Rescue dogs sniff out endangered species
By training shelter dogs to find the scat of threatened species, Conservation Canines is saving the lives of both dogs and wildlife.
Tue, Sep 11 2012 at 3:23 PM
Max, a 5-year-old Australian cattle dog, is trained to find the scat of wolverines, grizzly bears, barred owls, tigers, leopards and many other animals. (Photo: Center for Conservation Biology)
High-energy dogs with obsessive personalities can be difficult pets, and these animals often end up at shelters where they’re candidates for euthanasia. But these lively pups are ideal for a special type of conservation work: tracking endangered species.
Founded in 1997 at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, the Conservation Canines program trains such energetic, single-minded dogs to track certain animals’ scat scents. These fecal samples have provided researchers with information on threatened and endangered species worldwide.
Dogs like Frehley, an 8-year-old border collie rescued from the Seattle Animal Shelter in 2005, (pictured right) are helping conservationists gather information about animals like the Jemez Mountains salamander.
Last year the Nature Conservancy provided Conservation Canines with salamander scat and part of a broken-off salamander tail, and these items were used to train the dogs to recognize both sexes of the Jemez Mountains salamander. The animal is on New Mexico’s endangered species list and is a candidate for federal protection. Although the species has lived in the mountains for thousands of years, it’s sensitive to changes in temperature and moisture, so Frehley and other dogs are helping scientists estimate how many of the amphibians have survived a regional drought.
“Anything that has an odor you can train a dog to find,” Heath Smith, the program’s manager, told the New York Times.
Why scat? Feces is the most abundant and accessible wildlife product in nature, according to the Center for Conservation Biology, and it contains genetic, physiological and dietary information about an animal that can be tied to environmental change.
Finding scat among miles of forest can be difficult at times, but it’s a whole other challenge in the ocean. Some of the Conservation Canines’ dogs are also trained to sniff our orca scat, which can sink or disperse in just 30 minutes.
Dogs like Sadie, a 10-year-old Labrador pointer mix (pictured right), board boats and lead scientists toward the whales’ scat. By leaning a certain direction or twitching their ears, these dogs serve as the research vessels’ four-legged navigators.
Whenever a sample is found — whether on land or sea — researchers carry it to the dog and then substitute it with a favorite toy at the last second, reinforcing the connection between work and reward. It’s this obsession with a single item and an insatiable urge to play that makes these dogs so efficient at tracking wildlife.
In fact, Sadie was donated to the program by her owner because she couldn’t tolerate the dog’s ball fixation. Her former owner once placed Sadie’s ball on top of the fridge, and when she returned eight hours later, Sadie was still staring up at her toy.
“When the owner told me that story, my immediate response was, ‘We’ll take her,’ ” said professor Samuel K. Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology and the orca scat research project.
According to the Conservation Canines website, these dogs are “happy to work all day traversing plains, climbing up mountains, clambering over rocks and trekking through snow, all with the expectation of reward — playing with their ball — after successfully locating wildlife scat. We rescue these dogs and offer them a satisfying career traveling the world to help save numerous other species.”
Once overlooked at animal shelters, these dogs got a second lease on life and now work to save the lives of species worldwide.
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All photos: Center for Conservation Biology