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Behind the Bloodhounds: The History, Science, and Ability of Bloodhounds

Uncover the history of bloodhounds being used to solve crimes.

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When people think of bloodhounds, they typically think of Sherlock Holmes with his deerstalker cap led by a bloodhound chasing after a criminal through the streets of London. Many famous fictional detectives —Miss Marple, Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, Archie Goodwin— are described as “bloodhounds,” always on the scent of the miscreant. But the history of bloodhounds and crime detection is less well known; it’s a complex history with stops and starts. This article will explore the history of bloodhounds in England, the recent science and experience showing the capabilities of bloodhounds, and end with a list of mysteries involving bloodhounds.

History of Bloodhounds in England

The early history of bloodhounds in England is a bit murky. While there are early accounts of bloodhounds tracking prey, it was really the 19th century when the connection of bloodhounds and crime became more popular. It was Edwin Brough in the 1880s who brought back the practice of pure-bred bloodhounds in his kennel. “It was the tradition of trailing human scent, rather than animal scent, that fascinated Victorian pedigree dog breeders like Brough and encouraged them to develop the bloodhound’s olfactory skills, creating a set of mythologies and historical fantasies around the breed and its alleged working heritage and past achievements,” writes Neil Pemberton, Research Fellow at University of Manchester. 

Most famously, in 1888 a flummoxed Scotland Yard would bring in Brough and his two hounds Burgundy (Burgho for short) and Barnaby to help in the infamous Jack the Ripper investigations, due to public outcry over the failure of the police to stop the killings. Brough ran a series of tests to demonstrate their ability, but the experiment failed when the press ridiculed the attempt. The dogs never even had a chance to search for the villain.

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While the press helped nip the experiment in the bud, other newspapers fueled the image of the crime-fighting bloodhound in the public’s eye. But some people were understandably disturbed by the use of bloodhounds in hunting runaway slaves in the United States.

While bloodhounds were used for individual cases, notes Binyamin Blum, law professor at UC Hastings, it was not a formal part of police forces. Blum notes that in the 1930s, the British Home Office commissioned an inquiry into the proficiency of dog tracking including bloodhounds, which proved disappointing. While labradors did begin assisting the police in 1938, tracking dogs did not become part of the Metropolitan police until 1948. However, it took time and further testing for dog tracking data to be admitted into court. Tests were conducted again in the 1950s which were not promising. Blum notes that it was not until 1995 that dog tracking evidence was admitted in court.  However, other breeds, like shepherds and dobermans, tend to be used over the bloodhound.

Capabilities of Bloodhounds

Scientists have continued to study the scent capabilities of bloodhounds and other dogs through the present day. A 2003 study found that bloodhounds were “effective 96%” of the time. Zita Polgár, a UK-based researcher who has studied scent and dogs, says bloodhounds are “very good at trailing and naturally motivated.” However, she questions the oft-repeated “fact” that bloodhounds have 300 million scent receptors; she has yet to find the study that shows these results. Polgár says that bloodhounds are great scenting dogs, but she does not think there’s enough evidence that they are the best scenting dogs.

Bloodhounds, Polgár points out, are an independent breed that love to trail. But other breeds, overall, tend to be highly driven and eager to please their owners and trainers. If you want a dog to take down criminals, sweep for bombs and hunt for drugs, other breeds, like shepherds, labradors, and spaniels, might be a better fit.

Related: Nail Biting Mystery And Thriller Movies Where Animals Help Save The Day

But bloodhounds continue to be used for tracking purposes in the present day. In the US, a couple with bloodhounds have partnered up with law enforcement for decades helping in a variety of cases from bank robberies, murders to finding lost people. 

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The wife believes there is a lot of misinformation out there about what the bloodhounds cannot do. People tell her that their dogs cannot find people in downtown areas because there’s too many competing smells. But in her experience, while not every dog can do these things, she’s found that her dogs can. The important thing is to have a clean scented item, free from any contamination from anyone who isn’t the person to be tracked, to present to the dog. And then with the scented item, they’re off: “if they are on a trail, they hear nothing. They don’t see anything; their mind is focused on the trail.” Their dogs have been successful tracking people using bomb fragments, noting that heat was not sufficient to destroy the scent.

There have been efforts in the past few decades to professionalize scent tracking in the US along with other forms of forensic science. In 2010, the Scientific Working Groups through National Institute of Standards and Technology released guidelines on scent tracking to ensure reliability and performance standards. The couple helped with the SWG and worked to ensure their dogs met standards. 

While the history may be murky and dark at times, bloodhounds, no doubt, are an impressive dog with an incredible ability to track people.

Bloodhound Mysteries

As promised, below are a list of mysteries that have bloodhounds in them that are not Sherlock Holmes stories.

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Death in Bloodhound Red

By Virginia Lanier

This is the first book in an entire series about Jo Beth Siddon, an opinionated bloodhound trainer. In this book, she is accused of murder and has to prove her innocence.

Related: 10 Quirky Animal Cozies for the Pet-Loving Mystery Reader

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Love Lies Bleeding

By Edmund Crispin

When weird events keep happening at Castrevenford School, Oxford professor Gervase Fen gets involved after giving a speech. A elderly, sometimes murderous, bloodhound named Mr. Merrythought comes into the book and while Fen can’t make himself love him, the audience does.

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From London Far

By Michael Innes

An academic Meredith ends up embroiled in the world of crime after reciting part of a poem in a London Tobacconist. There’s illegal art trade and two bloodhounds to charm the soul despite the deprivations of Meredith.

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The Famous Cases of Dr. Thorndyke

By R. Austin Freeman

In the short story “A Case of Premeditation” featuring the famed Victorian detective, Dr. Thorndyke has a case involving prison and blackmail. While other stories feature bloodhounds, Dr. Thorndyke shows how one can mislead them.

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Mrs. Jeffries Weeds the Plot

By Emily Brightwell

In this series featuring Inspector Witherspoon and his housekeeper Mrs. Jeffries, her talents are needed to solve the case of Annabeth Gentry whose bloodhound uncovers a body as well as three attempts on her life. 

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Monsieur Pamplemousse

By Michael Bond

First in the series of the gourmand sleuth and food inspector, he is thrilled to be able to eat at the famed La Langoustine in Provence. With his trusty bloodhound, Pommes, he finds that the meal is more deadly than he expected and he must investigate.

Poirot: The Three Murders

By A. Hastings, Agatha Christie

In this book of three novels featuring a familiar detective with a new author, Poirot has to clear the name of a police officer who is also implicated by bloodhounds in “Poirot: The Bloodhound Mystery.” 

Related: The Queen of Crime: 10 Best Agatha Christie Books


M. Barwick, Aspects of Bloodhound History, http://bloodhounds.org.uk/History/AspectsLetter2014.pdf

The Dog Section: British Transport Police: https://www.btp.police.uk/police-forces/british-transport-police/areas/campaigns/Taser/our-history/the-dog-section/

Pemberton, Neil. “The bloodhound's nose knows? dogs and detection in Anglo-American culture.” Endeavour vol. 37,4 (2013): 196-208. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2013.06.007 

Blum, Binyamin. “The Hounds of Empire: Forensic Dog Tracking in Britain and Its Colonies, 1888–1953.” Law and History Review, vol. 35, no. 3, 2017, pp. 621–665. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26564537. Accessed 21 Feb. 2021.

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