Canine super sleuths

29 February 2008
Aberdeen Press & Journal

It will be some time before the former children's home at Haut de la Garenne, on Jersey, yields all its secrets.

But a canine hero has already emerged in the form of Eddie, an enhanced victim recovery dog from South Yorkshire.

It's thanks to Eddie's super-sensitive nose that the partial remains of a young child were found last weekend, sparking the major investigation which has unfolded this week.

Standard victim recovery dogs are trained to detect human remains in shallow graves. Eddie, a seven-year-old springer spaniel, has been trained to react to the faintest trace of human bones, blood and flesh - even through solid materials.

Jersey Police say he located parts of a child's body under several inches of concrete.

He and his working partner Keela are the only dedicated enhanced victim recovery dogs in the UK and the techniques used to train them are a well-kept secret.

Their skills also make them a valuable commodity. A newly-qualified police officer takes home a basic pay of just over £21,500. If reports this week are to be believed, Eddie doesn't get out of bed for less than £1,000 a day.

He and Keela are regularly called in by police forces to investigate more complicated cases, in this country and overseas. The pair were flown to Portugal to help in the hunt for Madeleine McCann, and Keela worked on the attempted murder of Abigail Wichells, who was left paralysed after being stabbed in Surrey in 2005. She and handler Martin Grime - a retired South Yorkshire Police officer - have even been invited to America to share their expertise with the FBI.

Keela hit the headlines a couple of years ago when it was revealed she was earning more than the chief constable of South Yorkshire Police. Then a relatively humble crime scenes dog, trained to sniff out minute traces of blood in clothes that had been washed repeatedly, or on weapons that had been scrubbed clean, her going rate was £530 a day, plus expenses.

Mr Grime and his canine companions are in such demand that he has started training two more enhanced victim recovery dogs - Morse and Lewis.

Dogs have an estimated 200 million scent receptors in their nose, compared with the 5million humans have, making them much more efficient at distinguishing between different smells. Sniffer dogs are trained over several months to react in a certain way at the presence of a particular substance. Some dogs are taught to bark insistently, others to stand stock still and focus on the source of the scent.

Sergeant Fiona Barron heads up the dog section at Grampian Police and said dogs were being deployed in an ever-widening range of duties. Her team consists of 11 handlers and 19 dogs.

Every officer has a German shepherd, which is used for general police duties such as searching for missing persons and crowd control, but in recent years the unit has been augmented with the arrival of specially-trained sniffer dogs. There are now four labradors, four springer spaniels and a Border collie, which have been trained to sniff out drugs, firearms, cash and explosives.

The dogs form close bonds with their handlers and go home with them at night and each is a specialist in its own field. A drugs dog wouldn't be used to hunt for explosives, for instance, nor would a firearms dog be asked to detect hidden money. Sense of smell doesn't vary greatly from breed to breed but other characteristics do, making some dogs more suitable for certain roles than others. The little collie - a drug dog - is the oldest member of the team but, as any farmer will tell you, the breed's stamina puts others to shame.

Drugs make up most of the team's workload. Firearms and explosives dogs are most frequently used for sniffing out premises before VIP visits or when the Royal Family are in the north-east, but are also used in weapons investigations. Like all of the others, the cash sniffer dogs rely on their acute sense of smell and have been trained to react to the faintest scent of money.

Sgt Barron said the dogs were vital for modern police work, regularly saving hours of manpower.

"Quite often the dogs will find money or drugs that have been very carefully concealed," she said. "Say we are searching a house, they can straight away locate a package that has been hidden away behind a work top or under tiles - something that a police officer just couldn't do, not without spending hours dismantling the kitchen anyway."

A sniffer dog would typically be expected to work for about eight years, starting at around 18 months. They come from all sorts of sources, including breeders, other forces and members of the public. Grampian Police has never had its own breeding programme, but Sgt Barron said it was something she could envisage in future.

"We're using specialist dogs more and more as it is, and as they become more important that's something we might have to consider," she added.

Sniffer dogs are increasingly being used in a wider arena. A number of private companies exist in the UK, providing dogs to sniff out not just drugs and explosives, but also knives, mobile phones and meat products.

In Shetland, the local community has clubbed together to buy its own team of sniffer dogs to detect drugs being smuggled into the islands.

US authorities even had sniffer dogs posted at airports last month to root out contraband haggis in travellers' suitcases.

Dogs are also proving their worth in a medical setting. A new partnership which will harness dogs in the fight against cancer will be launched at Crufts next week. The charity Cancer and Bio-Detection Dogs believes it has made a major breakthrough by proving dogs can be trained to detect cancer by smell.

Its dogs have already notched up remarkable success at detecting bladder cancer in urine samples. The charity is now extending its focus to include other cancers, notably skin cancer and prostate cancer, and continuing its work into the detection of diabetes.

It is being supported by Surrey-based dog training and behaviour experts, Company of Animals. The two organisations will be outlining their plans at Crufts on Thursday.

Cancer cells are known to produce chemical compounds which are different from those made by healthy cells, and it is believed that some of these may have distinctive odours.

Cancer Dogs UK teamed up with scientists from the Amerdem Research Trust at the Amersham Hospital to see if its animals could be trained to sniff out cancer.

The dogs were taught to lie down next to their chosen sample and scored a 56% accuracy rate at discriminating between samples from patients with bladder cancer and those from healthy people and patients with other diseases. Cancer and Bio-detection Dogs trustee Dr Roger Mugford, who is also an animal psychologist and founder of the Company of Animals, said:
"Today, dogs are widely used by the police and the Army to detect drugs and explosives, which highlights how their incredibly strong sense of smell can be turned into making a positive contribution to our human world. We are delighted to support Cancer and Bio-detection Dogs' ongoing work, which underlines our canine companion's cleverness and capacity to be man's best friend".

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