Skip to main content
The official hub for news and stories from Colorado Mesa University
Unleashing the Power of Scent

How Man's Best Friend and Science Work to Solve Mysteries

In the aftermath of events like the devastating Maui fires, the use of human remains detection (HRD) dogs has garnered increased attention. These canines are trained to detect the scent of human cadavers. Their capabilities are impressive and much better than existing scent detection technology but there can be errors. Professor of Forensic Anthropology and Director of the Forensic Investigation Research Station (FIRS) Melissa Connor, PhD, is conducting research to better understand their limits, reliability and the potential to use emerging technology alongside or in place of HRD dogs. 

Much of her current research at FIRS is centered on the error rates of dog-handler teams when encountering residual odors. By conducting blind tests using both scented and unscented suitcases, her study aims to shed light on the potential factors contributing to detection errors.

“We asked handlers if they would like to run through an exercise that included a suitcase because if you’ve been here for a while and follow the news, finding a body in a suitcase is something that’s happened more than once out in the desert. For this study, we took the positive suitcase that had a body last year, did not put anything new in it this year and ran the dogs through that exercise as a residual set with control suitcases to see if we could calculate some false positive and false negative numbers,” explained Connor.

In addition to her work with HRD dogs and their trainers, Connor is also collaborating with the Salk Institute’s Assistant Professor Sreekanth Chalasani to explore the intricate chemistry behind the scent of death. By placing small fiber strip “twisters” on decomposing human and animal remains Connor and her team are collecting data on the volatile organic compounds responsible for this unique odor to see if species scents can be be distinguished.

This research has expanded to include various scent subjects such as human samples, soil specimens and the suitcases employed in the HRD error rate study. Connor hopes to gain a comprehensive understanding of the composition of cadaveric odors and the potential of mechanized scent detection.

The significance of this research extends beyond the realm of academia. It has real-world implications, including potential effects on the legal system and the efficiency of search and rescue operations. In court cases where HRD dogs play a pivotal role in linking a defendant to a crime scene involving human remains, the stakes are remarkably high.

Beyond the courtroom, the research at FIRS holds the potential to contribute to the development of technology capable of replicating the scent-detection abilities of HRD dogs. This innovation could significantly enhance the efficiency of search and rescue operations. Unlike dogs, machines are not susceptible to fatigue, weather conditions or handler variations. This could make a critical difference, particularly in
disaster scenarios. 


Written by Giff Walters