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WCU human remains detection K9 training program wins award

WCU’s cadaver dog training program received an award recognizing its professional development programs. Donated photo WCU’s cadaver dog training program received an award recognizing its professional development programs. Donated photo

Western Carolina University’s human remains detection cadaver dog training program was recently awarded the 2022 University Professional and Continuing Education Association award for special populations at the UPCEA South Conference in Atlanta.

This award recognizes outstanding professional development programs offered by universities across the southeast, from Virginia to Texas.

WCU’s HRD cadaver dog program, which is under the direction of Lisa Briggs, director of WCU’s emergency and disaster management program, has been offered at WCU since 2011.

HRD K9s are a specially trained group of search dogs who specialize in locating missing people in criminal investigations, suicides, overdoses, lost persons, natural disasters and structural collapses such as the twin towers on 9/11, and most recently the flood victims in Haywood County.

“Once thought of as a pseudoscience, understanding how canines can be effective and reliable as tools in human remains recovery is being accomplished at WCU through interdisciplinary relationships in the College of Arts and Sciences and WCU’s Forensic Osteology Research Station,” said Briggs.

In addition to directing the programs at WCU, Briggs also serves as a search and recovery specialist for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and is on the State Bureau of Investigation Human Remains Task Force, as well as a member of the Department of Homeland Security Reunification Team. 

“One can only imagine for a moment their own family member being missing and unable to locate them to understand the significance of our work,” Briggs said.

She understands how important it is to have specialty trained K9s to locate the missing and is appreciative of the resources, relationships and support from the university for such an important area of specialization.

“It is crucial that HRD K9s be trained on actual human remains and not placenta or pseudo corpse,” Briggs said. “One should not expect a K9 to be effective unless they are actually trained on that which the K9 team is searching for. There are very few locations in the country, or the world for that matter, who provide access to those who have donated their bodies to science like we have here at WCU.”

Handlers and their K9s come from countries all over the world and the nation to train in WCU’s program where Briggs and other experienced law enforcement K9 officers and trainers lead with first-hand experience in the recovery of human remains.

The Division of Educational Outreach facilitates the trainings that happen on campus throughout the year.

“Once the program began, word quickly spread and we saw surging demand from K9 handlers all across the United States and abroad who wanted to bring their dogs to Cullowhee for training,” said Bobby Hensley, associate director of continuing education in Educational Outreach. “Lately, the classes fill to capacity in about seven minutes from the time they are opened to law enforcement, fire, and search and rescue personnel. It is wonderful that our program received recognition from such a prestigious organization and to be selected the best program for special populations in the southeast is quite an award.”

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