Sniffing out the dead: Trainer teaches dogs to find human remains

Dr. Barbara Weakley-Jones watches her dog, Abby, smell around the base of a tree.

“Did you find something?” she asks. “Did you find something?”

Abby paws the ground, lifts her head and barks.

“Good girl. Good job,” Weakley-Jones says.

Abby runs toward her owner, leaving the glass spice container she found beneath the tree where Jones buried it a few hours before. Weakley-Jones knows it is there because she marked the spot with a flag.

Abby, whose full name is Abracadaver, used her nose to smell the human fluids frozen inside the container. The 8-year-old German shepherd is what Weakley-Jones calls a “cadaver dog,” and what the more prim might refer to as a “human remains detection dog.”

Some people train dogs to find missing people. Some train them to find drugs. Weakley-Jones trains them to find dead bodies. It may seem gruesome, but for Weakley-Jones it makes perfect sense: She has always preferred the dead to the living when it comes to her work.

When she was in medical school, she says she constantly worried she would make a mistake and kill her patients. The dead never worried her, which explains how she ended up performing autopsies as a state medical examiner.

“The only thing that can come out of a dead body is something positive,” she explains, “like you get the murderer, you get the killer, you tell the family that the baby died of sudden infant death. …”

In late 2009, she was named Jefferson County's first woman coroner. She succeeded Dr. Ronald Holmes, who retired. Last month, she spent a few days volunteering in Haiti after the earthquake only to be flown back early because of illness.

Neither of which explains the dogs.

Until you learn that before she became a doctor, she wanted to be a veterinarian.

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