When Dio, a stocky cattle dog, showed up at the Conservation Canines training facility, he was missing all the front teeth in his top jaw. Exactly how he lost his teeth was a mystery to the shelter, which picked him up as a stray. What was definitely known is that Dio has an extraordinary amount of energy — so much energy that it was doubtful he would ever find a home.

But it is that very trait that made him a candidate for Conservation Canines, a program out of University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology. The program puts adopted dogs' physical and mental energy to work through tracking down the scat of wildlife around the world and collecting data for conservation research.

It isn’t the average dog that this program takes on. Indeed, it isn’t even the average working dog. The work this crew does requires a dog that is what any pet owner would call unmanageable and what any shelter worker would call unhomeable. Every single one of the dogs in the program is a rescue, often a “last-chance” dog that has been returned to a shelter multiple times and would likely be euthanized if it weren’t for the program.

They’re very high energy, often have difficult-to-manage behavior quirks, and are singularly focused on playing ball. But get them into a field with Heath Smith, the Conservation Canines Program Coordinator and Lead Trainer, and within minutes he’ll be able to tell you if they’re built for a life working outdoors tracking down poop for a living. The more wild and ball-obsessed, the more likely they'll be successful, since their reward for tracking down a scent is a game of fetch. Misfits like Dio are usually prime candidates, since what they really need to be happy is a job.

“Dio is a natural and he picked up on the game immediately. For an experienced handler, all Dio needed was some basic tweaking of his natural, rambunctious behavior as well as some basic work to improve communication,” says Smith of the new recruit.

Driving the boat for killer whale conservation

Dio will be taking over for Tucker, a black Labrador, when he retires soon. Tucker has been doing this boat work for years and, with his highly skilled handler Elizabeth Seely, has spent thousands of hours on the water sniffing out the scat of endangered southern resident killer whales.

Conservation Canine team Tucker and Elizabeth Seley work together to locate orca scat on the ocean's surface. Conservation Canine team Tucker and Elizabeth Seley work together to locate orca scat on the ocean's surface. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

The orcas face pressure from many different directions. There are the physical and acoustic pressures of whale watching boats and kayaking tours. On top of the recreational traffic, there is the noise and danger of shipping traffic, which is expected to double in the near future thanks to expanded ports.

Add to this a significant loss of their food source, salmon, due to a shift in water temperatures, over-fishing and a toxic algae bloom known as “The Blob” which has wiped out vast numbers of fish and has ensured low fish numbers for at least the next two to three years.

There is also the major problem of toxins in the water, including DDT left over from pesticide use in the 1970s, PCBs (a carcinogen and persistent organic pollutant), PBDEs (flame retardants found in everything from boat paint to fiberglass to clothes) and PAHs (an oil byproduct that will potentially increase as the tanker traffic rises). All of these and more are found in orcas and are affecting everything from lifespan of individuals to sex ratios in the pods.

The scat that Dio and Tucker track down reveals a huge amount of information about how the orcas are responding to these pressures.

The scat is used to look at the DNA of the orca itself, which tells researchers which whale it is, if it’s male or female, and how old it is. DNA is also gathered from the prey sources within the scat, and reveals what kind of salmon the orca ate and even which river that salmon grew up in. The researchers also look for other prey such as lingcod, halibut and other species to see how prey sources might be shifting.

Hormones and toxins found within the scat are also measured. Researchers mark down which toxins are present in the orca’s system and at what levels. They then look at pregnancy hormones to see which females are pregnant, which successfully had babies, which miscarried, and how the toxin levels in their system potentially affects pregnancy. And they also look at stress hormones in relation to the bigger picture.

“We’re looking at the stress levels through cortisol, and compare that with the thyroid levels," says Seely. "If they're hungry, they're going to be more stressed. Or, if they’re eating a lot — which we can tell through the thyroid too — and they’re still stressed then we look at what’s going on in the environment around them including boat traffic. [We're] starting to piece out that if you have a pregnant female who is hungry, the boat traffic is actually having a effect on her. The chance for miscarriage potentially goes way up."

All this from a tiny bit of poop floating on the ocean surface. Finding that scat without disturbing the orcas in the process is the job of the handler and talented nose of a Conservation Canine.

