How Dogs' Sniffers Are Saving Species

By Linda Lombardi

Photo by Green Dogs -- A group from Working Dogs for Conservation.Wicket had been in the shelter for six months. She was the sort of intense, high-energy dog that rescuers despair of placing in a home. So when Aimee Hurt expressed interest in the year-old Lab-Shepherd mix, she says even the staff members were surprised: "They were like, that one? That one is crazy."

Hurt, who had taken Wicket outside and seen her ignore everything around her in obsessive pursuit of a ball, agreed. "But she might be the right kind of crazy," she said.

Wicket indeed turned out to be exactly the right dog for the job at Working Dogs for Conservation, a Montana-based nonprofit that helps with wildlife and conservation research.

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"From Day 1, she was really tuned in and waiting for a command. She was really people focused," Hurt says. "She had a lot to prove with me because she was my second working dog, and I loved my first one. She was just different - in all the perfect ways, as it turned out."

What Animals Leave Behind

Wicket is now being trained to sniff out her 21st target species, in preparation for a trip to Myanmar to look for elephants - or, to be more precise, for their dung.

"That is our most common project, looking for scat," says Megan Parker, one of the organization's founders, "because scat and dung are phenomenally data-rich little packets of information."

Examining droppings allows researchers to gather all kinds of information without disturbing - or even seeing - wild animals. "They have DNA, so you can extract genetic information. You can often tell individuals apart," Parker says. "You can get hormones, you can learn the sex, you can get disease and parasite information, diet information. And you can just tell where in the landscape the animal was, because it had to be there to poop."

But before scientists use their equipment to extract that information, the dogs do their jobs: finding the scat with just their noses. Not only can they tell the difference between the droppings of closely related species like different kinds of bear, but they can also tell the difference between captive and wild animals.

"We often start the dogs on captive zoo animals," Parker says, which helps the dogs learn the basics of the species. "But wild individuals and captive individuals definitely smell different, and it's not just diet - the dogs seem to ignore diet for the most part. So we try to get wild animal dung or scat from the area we are working."

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Real-World Effects

Finding an animal's droppings can lead to real change. In California, they're surveying for the kit fox as part of an effort to control the impact that solar energy developments have on the species. They've shown that the foxes are living where humans hadn't seen them for more than 30 years.

"On surveys we did in 2010, they found fresh scat in an area where the last confirmed sighting was in the 1970s," Hurt says.

This has a direct impact in some cases on where the solar projects are built. "They can shift the land use so the foxes are disturbed as little as possible," she says.

Elsewhere, in the Centennial Mountains west of Yellowstone, they surveyed for carnivores including grizzly, black bear, wolf and mountain lion. "One area had a proposed 1,200-home development and a golf course, and it just happened to be where the grizzly liked to move through on the way to Yellowstone," Hurt says. "Discovering that put that project on hold so that it wasn't built in that really important area."

Finding Invaders

Conservation isn't always about saving a species - sometimes it's about trying to get rid of one. So the dogs have also looked for invasives, such as a snail in Hawaii that's cannibalizing the native snails. And it's not just animals, either - Wicket works on a project to eradicate the Dyer's Woad, an invasive weed.

A dog can tell the plants apart from closely related species and can find the invasive plants when they're still quite tiny. So the project is now locating more plants than when just humans were looking for them.

"When we came on, they'd been doing eradication for over a decade on this site. They'd been finding 300 plants every year," Hurt says. Together with the dogs, in the first two years they were finding and pulling up to 500 plants per year - which means far fewer left behind to reproduce. This has made a real difference: "We're finding half as many as last year - not even 200 plants so far," Hurt says.

A Working Dog's Life

The work is valuable for other species, but it's also great for these dogs. "These are incredibly high-drive dogs, they have a lot of energy, and they're able to focus that energy because we've given them a job," Parker says.

And it's not just a job - the dogs also live with their handlers. It's clearly a healthy lifestyle - some of their dogs are in good enough shape to work till they're 12 or 13. "A lot of that comes from being around that animal all day long and being a working and living partner," Parker says. "We can notice and say, 'I'm not going to work him today because he's a little bit off.'"

And what could be healthier than running through the outdoors, loving your work? "It's a hardship to not work, for these dogs," Parker says. "They are the most joyous animals on the planet when they're working."

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