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State troopers use canine units to find missing persons, bodies [P]

By Jeffrey Sullivan
On October 24, 2006

  • The Rams were able to pull a 2-1 win over the University of Massachusettes with the help of a goal by Lukasz Tumciz in overtime of Sunday's game. Christopher Barrett

10/24/06 - Rhode Island State Trooper Matt T. Zarella and his two K-9 companions were featured on Friday at the University of Rhode Island's Forensic Science Seminar series. As soon as the seminar started, Zarella let his two coworkers into the building, and the friendly German shepherds introduced themselves to the entire audience.

"These dogs are trained only to find missing people and/or bodies; they are not trained to be aggressive because they have no function in apprehending or subduing subjects." Zarella said. "In fact, these dogs can find someone and stay with them or get help depending on the situation. In any case, these dogs are not trained to bite."

Instead of training the dogs in usual traditional tracking methods, officers use a technique called air scenting. The dogs are trained to scent human odor when looking for missing persons, and combinations of chemicals released from the body during all stages of decomposing. The method has proven much more effective in the past few years.

Utilizing a system of rewards, Zarella and his partners can find missing persons, bodies or even severely decomposed remains spread over a wide area. The most decayed remains they ever discovered were 38-years-old, and on another occasion they were able to detect remains 9-feet deep in the ground under layers of wood and cement.

But the road to success has not been an easy one. It seems that many law enforcement agencies underestimate the use of search dogs in forensic cases.

"We have to prove something every time we go out, and when we succeed everyone is amazed," Zarella said.

Yet, there is so much more these furry companions can offer to enforcement agencies and search and rescue in general. Not only are they cheaper than using people to comb an area, their sense of smell makes them superior and more accurate as well.

In one case, Zarella and his dogs located the remains of a body before the person later convicted of murdering the girl located them himself. The murderer was actually two acres away from the site, and yet the dogs were able to locate the remains first.

In 2003, Zarella was asked by the U.S. government to go to Vietnam and attempt to locate remains of U.S. soldiers. Using air scenting, dogs have been able to locate remains of servicemen in Vietnam decades after they died, even finding remains as small as a finger bone or small bone chip.

Zarella said he uses German Shepards for their abilities highlighted in such places as Vietnam.

"They are perfectly suited for this work in size, ability, stamina, speed and intelligence, that's just the way it is," he said. "I mean, you take bulldog on a search through the woods all day he's not going to make it without keeling over or taking a nap. They're just not as well suited for search and rescue operations."

The range of areas in which these dogs are effective is nearly limitless. They can smell bodies in water, land, rural areas, suburban areas, and even city streets. Even in a river or stream they can pick up the scent down stream and be able follow the flow until they can locate a cadaver or person.

Zarella and his dogs are bonded in more than just a working relationship, and one is never without the other.

"In my job, your primary focus is not the media, not the particulars of the case, or even what exactly we're supposed to find," he said. "In my job, your primary focus is always the dogs . If my job got eliminated tomorrow these two would still be mine. I'd take them home with me. That's how strong the bond is.

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