Dog's 'game' deadly serious: Cadaver canine one of region's top-ranked
Any time you pull up next to a vehicle in the Fargo-Moorhead area with a golden retriever sitting next to the driver, it may be the one with the human body parts stashed in the car.
Don't worry -- they're not on their way from committing a crime. They may, however, be on their way toward solving one.
Mike Knorr and his dog Scupper of rural Clay County are one of the region's top-ranked human remains detection teams.
At a training exercise in advanced human remains proficiency in Indiana recently, Scupper beat out all but one other dog in a group of eight from around the country. The two were the only dogs that tested as 100 percent accurate, making no mistakes in sniffing out a human body.
"It's nonstop training -- you train and train constantly," said Knorr, as he talked on the phone in the car on his way back from the Twin Cities, Scupper's head in his lap. "He's with me 24 hours a day.
"But it doesn't seem like we work enough -- put to use his expertise. But that's a good thing," said Knorr, a volunteer diver with Valley Water Rescue, a rescue and search agency serving primarily Cass and Clay counties.
Scupper, a 4-year-old dog, is arguably at the top of his career as a human remains recovery specialist. Dogs don't work as much as they become elderly, which can happen as early as 8 years old in bigger breeds, and Scupper has already had a work-related knee injury and subsequent surgery to install a plate in his leg that sidelined his career for the better part of a year.
Not that Scupper is worrying about how being benched will look on his resume.
"For dogs, it's all a game," Knorr said. "They're not going out [on search] to help humanity ... When we go to work, it's kind of play."
While it's play for the dogs, the results of their games are often deadly serious.
Scupper was recently sent on the search for Kira Trevino, a young St. Paul woman whose husband has been charged in her death, and for Kurt Johnson, the North Dakota State University researcher whose head was recovered in a crawl space in the basement of convicted killer Daniel Wacht's home in Cooperstown.
Scupper's used so often to find the dead that he can no longer work in his other professional capacity, tracking the living.
"There's some controversy over cross-training for live versus deceased," Knorr said. "Like, could a defense attorney challenge an indication of live scent versus death scent" in a criminal case that sought to prove a suspect had killed a missing person before the dog had found the victim.
"It seems like the consensus is that it's better to specialize," he said.
Scupper's skills in finding the dearly departed come not just from his and Knorr's dedication, but also through the dog's genetic gifts. Longer-nosed breeds have more scent receptors, so they're better suited for searching.
Also, high-energy types such as German shepherds or golden and Labrador retrievers are well-suited for the work, though pound pups have made good search dogs, too.
"(Trainers) will throw a ball down the hall, see how all the dogs react," said Knorr. The dog in the pound that perks up the most is likely to train well.
Scupper, whose grandparent was the only non-German shepherd to ever win an award for drug detection, came from a breeder.
Handlers also must secure training material for cadaver dogs. Knorr gets his from a variety of unnerving sources, including his friends with Valley Water Rescue.
Fellow diver Pete Fendt recently donated a tooth after dental extraction.
"He hears someone has had surgery and he asks, 'Can I have it?'" Fendt said.
Valley Water Rescue folks also donate blood to Scupper's search training, and couples who've had babies have been known to give Knorr the placenta.
"I called (Clay County) Sheriff (Bill) Bergquist recently to ask if we could have some sort of arrangement in case Mike's pulled over with body parts," said Fendt. "He said, 'Just have him call me.'"
Procuring parts for training isn't cheap - the bones Knorr orders online from a Chinese company even charge extra for unbleached bones -- and neither is travel and care for Scupper.
Metropolitan Council of Government pays for the usage of Scupper and his training, which can require weeks of travel in a year.
In an interview Wednesday, Knorr said he and Scupper were only home for about 24 hours before taking take off again for a search "in the larger region -- somewhat local," he said, a search which he's not at liberty to discuss.
Knorr said the case is more than a year and half old, and he had high hopes "that we can be successful - and help to bring closure."