Dachshunds Sniff and Become Unlikely Cadaver Dogs – American Kennel Club
Sue Stejskal walked slowly on her stomach through a dark crawl space that may have once housed the corpse of a murder victim. A headlamp was all she had for light.
She was in this predicament because of Chili Dawg, a sweet 8-pound dachshund with straight hair the color of a caramel milkshake. Stejskal got the dog a few years earlier as a pet and show dog. Somehow, her adorable little pup had grown up to be a dead dog, trained to smell death.
When detectives needed help with a 20-year-old cold case, they contacted a 5-foot-2 woman and her sniffer dog, which was a little bigger than an iPhone on her shoulder. It may seem like an odd choice, but for this job, no one would have been better.
“We were called in because of her size,” Stejskal explains, “she was small enough to fit into the crawl space.” Chili’s nose provided clues that helped the case.
Dachshunds aren’t exactly what comes to mind when people say “police dog.” In popular culture, their sausage bodies, pointy noses and Who? Me? expressions are the stuff of comedy. No Halloween parade is complete without a few sausage dogs on a bun.
Recently, South Australia Police announced a new division – Urban Search and Small Area Guided Evacuation Dogs – made up of three Dachshunds. “We can throw them under beds, in closets and other furniture,” the police commissioner said. “We can even attach them to drones.”
It was April Fools.
All kidding aside, dachshunds possess many qualities that make them suitable for detective work. Insightful noses are just one part of it. They were developed in 17th century Germany to hunt badgers, wild animals weighing 25 to 40 pounds of teeth, muscle and bad attitude. The short legs and long, low bodies of the dachshund are designed to dive into tunnels after their prey.
The ideal Dachsie temperament, the breed standard notes, is “intelligent, lively and courageous to the point of recklessness”. As Stejskal said when describing Chili, “She was like a Malinois trapped in a sausage dog costume.”
A quarter and a dream
Whippets and Cardigan Welsh Corgis had been Stejskal’s breeds for 30 years, and she participated in conformation, obedience and tracking. Then, in the late 1990s, a series of surgeries limited his upper body strength. A smaller dog, she thought, might be easier to handle.
She had a 10-week-old Miniature Wirehaired Dachshund puppy in 2001. Chili quickly won her AKC Championship, passed her Canine Good Citizen test, and earned a Novice Tracking and Rally title.
It was a common thread, full of energy and curiosity. Stejskal struggled to find ways to occupy it. Then she remembered a book she had picked up for a quarter at a library sale eight years earlier. They were search and rescue dogs.
“I never thought about the possibility of getting involved,” she recalls. “But I had a dog, a dog with a nose, a dog that loved to use it. Maybe?”
She called the president of a national search dog organization and described Chili’s drive and eagerness. She waited until the end to reveal that she was talking about an 8 pound dachshund. To her great surprise, the experienced trainer did not react with derision or discouragement. All that mattered, the woman said, was whether the dog was eager to learn. Well, she was.
In about a year and a half, Chili and Stejskal have mastered the skills needed to become a human remains detection team for land and water searches. During his 11-year career in law, Chili has located human remains associated with homicides, suicides, drownings and missing persons cases.
“Chili was a force to be reckoned with,” says Stejskal. “She went through life not knowing how small she was. … In a search, the words I use to describe Chile are intense, obsessed, driven and methodical. No matter what, she would arrive at the source. She never lost her focus. Chili was driven.
In the field, Stejskal carried the little dog in a backpack. She could tell if Chili had smelled the scent because she could sense a change in behavior in her furry detective. She was starting to move around in the bag, sniffling and digging.
Chili, who died at 16 and a half, helped solve many cases. Equally important, it opened up a whole new world for its owner, who had a background in science writing and education.
“Shortly after going down this path, I became a reserve deputy, which I did for 10 years, with our county sheriff’s department as well as a special deputy with the county,” she said. She served as a human remains detector dog and forensic evidence dog handler for the St. Joseph County, Michigan Sheriff’s Department for nearly 20 years. Her resume includes books on detector dogs and detecting bed bugs, and two children’s books on her partners—The Little Dog Who Did Big Things and Buzz visits Mackinac Island.
In 2009, while Chili was still active, Stejskal added another detection dog to his team: the chocolate Labrador Retriever Buzz. Then, seven years later, she got Maple, an English Springer Spaniel.
In 2019, after a brilliant career, Buzz passed away. Stejskal decided it was “time to return to the world of little dogs who don’t know they’re little,” she says.
Enter Hundeleben Oh it’s Sheriff Woody Mw, RN, CGC, TKN. After years of dealing with the brutal and gritty world of crime, she figured she would have fun with Woody and participate in dog sports.
The universe had other plans.
Stejskal realized that there was still a great unmet need for K-9 noses in her community, and she missed being a part of that world. For a time she worked with Maple and Woody in detecting bed bugs. Then she returned to detecting human remains on the water.
Woody is gentler than his predecessor, but he turns into an accomplished water detector dog. Stejskal particularly admires his powers of concentration – his ability to ignore flocks of swans and other birds, for example – while he searches.
Woody is still in training, but he once helped recover a drowning victim. Late last year, he won an award – Neighborhood Dog Finder – from a regional chapter of the United States Police Canine Association. He was deputized and serves on the department’s crime scene unit and dive team, as well as the county’s Major Crimes Task Force.
Stejskal clearly loves what she does, but she points out that it’s not for everyone. It takes tremendous training, discipline, and dedication to be a K-9 handler for law enforcement. Still, she says, there are ways for everyone to experience the thrill of watching dogs search with their noses.
Many organized events are based on canine scent powers, such as earth dog, field trials, barn hunting, scent work, and tracking. “So many ways,” she says, “to enjoy the fun little packs we know as dachshunds.”