As Pepin, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, trots through the field, he might be any dog enjoying a romp on a bright afternoon. But on closer observation, you’ll notice a sense of purpose to his stride. He covers the area with confidence, scanning back and forth. He darts through brush and around trees, always in motion until something catches his interest. Then, his muscular body quickly shifts direction. His nose is low and he breaths deeply. He hovers over an area, investigating.
Finally, the dog concludes that he’s found what he was looking for, and he proudly lies down, awaiting his handler. After she verifies the small piece of scat the dog discovered in the vast brush, she pulls out the dog’s reward: his favorite tug toy.
After an energetic game of tug, Pepin is off again, eager to find his next target.
Pepin is one of the many dogs used by Working Dogs for Conservation in Three Forks, Mont. At WDC, scientists have been training dogs for conservation work for more than a decade. A dog’s sophisticated ability to detect scent, ease in covering varied terrain, and enthusiasm for working makes him ideal for the job. WDC dogs have helped scientists make strides in monitoring endangered wildlife, defining wildlife corridors and eradicating invasive species.
Honing in on menacing weeds
One of WDC’s most successful projects has been with the noxious weed dyer’s woad. With its rapid growth and stubborn roots that can grow 5 feet deep, dyer’s woad can quickly choke out surrounding species. The weed originated in Russia and was used to make blue dye. Today, it’s wreaking havoc in many Midwest states.
This is our third season on dyer’s woad, says Alice Whitelaw, director of programs at WDC. “The goal is eradication. We want to catch it early enough, before it changes ecosystems and replaces native species and pollinators.”
In the past two seasons, dogs like Wibaux the black Labrador Retriever have helped biologists make major progress in locating and removing the weed, typically finding the weed even before it is visible to a human surveyor.
“Past efforts have involved pulling up the weed. But the dogs still alert on the area. It turns out that traces of root are still there, the plant just hasn’t come up yet, Whitelaw says. “Even in an area that looks completely dead, the dogs find the root because their noses are so discriminatory.”
Whitelaw and her team reports that now most plants are removed before they reproduce, a major breakthrough in the eradication efforts.
Tracking endangered plants Conservation dogs are also helping to preserve beneficial plants, one of which is Kincaid’s lupine, a plant with a rapidly diminishing habitat. The plant itself is endangered, and it also serves as host plant for another threatened species, the Fender’s blue butterfly, which deposits eggs on the plant each spring. Considered extinct at one time, Fender’s blue was rediscovered in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the late 1980s.
Kincaid’s lupine is found in difficult terrain and is visible for a short season, making surveying difficult for humans. But once dogs were trained to detect the scent of the plant and its bulbs, they were highly successful in finding it. Early reports showed that of 364 plots surveyed, the dogs made only six errors. They even proved their handlers wrong at one location, where the dogs ignored what humans thought was Kincaid’s lupine. Further investigation showed the dogs were right; the plant was a different species.
Scat-detection dogs Using dogs to locate an animal’s fecal waste, or scat, is fast becoming the preferred way to study an endangered species.
Dogs are naturally adept at finding scat. “It’s rich in fat and proteins; it just stands out,” Whitelaw says.
Scat brings scientists a wealth of information without putting any animals through the stress of being captured and released. By mapping and monitoring the droppings, scientists observe the animal’s habitat and range. Closer examination of the DNA-rich substance reveals an animal’s sex, diet and overall health. It can also yield evidence about contaminants in an area, particularly near a waterway.
Dogs have been successful in locating even the tiniest scat, from the 0.33-ounce scat of the endangered Pacific pocket mouse, to the larger scat of bears or foxes.
At the Nature Conservancy in New Mexico, a group of dogs helped track a hard-to-find amphibian, the Jemez Mountain salamander. This rare species, found only in the north central region of New Mexico, is shrinking in numbers.
Spearheaded by Ann Bradley, the Conservancy’s forest expert, dogs are working in conjunction with the Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
Bradley hopes the dogs will help them understand where the salamander lives. The salamander’s natural habitat has suffered due to many factors, such as the warmer, drier climate in the state, and recent forest fires.
“Once we understand where this rare and elusive creature lives and its habitat requirements, we’ll be able to develop a large-scale forest restoration program in the Jemez Mountains,” she says. “We hope we can reduce any negative impacts to the salamander’s habitat.”
Bradley says the dogs are happy to work all day climbing mountains, clambering over rocks and fallen trees and trekking through the snow, and live for earning their “pay” when they find what they’re looking for. “After each successful find of an animal or scat, their reward is playing with their ball,” Bradley says. About the dogs Many of the dogs used in conservation work were rescued from shelters. The seemingly insatiable energy and drive that often lands a dog in a shelter is the same quality that makes him an ideal worker, says Heath Smith, lead trainer at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology.
“We’re able to match this desire to play fetch with teaching the dog to help us locate odors in the wilderness, whether the odor is a scat from grizzly bear, an endangered plant or an elusive salamander,” Smith says.
Other dogs are donated by breeders, or are dogs who don-t quite work out in their intended career, such as police work. The biggest trait the dog needs is a strong motivation to work for a reward. “They need to be almost obsessed with their ball or toy,” says Whitelaw, who trains many of the dogs who come to WDC.
The Center for Conservation Biology currently works with 15 dogs; WDC has six active working dogs. They’ve had success with a variety of breeds and mixes, but Whitelaw says they often work with Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs, Belgian Malinois, Border Collies and Australian Shepherds.
The right dog will typically become skilled at identifying a target scent in about four weeks, and most dogs can be trained on more than one target. Once a dog is fully trained, he lives with his handler, enabling them to form a trusting bond, which further encourages their working relationship.
“The dogs are very well cared for,” Whitelaw says. “They get the best in food and veterinary care. Their work schedule is carefully monitored so they get sufficient days of rest in between work days.”
Whitelaw says that even when a dog is retired, he doesn’t lose his love of the job. “He still wants to go out there.”
The future of conservation dogs has vast and varied potential. WDC has been involved in a pilot project in Africa, where handler and dog teams have been working to demonstrate the dogs’ ability to detect snares. In many parts of the world, poachers set snares to capture and kill cheetahs, elephants, lions and other endangered animals for illegal trade. Trained detection dogs can locate these snares and spare the animals a brutal death and reduce the risk of extinction.
Conservation dogs have also begun making their mark on preserving waterways. Problems such as contaminants or invasive plants often go undetected until the situation escalates. The assistance of dogs is also being considered for detecting the presence of endangered fish. By detecting even a minimal presence of an endangered fish, dogs can give scientists an early alert to begin conservation and management of the waterway.
To humans, tapping into the power of a dog’s nose has almost unlimited potential for science and conservation. But to the dogs, it’s a game, a chance to do what their instinct drives them to do, and a second chance for many overzealous but well-meaning dogs.
“The dogs just love their work. It’s a big party,” Whitelaw says.