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I'm writing about a world that predates most modern forensic techniques, and I am looking for some old-fashioned methods of sleuthing that would have been available at around the 1850-1900.

In one scene, there is a massive explosion that results in a lot of blood and dead bodies. I'm looking for a plausible explanation for how my protagonist, who was present (and bleeding) at the scene of the crime, was tracked back to her home a day after the fact after no one knew she had been there and no one saw her leaving.

I need a reality check on whether dogs could have possibly been used to do this back then, specifically:

  • Could a dog follow the trail of a person who had some of their own blood on the bottom of their shoes, even if it was a day old?

  • Could a dog pick out the scent of a single person in the rubble of a collapsed building with ~30 bleeding/dead people around, or would so many scents confuse it? In other words, could a dog deduce the scent of a single person even if it were mixed with so many others, or would it have to have smelled them all separately?

  • What about if it already knew their smell, say by smelling something they touched? Would it be able to tell that the scent of a certain human corresponded to the scent of that person's blood? (i.e. Does your blood smell like "you"?)

  • If not, is there maybe something other than blood that a dog might be able to track better? Something that could have been available (but not too common) roughly around Victorian England?

The solution needn't necessarily be dog related--it's just all I can think of at the moment that wouldn't be anachronistic! Non-canine solutions from that time period equally welcome.

Edit: Dogs are way more impressive than I thought they were! Now I'm glad I picked my username.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure blood or no blood wouldn't really make any difference for the dog. A day-old scent track is ripe but not old, and a well-trained tracking dog should be able to follow that with little difficulty if they are just able to identify the specific trail to follow. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Mar 17 '17 at 8:41
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    $\begingroup$ Obligatory Mythbusters link. (They couldn't shake a bloodhound) $\endgroup$ – user10945 Mar 17 '17 at 9:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Pete Yeah, my immediate thought was that Mythbusters episode too. It would be worth putting that as an answer (with appropriate information pulled from the episode of course). $\endgroup$ – Tim B Mar 17 '17 at 12:08
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    $\begingroup$ Why should we, mostly humans, know this information better than you, a dog? $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Mar 17 '17 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ A better question, probably, is how they tell the other dog to pick out the trail? Or does somebody bring your buddy just to check out a hunch about the protagonist being there? I don't really consider dogs query engines ("find everybody who's not here..."), especially since you'd have problems with all the first responders and emergency workers who show up and leave. You'd likely need an item to start from. Oh, and there'd be a lot of noise from all the people who came and left normally (weren't present at the time of the crime), especially depending on what this place was. $\endgroup$ – Clockwork-Muse Mar 17 '17 at 16:09
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I saw a documentary where they were training a young, rescued bloodhound as a tracker. One of the tests was where the subject (to be tracked) went to a baseball game (in a stadium). So their scent was mingled with thousands of other people. The subject walked into the stadium, past the hot-dog stands and so on, and sat and watched the game.

The next day, after the game, after everyone had gone and the stadium was empty, the dog came in and tracked the subject's route, through the crowd: and found which seat in the stadium they sat in.

I'm not saying that the game was a scene of carnage but this example matches many of your other criteria:

  • tracked a day after the fact
  • a single person distinguished in a crowd
  • didn't even need a trail of blood

There might something unusual/ideal about a stadium: a lack of wind and other weather, for example, and/or a relatively odourless (concrete) floor. Tacking might (I don't know) be harder if it had rained overnight.

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    $\begingroup$ Being that we have a trained tracking dog for police rescue, I hope I can shed a bit more light on this. Lack of wind might actually hinder the tracking performance and concrete is not relatively odorless, it seem that way, but it has some very powerful chemical traits that could be very overpowering to a dog. Our dog does better on grass than on concrete just as a FYI. But, a stadium that was indoors may actually be harder for a dog to pickup the scent. Of coarse rain will very much hinder a dog picking up the scent. $\endgroup$ – KyloRen Mar 19 '17 at 5:59
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Very well indeed.

I recall watching a Mythbusters episode where the team attempted to evade a bloodhound using many different techniques (water, pepper, cologne, changing clothes, etc.). They got hunted down every single time.

Mythbusters (Even though the link is on the official Discovery channel website, they get their advert feeds from some dodgy places - use care in looking at the linked website here).

A bloodhound's olfactory sense is said to be about 1,000 times better than a human's, which is why the canine is so good at sniffing out our odor-emitting skin cells. In fact, that personal perfume is strong enough that none of Jamie's bloodhound-busting tactics worked. He zigzagged and doubled back on his trail, ran through a river, washed and changed clothes, doused himself in coffee and cologne, and even covered his tracks in ground pepper — all to no avail. Each time, the bloodhound sniffed right through the ruse and found the hiding Hyneman.

Up against centuries of top-notch breeding, the busted myth was no match for the bloodhound's superior schnoz.

So for your fiction, what you're proposing is absolutely believable.

