What the Dog Knows

Last week I was able to witness something special in our region’s cemeteries — the work of cadaver dogs and their handlers trying to discern the nature of a burial ground’s landscape.

The primary advocate for Richmond’s Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground, Lenora McQueen, had seen a 2021 presentation by Cat Warren on how cadaver dogs had found amazing successes in locating lost burials. McQueen then connected with Warren, a scientist and dog handler at the forefront of these techniques, to ask if she would consider engaging with the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground project, since there is so little to see above the surface of those grounds and no one wants archaeological excavations. Cadaver dogs, coupled with imaging tools like ground penetrating radar, could prove a non-intrusive means to discover more information. Kim Chen, a longtime planner for the city of Richmond (the original site’s new owner), made the visit happen.

So under cool and breezy conditions last week, I met Warren and her collaborators, Paul Martin and Dari Sharp. I also got to meet their talented and hard-working dogs, including Abby, a normal-looking, sweet black lab about five years old. These dogs have the ability to do breathtaking things – to locate the place of burial for human remains interred centuries ago, or to discern such remains hundreds of feet below the surface of lakes or rivers.

Both Cat and Paul have stories to tell. Cat has told hers in an engrossing memoir of such work, What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World, a New York Times bestseller published in 2013. Paul was finishing his PhD in Earth Sciences and geoarchaeology at the University of Memphis when his private practice started to boom as a result of his in-demand handling expertise.

Over three days, frequently accompanied by Kim Chen and staff from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the group explored every angle of the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground with the dogs. Sometimes Abby was on-leash, and other times she was off-leash, always moving. She was inspiring to watch. Paul followed up the dogs’ work with ground penetrating radar. I certainly saw the site in a brand new light. Things were discovered, which Paul will detail in a forthcoming report that we will want to pay close attention to.

This site is delicate and endangered, and such an approach is not without its controversy. But I saw the wisdom of Cat’s words from her book, “Overall, the world seems less frightening with a large dog at your side–and that is perhaps especially true when one faces death.”