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Sydney study of the dead could influence poli -

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TIM PALMER: Do human remains taken from a morgue smell the same to cadaver searching dogs as bodies lying in the outside world?

That's the gruesome project Sydney researchers have embarked on to establish whether the current training of police dogs using morgue samples is effective.

AM's Tom Nightingale went to investigate.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: In a lab in Sydney, professor Shari Forbes slowly unscrews a small vial of dark brown liquid.

SHARI FORBES: This is a fluid that comes from decomposed remains. It's a mix of everything - blood, soft tissue that's liquefied, any other biological fluids present in your body. And just see if you can have a smell of that?

TOM NIGHTINGALE: Oh. Wow. That's pretty rancid isn't it?

SHARI FORBES: It's pretty putrid. (Laughs) That is the smell of decomposition odour.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: A little while ago that substance was pooled in a body bag. And while the smell is pretty distinctive to a human, a dog will pick up much more detail.

SHARI FORBES: So they're picking up much more complex molecules. So hydrogen, sulfide, methane are what we call simple molecules, and the dogs look for much longer chains basically. So there's still sulfide, so things like dimethyl disulfide.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: The substances in the lab go to New South Wales police to train cadaver detection dogs. But although the training uses samples from dead human bodies, it's not clear whether it's totally effective.

SHARI FORBES: At the moment we have a series of training aids that we're trying to use that we think cumulatively will have a similar odour to human remains, but that has not been proven. So that's a major limitation for the police.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: In real life, away from the training sites, the odours of dead bodies could be changed by insects, the weather, the soil and animal scavengers. The big question is what effect those changes have on the complex substances that dogs detect.

SHARI FORBES: The risk is that what they're trained to associate as decomposition odour is not decomposition odour, so when they go out in the field and when they're deployed they could actually run right past decomposed remains because that odour is different to what they've been trained to detect.

TOM NIGHTINGALE: On the outskirts of the city, the University of Technology Sydney research team has a site full of the bodies of dead pigs. Police detection dogs aren't trained for the scent of pigs but professor Forbes says the odours are similar to humans, so much so that the odours of a decomposing pig can be used to find the chemical make-up of the smell of a dead human body in the wild.

The next step involves chemically profiling the blood and body tissues that make up the dog training aids to see how closely they match that of the rotting pigs. It's hoped they'll be proven to match sometime next year.

TIM PALMER: Tom Nightingale reporting.