It takes a highly tuned team to be able to find a tiny floating pile of scat on the water. Tucker usually picks up the scent from about 500 yards away, but since the scat is hard to spot unless you’re within a couple yards of it, Tucker has to guide his team hundreds of yards toward the scent.

“It’s like finding a needle in the haystack but the needle and the haystack keep moving,” says Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research. Giles drives the boat and is reading Seely’s hand signals as Seely watches Tucker for the most minute changes in body language.

“Tucker’s on the bow of the boat and he’s turning left or right depending on where he’s smelling it,” Seely says. As they get closer, his body language gets more minute. “He’ll lean forward and his head doesn’t move but his right nostril twitches so I know we have to go right. Or his left nostril twitches or he’s leaning slightly left so I know we have to go a little left. You have to pay attention to what the dog is doing in the fine details.”

Conservation Canine teams often travel through difficult terrain to track down scat, which contains valuable information about species and ecosystems. Conservation Canine teams often travel through difficult terrain to track down scat, which contains valuable information about species and ecosystems. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

Handlers and dogs work as finely-tuned teams

Reading the dogs is what the handlers of Conservation Canines do best. Whether it is on a boat or on land searching out the pellets of endangered spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest, or the scent marks of cheetahs on the savannah, or the scat of jaguars in the jungles of Mexico, the handlers know when a dog is on a scent and must keep up with them as they zero in on the target. When a dog finds a target scat, they get the only reward they want in this world: a game of ball. This seemingly simple reward keeps the dogs focused on their work all day long.

Julian Smith writes in Sierra Club Magazine:

The researchers who work with these animals all have stories of their astonishing focus. There's Sadie, now retired, whose owner put a ball on top of the refrigerator and came back nine hours later to find her still staring up at it. Another dog, working in Africa, sat by a pile of cheetah scat as a herd of gazelles stampeded around him. In Brazil, a dog named Gator was sitting next to a sample when he started hopping to one side, a few feet at a time. It turned out the tiny bit of scat he had found was being carried away by leaf-cutter ants.

Through gathering up a certain species' scat, researchers can find out everything from population levels, to how the species is using the landscape, to predator-prey relationships. And because scat can be difficult to spot, researchers working on wildlife studies are typically able to find more data more quickly with a dog than they could ever hope to find using just people alone. They can also search for multiple species at once. One current ecological study has the dogs looking for the scat of cougars, wolves, coyotes, bobcats and deer all during the same survey.

It isn’t just scat that the dogs can find. Sampson, a black Lab and long-time veteran of the program, is trained on electronics and is currently being trained to locate PCBs in various concentrations around urban environments for a new study. And that's in addition to being trained on 16 different species of animals!

Being nosy without being pushy

The Conservation Canines program provides a non-invasive way for researchers to collect data. The dogs are able to locate deposits of data without disturbing the animals they’re studying. Animals are not tranquilized for collaring and tagging. There is no following them at close range or setting up camera traps. The vast majority of the time, the dogs never even see the animals they're trained to sniff out.

They can also locate evidence of animals that researchers aren’t even sure are there, such as the endangered Pacific pocket mouse. This minute rodent was thought to be extinct for decades. The Pacific pocket mouse scat is no larger than a grain of rice, but during a 2010 study, the dogs were still able find its leavings and alert the handlers to its presence. Thanks to the dogs, they discovered a fivefold increase in occupied habitat in a protected area.

"They are the misfits of the pet world, but when they join our program, they become heroes of the conservation world," says Smith.

The program is currently holding a 2017 Calendar Fundraiser, with all of the proceeds helping the program to adopt more ball-obsessed dogs from shelters, and conduct more fieldwork that benefits wildlife conservation. Gifts including a wall calendar featuring portraits of the dogs, bandannas, postcards from the field and more are offered as thanks for donations to the program.

Dogs that can't find homes as pets become environmental super stars through Conservation Canines. Dogs that can't find homes as pets become environmental superstars through Conservation Canines. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)

Full Disclosure: Jaymi Heimbuch is a volunteer photographer for Conservation Canines.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.