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What A Nose! Trained Dogs Sniff Out Pioneer Era Graves

Some very special search dogs have been getting a workout in the Northwest. They’re trained to sniff out the remains of people buried as long as 9,000 years ago. This past week, their assignment was to find burials from the early Oregon Trail days.

You've heard of hunting dogs and search and rescue dogs. There are drug-sniffing dogs and bomb-sniffing dogs. And now, the increasing canine specialization brings: historic and prehistoric human remains detection dogs.

Adela Morris trains the latter and founded a California-based firm to contract out their services.

"What's interesting about a body that is buried, it is very protected and the scent stays and lasts thousands of years,” Morris said.

?You might think we go from dust to dust, as the saying goes, after about 100 years.  ?

"No, not so much," Morris said. “It really also depends on the soil type."

And the ground cover. Here on her latest assignment, invasive ivy, blackberries and poison oak challenged the searchers.

‘Literally following their nose’

Morris' Institute for Canine Forensics came to Oregon in late September with handlers, apprentices and three dogs from California and Washington state.

The dogs were called in to inventory an overgrown part of Champoeg State Heritage Park that was once the graveyard of a pioneer homestead.

A yellow Labrador and two border collies successively crisscrossed the old cemetery where there's just one headstone left. They searched heads down with their noses right at ground level.

"They're literally following their nose,” Morris said. “They sometimes will even run into a tree or a bush because they are following their nose."  ?

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Border collie Berkeley and handler Lynne Angeloro of Sequim, Washington, search a pioneer family cemetery for unmarked burials.

Berkeley, one of the collies, stopped and made an alert pose. That was a signal to handler Lynne Angeloro. The signal meant Berkeley sniffed old human remains and the handler then marked the spot. 

The dogs had a second assignment nearby to determine which of several possible locations could contain the remains of Kitty Newell. She was a Nez Perce woman who married a pioneer fur trapper. She died in 1845. ?

The canine team narrowed down where Newell was probably buried. An archaeology team will try to corroborate the dogs' work with other techniques such as ground penetrating radar or magnetometers. 

A non-invasive search method

Ranger Dan Klug said park managers wanted a non-invasive way to find where people are buried in the history-rich area.

"In state parks, old water lines tend to break,” he said. “We need to dig below the surface to fix the water lines. But we are not allowed to dig in a historic area for fear of destroying cultural resources.”

It was archaeologist Chelsea Rose's idea to hire the sniffer dogs for a couple of days as part of longer archaeological survey of the state park. Rose works out of Southern Oregon University.

She'd heard about forensic search dogs, but had never used them before and was a little skeptical.

"We don't have any better option,” Rose said. “Our other option using metal detection or magnetometry would have the same questions, except we would also wonder if it was just a rusty nail down there. We wouldn't know if it was coffin hardware specifically, which would be what those things would be looking for. So I think this is a better indicator because in theory they are smelling human remains.”

The detection dogs have previously worked in the Pacific Northwest to search for Native American burials with the Spokane Tribe, the city of Sequim and Washington State Department of Transportation.

In addition to the Champoeg project, Berkeley has a claim to fame. He took part in a midsummer expedition to the South Pacific sponsored by National Geographic to search for the remains of lost aviator Amelia Earhart. Berkeley signaled at a possible grave site on Nikumaroro Atoll. A subsequent dig yielded fragmentary evidence which remains under investigation.?

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.