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These Rescue Dogs Need Your Spare Body Parts

Dave Howe, owner of SHARP K9s holds a jar of human knee tissue used to train search & rescue dogs.
Edward O'Brien
Montana Public Radio
Dave Howe, owner of SHARP K9s holds a jar of human knee tissue used to train search & rescue dogs.

The Missoula County Search and Rescue team helps people who are usually in big trouble. It’s also in charge of recovering the remains of those for whom it’s too late.

For the past two years, Dave Howe, a founding member of Search and Rescue’s K9 Team, has built a network of people willing to donate pieces of their own bodies to help train his dogs to find human remains. Howe’s team is now asking for larger body part donations to hone those canine skills.

Abby is a beautiful eight-year-old German Shepherd on a mystery mission. She’s searching for something hidden on a one-acre pasture here in Florence, Montana.

"She’s running around now. She’s doing an inventory. What she’s trying to catch a whiff of the odor in the air," says Missoula County Search and Rescue Assistant Chief Dave Howe.

"And I’m walking in a grid, watching her the entire time. She doesn’t have to cover every inch of the ground, but her nose can pick up things far away.

"Hey hey!”

That “hey hey” is a quick redirect command, but Abby — who Howe describes as the ‘rock star’ of his K9 team — barely needs it. It takes her roughly two minutes to find what she was looking for.

"She has got scent of the human remains," Howe says.

Specifically, a kneecap. It’s tucked in a little mason jar buried in the pasture’s south end. Abby sits next to it and looks to Dave for feedback on her performance.

"Good girl! You did it! Good girl," Howe tells Abby.

Dave and his wife Christine own the dog training company SHARP K9s. The Howes teach everything from basic obedience to professional detection work; drugs, aquatic invasives, explosives, even bed bugs.

Human remains detection is a must-have skill-set for search and rescue dogs. Missoula’s Search and Rescue dogs are deployed several times a year. They help find lost hunters or mushroom pickers. In worst-case scenarios they can find remains of people who’ve perished in the backcountry. If handlers lead their dogs to the general vicinity of where someone died, Howe says a well-trained dog has a greater than 90 percent chance of finding those remains.

"The dog has about 300 million olfactory receptors in it’s nose. We have about 5 million," Howe says.

To put that in perspective:

"We smell bread. [When] A dog smells bread, it smells salt, it smells yeast, it smells everything in the bread, everything used to cook the bread."

Howe says that magnificent nose is the perfect tool to help find human remains. But a tracking dog must know what decomposing human flesh smells like before it can search for it. To that end, the Howes have amassed a stash of small body parts.

"Yeah. We have a freezer full."

Howe leads me to a white freezer, the kind found in almost any Montana garage. But this one isn’t filled with elk meat or fish.

"There’s bone, tissue — in fact, a good friend of ours got his knee replaced yesterday and here it is."

"These are Bitterrooter teeth."

Dave Howe is owner of SHARP K9s, pictured with Abby the German Shepard in front of their freezer full of body parts.
Credit Edward O'Brien / Montna Public Radio
Montna Public Radio
Dave Howe is owner of SHARP K9s, pictured with Abby the German Shepard in front of their freezer full of body parts.

I start to ask a question about the freezer’s contents, but one label stops me in my tracks.

"Well, that’s a unique one," Howe says.

And he’s not kidding.

"That’s a placenta and it got maggots in it."

The Howe’s collection of human remains comes from a growing network of people willing to donate bits and pieces of their own bodies that they’re going to lose anyway.

That network started two years ago with a chance meeting between two women during a routine physical therapy appointment.

"My name is Michelle Weaver Knowles. I donated my hip bone to Sharp K9s, which they use for the Missoula County Search and Rescue team."

Christine Howe, a dog trainer herself and retired Navy Medical Service Corps Officer, asked Knowles if she would donate her hip joint to the SHARP K9’s training program.

Michelle Weaver Knowles and Dave Howe.
Credit Courtesy Michelle Weaver Knowles
Michelle Weaver Knowles and Dave Howe.

"I’m like, ‘absolutely’. I thought what a great opportunity to help other people in my community and to help the search and rescue people, Weaver Knowles says. "I mean, my hip bone was going in the trash, so why not help them out?"

She says the hospital paperwork to release specimens such as hip joints and placentas to the SHARP K9 training program is now a no-hassle snap.

But the SHARP K9 team now wants larger specimens, like a foot or a whole leg.

Trainer Dave Howe says thats, "because some dogs, if they’re constantly smelling a small portion of a body and then they come across an entire body that’s badly decomposed, it can really throw the dog off."

Michelle Weaver Knowles, herself a breast cancer survivor who donated part of her own hip, believes it is possible to do good from personal tragedy.

"It’s devastating to have to go through something like that, but these things that happen to us that are super traumatic and that we have to deal with in our lives; we can always help the next person."

SHARP K9s Dave Howe, a retired Marine Corps Infantry Officer, says his second career as both a dog trainer and Assistant Chief of Missoula County Search and Rescue is immensely rewarding work.

"If you can help them solve problems, or in a search and rescue capacity, be able to find somebody who’s lost or help find somebody who’s deceased and have that closure for the family; it’s priceless. It really is."

Anyone wishing to donate a body part, to help improve search dog training should contact SHARP K9s, which is the custodian of Missoula County Search and Rescue’s Human Remains program.

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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