K9s train to sniff out unmarked graves at Rifle, Glenwood cemeteries

Martin Archaeology Consulting and HRD Specialized K9 Training host historical grave detection seminar

In the pauper area of Linwood Cemetery, K9 Hawk, trained and handled by Melissa Kindt of Delta, poses with his reward toy after locating and alerting on the grave marked as Kid Curry.
Courtesy/Melissa Kindt

Linwood Cemetery in Glenwood Springs and Rose Hill Cemetery in Rifle became training grounds over the weekend for a historical-grave detection seminar. 

The training seminar, hosted by Paul S. Martin of Martin Archaeology Consulting and HRD Specialized K9 Training, took 11 K9 handlers and their dogs to cemeteries in Garfield County to detect unmarked graves in the cemetery’s potter fields. 

“We actually have two potter sections that we don’t have any records on, so I thought it was kind of a good fit to where they’ll get to do some training and we’ll be able to identify some grave spaces that may not be marked,” said Austin Rickstrew, director of Rifle Parks & Recreation. 

Eleven handlers, both locally and from out-of-state, traveled from as far as Alaska to train with Martin Archeology and HRD Specialized K9 Training. 

The trainings, which aid dogs in practicing archeological detection, are not the easiest to come by. 

“My experience has been that these types of trainings are kind of few and far between, and so a lot of handlers that want to do this type of work are just going to have to travel to be able to work with experienced and good mentors,” said Melissa Kindt, one of the handlers at the seminar. 

Kindt is a nontraditional student of Applied Anthropology and Geography, and Criminal Justice at Colorado Mesa University. She works as a researcher, editor and detection canine handler for Martin Archaeology Consulting LLC. She also volunteers as a search and recovery detection handler for Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado and Search and Rescue dogs of the United States

“Let’s say that I just bought 40 acres and there’s a rumor that there’s a cemetery on it somewhere,” Kindt said. “So I could call somebody … and have them come out and do a survey with the dog and see if they could find a location of where that cemetery might be.” 

On top of everything, Kindt helps to coordinate and organize the seminars with Martin Archaeology Consulting. 

“I just sent an introductory letter to (Rifle Parks & Recreation) and asked if we could come out and utilize the space and Austin (Rickstrew) answered and said yes. And so here we are,” Kindt said. 

In the upper charity area of Rose Hill Cemetery, Jeff Liddle of Estes Park closely watches his K9, Kismet, for subtle changes in body language which would indicate that she has located her target odor and is working it to its strongest point.
Courtesy/Melissa Kindt

Kindt also works as an independent contractor K9 handler for Archaeological Human Remains Detection (AHRD). 

In AHRD, dogs are used as biological sensors to locate unmarked historic and prehistoric burials. Their services are used by a variety of organizations, from private property owners to public parks associations and the occasional cold case. 

This detection method allows for locating graves without digging below the ground’s surface and disturbing the earth. 

Many of the dogs that work with human remains detection come from search and recovery work. Kindt and her dog, Hawk, have trained in detecting human remains for eight years, though they both started out in search and rescue in Larimer County. 

“When I’m working for search and rescue, I’m looking for the hunter that hasn’t come home for three weeks, and there’s been a gigantic blizzard where he was hunting, and the chances of him being alive still are very, very low,” Kindt said. “We did do some live find search, and then (Hawk) had a catastrophic injury to his shoulder, and I moved into just doing human remains detection with him.” 

Training dogs to do this work takes extensive training, which is where Martin’s seminar comes in. These sessions not only help the dogs practice their detection, but they also teach handlers to read the body language of their dogs once they’ve detected the odor of human decomposition. 

The goal is to host the trainings on the oldest burial sites available so that the embalming process does not interfere with what the dogs are smelling. 

Additionally, training a dog to detect old remains as opposed to looking for a missing person requires a very different approach. For many dogs being trained for archeological detection, the first roadblock is understanding that what they’re looking for is underground. 

“Hawk has been a wide area search dog, so he likes to run fast and cover a ton of ground as fast as possible,” Kindt said. “And so that’s been a little bit of a challenge for him … to slow down because the odor is down on the ground and it’s not very much odor compared to what we would be looking for if we were looking for that hunter.” 

In their search for real burial sites, they saw Linwood and Rose Hill cemeteries as a good fit for the dogs. 

“There was a really noticeable turnaround for them, from the very beginning of, ‘I have no idea what’s going on,’ to, ‘Oh, I know what we’re doing now,'” Kindt said. 

Kindt said that dogs alerted the handlers on “quite a few” unidentified graves. However, it can be difficult to know when different alerts may pertain to the same grave. 

“It’s really hard to tell the dogs to be like, ‘This is one grave,'” Kindt said. “One dog alerts on the foot and one dog alerts on the head, so we might have two alerts for one grave. It’s hard to quantify that without getting the GPR in there to actually go through where the dogs are saying there’s odor.” 

Seminar participants pose for a group drone photo at the Whitewater Cemetery south of Grand Junction.
Courtesy/Melissa Kindt

The next step after a dog alerts to a detection of underground human remains would be to search the area with GPR, or ground-penetrating radar. That data would be processed to determine whether there is a person buried in that location. Depending on who contracted the work of the K9 handlers, they might choose to place a tombstone where they know the graves are located. 

Kindt said that though they were unable to search the cemeteries with GPR over the weekend, they hope to repeat the seminar next year and see the identification process all the way through. 

Martin Archaeology Consulting and HRD Specialized K9 Training conducted the grave search at no charge to the cities or Rifle or Glenwood Springs — rather, they offer help with the detection of historical burial sites in exchange for a place to train their dogs. Outside of the trainings, their work can be contracted by people or organizations interested in identifying human remains on their property.

“It’s a long process and it’s a lot for people to learn, and it’s not just about handling the dogs. It’s also about the GPR and the survey — all the other stuff that goes along with all of that,” Kindt said. “There’s historical research and all that kind of stuff that’s involved.” 

This won’t be the seminar’s last year in the state of Colorado, just as it wasn’t the first. Last year, the organization worked with dogs at Whitewater Cemetery south of Grand Junction, Eagalite Cemetery in Mesa County and a private site in Loma. 

“We’re super grateful to Rifle Parks and also to the Historical Society in Glenwood for giving us the opportunity to work in those areas,” Kindt said. “It was really fantastic, and everybody was super thrilled to be there.” 

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