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Dog Detectives: A Nose for Conservation

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Tia, a loyal conservation detective based in Montana.  (Photo by WDC)

If you’ve spent any time in the company of canines, you’ve probably observed their uncanny ability to sniff out the teeniest morsel of food on the kitchen floor, or locate the lone crumb lurking in the sliver of space beneath a couch. In many homes, dogs render an indispensable service every evening by searching out and “vacuuming” the fallen bits of dinner. Of course, dogs’ noses are being put to use for much greater good, such as detecting bombs, finding missing persons, and sniffing out drugs or other illicit objects. And now biologists have found yet another use for those cold, wet, miraculous noses: preserving biodiversity.

Around the world canines are being enlisted to track rare wildlife, sleuth out invasive species, and detect otherwise imperceptible changes that could harm wilderness areas and watersheds. But are these canines really providing significant support to conservation efforts, or is it just another excuse to bring your dog to work?

Wicket, one of WDC’s most accomplished dogs, worked with local wildlife authorities in Zambia as part of the world's first wire snare detection and removal program. Photo by WDC
Wicket, a WDC dog trained to track more than 20 different scents, works with Zambian wildlife authorities to find wire snares set by poachers. Photo by WDC

According to biologist Pete Coppolillo, putting dogs to work for conservation is not only effective but also an increasingly established methodology used by scientists and wilderness management authorities. As the executive director of a Montana-based nonprofit called Working Dogs for Conservation (WDC), Coppolillo and his colleagues have trained and dispatched dogs across 18 states and 11 countries. These wonder dogs have helped eradicate invasive weeds threatening to edge out native plants in Montana’s grasslands, identify beetle-infested trees in Minnesota forests, and detect and remove illegal wire snares set by poachers in Zambia. In the name of preserving biodiversity, these bold canines have sallied forth in ATVs, helicopters, and even on the backs of elephants to traverse the muddy roads of Myanmar during monsoon season.

But one of the most useful roles that dogs play in support of conservation is sniffing out scat (AKA animal poop). “Thanks to advances in technology and reduction of lab costs, analyses of scat can reveal not just what the animals are eating…but if they have elevated levels of hormones, and even genetic information,” said Coppolillo. Yielding important clues about life cycles, health, family groupings, and habitat range, these scatological portraits help us to better understand and protect wildlife. Scat analysis can also point to larger environmental problems, added Coppolillo, such as the presence of heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and other toxins that can pervade both land and aquatic ecosystems.

Seamus chews on his ball, a reward for finding an invasive plant called dyer's woad in Montana. For over a decade, humans were unable to reduce the plant's population, but in just four years dogs have helped reduce it by almost 60%.
Seamus tracks an invasive plant called dyer's woad. After a decade of unsuccessful efforts to decrease the plant's population,  dogs helped to reduce it by almost 60 per cent in just four years. Photo by WDC

Historically, the main methods for studying wildlife have required scientists to capture animals and outfit them with GPS collars for tracking or extract blood and tissue samples, invasive techniques that can pose threats to animals and researchers alike. Biologists and wildlife authorities have also gone to great expense to search for animals using small aircraft, with hope of determining things like population density and territorial range.


In 2013, the Bureau of Land Management successfully utilized WDC’s scat-tracking dogs to identify habitat for grizzly bears in Montana’s Centennial Mountains, enabling officials to act quickly to protect the area from development and save money that would have been spent on more expensive and less effective methods like captures, camera traps, and hair snares. “Without the dogs’ help the bears would have most likely gone undetected and development would have gone forward,” said Coppolillo.

Tucker heads out to sea in search of orca poop. Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research
A black lab mix named Tucker heads into Pacific Northwest waters, guiding researchers to data-rich orca poop. Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research

Another canine conservation group based at the University of Washington even takes dogs out to sea. Perched on the boat’s bow, dogs have successfully led scientists to orca poop afloat in the salty waters in and around Puget Sound. Less dangerous and intrusive than having to sidle up to a killer whale (orca) to conduct a biopsy, the dogs enabled researchers to collect and analyze hundreds of fecal samples over a period of several years and determine that diminishing Chinook salmon populations -- the orcas’ favorite food -- presents the greatest threat to these much loved marine mammals. According to Dr. Sam Wasser, who heads up the study and pioneered the dog-scat detection method in 1997, the findings made it clear that “if we really want to buy time for these killer whales, we need to figure out how to keep fish numbers up.”

While finding a single turd in a vast ocean or acres of wilderness is no small feat, time and again these intensely focused dogs have proven their ability to efficiently lead scientists to these treasure troves of information.

As part of a pilot program for locating wild Asian elephant dung in Myanmar, Wicket traversed otherwise impassable roads on elephant back — a first for her and the elephants. Photo by S.Hedges/WCS
As part of a pilot program for locating wild Asian elephant dung in Myanmar, Wicket traversed otherwise impassable roads on elephant back — a first for her and the elephants. Photo by S.Hedges/WCS

So what makes a good conservation dog? “Frankly, it’s the crazy ones,” Coppolillo said with a laugh. “The high-energy ones who will look at you with the Frisbee and say ‘come on, let’s go’ again and again.”

Selected from shelters around the country, the dogs undergo a temperament screening process -- a series of tests that WDC is trying to put into app form so that shelter volunteers can watch tutorials about how to conduct screenings and then upload videos of the dogs’ tests for evaluation. Only about one dog out of 1,500 makes the cut.

The current pack, which includes a range of “working” breeds like labs, border collies, and German shepherds, have been trained using a distinct set of techniques that evolved from disciplines developed for dogs used in narcotic, forensic, and search-and-rescue operations. Most of the dogs under Coppolillo’s watch are currently based in Montana, with an outpost in California’s San Joaquin Valley, but permanent dog teams will be established in Zambia later this year to help stop the trafficking of ivory and bushmeat.

And while not every dog has the right stuff to become a conservation detective, most have the ability to track something as seemingly odorless as metal wire. So instead of training our pups to sit or roll over, perhaps their skills could be put to better use by teaching them to find that perpetually lost set of keys.

Additional Links:

- Find out how those miraculous canine noses work (PBS)

- More about Tucker, the extraordinary black lab who works as an orca scat detective (KCTS)


- See WDC dogs in action in Montana (TERRA video)

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