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    $\begingroup$ But did Jamie try dead fish? (This is the origin of the term "red herring" meaning a distraction.) $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Mar 17 '17 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, I think I missed this episode. As for the ads, they are context-based and use your history to determine what ads to serve so...yeah, use care when browsing in general. $\endgroup$ – Eric Kigathi Mar 17 '17 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ @EricKigathi Um, no, that's not the kind of thing I'm browsing for while I'm at work... $\endgroup$ – user10945 Mar 17 '17 at 21:32
  • $\begingroup$ @MasonWheeler IIRC they used a literal red herring and it did nothing $\endgroup$ – Timpanus Mar 18 '17 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ From what I remember from the episode the bloodhound wasn't nearly so good when trying to track someone through an urban environment, where escaping pursuit of a bloodhound was considered plausible. kwc.org/mythbusters/2007/03/episode_74_dog_myths.html $\endgroup$ – Ross Ridge Mar 19 '17 at 2:52
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When the person leaves the scene, it is basically creating a trail from an high noise area (many odours) to a more silent area (fewer odours). What the dog has to do is simply explore the area while knowing what to sniff for. Going roughly in circles and outwards from the center of the area, the dog will sooner or later find the trail, and then follow it.

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  • $\begingroup$ That makes a lot of sense! So if someone touched something one time (that was owned by another person), would that be enough "signal to noise " for it to know what to look for? $\endgroup$ – Dog Mar 17 '17 at 9:08
  • $\begingroup$ that would more likely create noise. If you read Fahreneit 451, during the escape from the mechanical hound, the main character wears someone else's clothes to mask his own odour.. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Mar 17 '17 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ Oh yes, sorry--that was my poor wording. I should have typed "EVEN if it was owned by another person". Interesting about the clothes though! I may have my protagonist start stealing clothes. $\endgroup$ – Dog Mar 17 '17 at 9:26
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Sure. Toby could do that, and it was written in the time range you specify (1890). I'm not saying it is actually possible, but readers found it believable, and people were familiar with tracking dogs in the present when it was published.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Mar 17 '17 at 9:13
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From standard dog scent training:

Dogs will usually scent on the skin flakes and perspiration (since that's what's leaking or flaking off people normally, you don't normally have blood to work with).

Training in rubble and around lots of people is standard. The dog will normally be trained to lock onto a single person and ignore bystanders.

Training on scent objects is normal. A common example is a wood object and a metal object - someone handles one of them and then mixes it up with other objects. The dog then picks out what you handled. The other thing that you commonly see is to use a clothing object to indicate to the dog exactly who to track.

As previously stated, you normally don't use blood as the track target, it is more commonly clothing - so perspiration and skin flakes...

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Absolutely!

We (my wife and I) have a trained tracking rescue dog and what a dog can do is nothing short of amazing.

This web page Only the NOSE really KNOWS Part 1 has some great information.

In our experience a dog could do as follows,

  1. Could a dog follow the trail of a person who had some of their own blood on the bottom of their shoes, even if it was a day old?

    Answer: Absolutely, blood having a strong scent (blood that has mixed with skin scents, via bleeding from a wound) would be very easy for a dog to do what you ask.

  2. Could a dog pick out the scent of a single person in the rubble of a collapsed building with ~30 bleeding/dead people around, or would so many scents confuse it? In other words, could a dog deduce the scent of a single person even if it were mixed with so many others, or would it have to have smelled them all separately?

    Answer: Firstly, when getting a dog to track someone it would be very rare to use blood, everyone has a different odor and you would have the dog try to find the odor of that individual, so no, hundreds of bleeding people grouped together would not have an affect on the dog distinguishing between scents. It would be very easy for a dog to find the person you were after

  3. What about if it already knew their smell, say by smelling something they touched? Would it be able to tell that the scent of a certain human corresponded to the scent of that person's blood? (i.e. Does your blood smell like "you"?)

    Answer: Again, rarely would you use blood, as I stated earlier, the primary way to find someone or something is to track something they have touched. But, to answer your question, yes the dog would be able to tell who's blood it was. One caveat, how they do it I don't know and I have never tried to do it from two different peoples blood that was drawn from a syringe, as odors from that persons body usually mixes with blood when bleeding, drawing blood would minimize that. I also want to point out, that if the dog did not know what the persons odor smelled like , it would not be able to find them. You would need something that they have touched previously.

  4. If not, is there maybe something other than blood that a dog might be able to track better? Something that could have been available (but not too common) roughly around Victorian England?

    Answer: Like I have said many times, blood is not a typical item used to track people, a piece cothing or something similar. The dog is able to distigush between peoples odors in a different way that we do. This web page has some great info, Human Scent and Its Detection

    With practice, the men could distinguish among cloths which had been on different parts of the body, but they could not distinguish one individual from another. Lohner apparently didn't get dogs to sniff these cloths, but he pointed out that trailing dogs can take a scent from clothing off any part of the body, and he concluded that whereas humans differentiate among odors from different regions of the body, dogs recognize some common component which identifies the individual.

I could go on, but a lot of great information on the two web pages that I linked.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Mar 19 '17 at 7:43

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