dogs are similar. But much of the work is on the handler. They are the ones who have to learn how to guide their dog and watch for the slightest cues. The recent training exposed dogs and owners to a number of challenging scenarios.
For example, in one of the buildings, there were several areas where a slight breeze was coming through. Knowing how the air flowed was important for the handlers to guide their dogs.
In other scenarios, distractions were put in place.
"They set up some very challenging problems," Swift said. "But they also take into consideration where each and every handler and their dog is in their training."
In addition to having the dogs working the scenarios, there was classroom training that covered topics including law, the proper way to give a command, air flow; and trained final response, which is the manner that a dog alerts when it finds something.
Jennifer Hirakawa, owner and lead trainer with Kawa Farms K-9 Training in Winterset, Iowa, gave instruction about leash-handling skills.
"Most (HDR) dogs and wide-area search dogs, well, they don't work on leash," she said. "But it is imperative that … we teach our dogs that the alert they're giving us off leash is the same alert that we need if they're on leash."
She said she ran into a situation when working a crime scene along a highway in Iowa where the importance of working on leash was clear.
Law enforcement could not shut down the highway and she was not about to let Moose, her American Black Lab, off leash. That experience made her realize the importance of training on-leash, even though it's not used as often.
"I needed to go back to my military training and bring some of the on-leash work in so that I was recognizing the dogs change of behavior and teaching my dog that, even if he's on leash, and he smells odor, he needs to alert me," the retired Master Sgt. said referring to some of her work as a Military Police officer. "Previously to that, if we walk by something on leash, he would think, 'oh, maybe that's a training aid."
It starts with handlers
The handlers who were at Fort Riley are passionate about the work they do.
"I've always wanted to help people," Swift said. "And I just happened to have a dog. That's what it is for me -- just helping people.
For Hirakawa, the sentiment is the same.
"If I can bring closure to a family, it is all worth it to me," she said. "For the live-find dogs, the possibility of sending my dog out to find someone who's lost or injured somewhere and finding them in time to get them to medical care …"
She credits her family and her 23 years in the Army with instilling the need to always give back.
"You're never done giving back," she said. "When I retired from the Army, I still didn't feel like I had given enough. I felt like there was still something that I needed to do."
With retirement came a loss of purpose. When she was in the Army, she said she had her team, her squad, her company.
"I had my peeps," she said. "Now I was by myself. Of course, I had my family, but that was different. I needed to still be part of something."
Being part of a group that helps each other learn is a vital part of the training process, which is why Joy Varady made the 22-hour drive from Ontario, Canada, with her dog Boomer, a mini poodle and golden retriever mix.
"It's hard to get this kind of training in Canada," the retired Canadian Army soldier said.