Copycatting the smell of death: Deciphering the role of cadaveric scent components used by detection dogs to locate human remains

Clément Martin, Marta Malević, Claire Diederich, François Verheggen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Human remains detection dogs (HRDD) are commonly used by law enforcement agencies to search for cadavers. Biological material is typically used as a training stimulus, also called aids, to train dogs to recognize the smell of cadavers. While HRDD training approaches have received extensive attention, information remains limited on the olfactory cues used to train them. Here, we aimed to decipher the chemical basis of detection dog olfaction. Five specific objectives were explored to precise whether the composition or the concentration of the training aids drives the HRDDs responses. We recorded the behavioral responses of four HRDDs exposed to different cadaveric-like smells. We found that HRDDs recognized a simplified synthetic aid composed of cadaveric compounds. The lowest concentration at which HRDDs continued to perceive the cadaveric smell was determined. HRDDs were not impacted by slight modifications to the chemical composition of a blend of odors that they have been trained with. HRDDs associated sulfur and nitrogen compounds as human cadaver. Our findings highlight a lack of specificity of HRDDs to cadaveric compounds, which could lead to error of detection. Moreover, all dogs did not positively respond to the same blends, despite being trained with the same aids and procedure. However, we confirmed that dogs could be trained with a simplified blend of molecules. The chemical composition of a training aid has, therefore, high consequences on the performance of the trained animal, and this conclusion opens additional questions regarding olfaction-based detection animals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1190-1197
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Forensic Sciences
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023


  • cadaveric odor
  • detection dogs perception
  • detection dogs training
  • forensic science
  • human remains detection dogs
  • olfaction


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