Veterinarian blends career with World War II history

Veterinarian blends career with World War II history

Don Allen, DVM, cares for a cadaver dog on the hunt for veterans' remains.
Apr 30, 2012

YOUNGSTOWN, OHIO — Don Allen, DVM, is not a typical veterinarian. Sure, he's operated a small animal practice for the past 20 years, but it's his obsession with history—specifically World War II history—that's added a whole new dimension to his career.

Allen graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 1980, but it was a circuitous route that led him there—a route that included a stint in the Air Force, work as a farrier and a fascination with the Pacific theater.

"I've always loved animals," he says. "I started reading about World War II in junior high school. From then on I was hooked. After four years in the Air Force, I pursued my dream to become a vet and returned to college. The thought of working on a degree in history never occurred to me."

But history was always in the back of his mind and Allen became particularly interested in the Battle of Tarawa, a small atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean "about one degree above the equator, astride the International Date Line," he says.

Allen even took two trips to Tarawa, the capital of the Republic of Kiribati, while writing his book, Tarawa: The Aftermath, which was published in 2001.

Allen was drawn to the island again in February 2011, this time as a veterinarian. The idea for this visit began when Mark Noah, president of History Flight—a foundation committed to bringing home missing-in-action servicemen from their remote World War II burial sites—contacted Allen after visiting his website about Tarawa.

"I had just talked with a client about something called a 'cadaver dog,'" Allen says. "When Mark called, this was still fresh in my mind and I suggested the use of a cadaver dog on Tarawa. The dog sounded like a great idea to him."

Noah then contacted Paul Dostie, a retired Mammoth Falls, Calif., police investigator with a 7-year-old male black Lab, Buster. Dostie had adopted Buster as a puppy.

"I saw that he had great search potential," Dostie says. "I decided to train him as a cadaver dog because I specialized in homicide investigation at the Institute for Criminal Investigation. It seemed like a good fit."

Buster has a special talent that made him particularly well-suited for this venture, Allen says. Buster is trained to detect minute levels of organic compounds given off by 100-year-old bones. "I learned that older burials have the scent of bone decomposition, not soft tissue decomposition, and I trained Buster for that scent profile," Dostie says.

Dostie and Buster worked closely with Arpad Vass, PhD, at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, "a renowned expert in human decomposition," Dostie says. "All of Buster's work is backed up by Dr. Vass with soil sample analysis on gas chromatography–mass spectrometry equipment."

Allen adds, "Dr. Vass has identified all the aromatic compounds given off by a body at various stages of decomposition. He even invented an electrical detector for some of these compounds and named his device 'the Labrador' in honor of Buster."

To train Buster on target odors, Dostie used the Behavior Shaping Device from Elite K9. "I obtain soil samples from known grave sites in ghost town cemeteries as training aids," he says. "These samples are usually 90 to 135 years old.

"Buster has a very high play drive and hunt drive," Dostie adds. "He was very easy to train."

Buster was trained and ready to go ahead of schedule, but Dostie refused to take him to a remote area without a veterinarian. Allen, with his previous Tarawa experience, was the perfect fit.